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See where the apricot (or is it plum) blossoms

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Kairakuen Garden in Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture, is one of the three most celebrated gardens in Japan, located a very short distance from the city center.

The Mito branch of the Tokugawa family was established in 1629 by Tokugawa Yorifusa, also the owner of Koishikawa Korakuen Garden in Tokyo. It was the ninth lord of Mito, Tokugawa Nariaki (1800-1860), who created Kairakuen. The gardens were laid out in 1841 and have an area of 12.7 hectares.

More than 3,000 ume trees bloom from around late February to early March at Mito’s Kairakuen.

Every garden has its own special characteristics. Kairakuen, a typical Edo Period strolling garden (kaiyushiki teien), is famous for its collection of Japanese apricot (ume, Prunus mume, also known as Japanese plum) with some 100 cultivars and a total of 3,000 trees. The best time to visit this garden, therefore, is around the beginning of March.

Interestingly, these beautiful trees were not originally planted for pleasure viewing, but as a source of military stores! Pickled ume (umeboshi) keep for a long time, and are an important item in the Japanese diet. In 1829 when Nariaki was 30, he feared Japan would be invaded by the European and American powers whose ships were an increasingly intrusive presence along the coast. As one of his measures to strengthen his domain in the face of this threat, he gave an order to plant 1,000 ume trees on the high ground above Lake Senba where Kairakuen is now. These trees were for the exclusive use of the military. The site was chosen because it received full sun.

No invasion came, and a more relaxed mood settled over Mito. Kairakuen was made into a garden to be enjoyed by Nariaki’s vassals. The ume collection covers about two-thirds of it.

The Kobun-tei at Mito’s Kairakuen Garden

The name Kairakuen is taken from Chinese classical literature. In the center there is a three-storied wooden house, designed and positioned by Nariaki himself, known as Kobun-tei. The name Kobun-tei is also derived from Chinese; ko means to like, bun means literature or culture and tei is a house. As Kairakuen is located on the top of a steep embankment, the view from the third floor of Kobun-tei is very good, including Mount Tsukuba and the black pine forests of Oarai on the coast beyond Mito.

Kairakuen is unusual among kaiyushiki gardens in that it has no large pond. (The pond in the lower section was added after the garden was complete.) Instead, Lake Senba, which can be seen from both Kobun-tei and the garden, was used as “borrowed scenery.” At the time Lake Senba was larger; sadly, much of it has been reclaimed.

Aside from apricots the garden has a moso-chiku (Phyllostachys edulis) bamboo forest, surrounded by a Kansai-style bamboo stockade (yarai-gaki). Edible bamboo shoots (take-no-ko) are harvested from this giant bamboo.

A grove of tall Japanese cedar trees (sugi, Cryptomeria japonica) next to the bamboo forest shelters “bear” bamboo (kuma-zasa, Sasa veitchii) in its cool shade. Kuma-zasa makes a great ground-cover plant. It runs 50-100 cm in height, with leaves 20-30 cm long. During the cold winter months the edges of the leaves turn white. Native to one area of Kyoto Prefecture, this plant is now widely used in landscaping.

Recently a smaller cultivar has become popular, known as ko-kumazasa (S. veitchii var. minor); it grows about 20-30 cm tall and is easier to use in confined spaces.

Kirishima azaleas (Kirishima tsutsuji, Rhododendron obtusum) are thought to be hybrids between yama-tsutsuji and Miyama-tsutsuji azaleas. In April-May pink, orange or even white flowers cover the bushes. These evergreen azaleas became popular during the Edo Period, when they were first planted in gardens in Kyoto.

In the wide grassy square in front of Kobun-tei there is an enormous specimen of a dodan tsutsuji bush. The garden managers reckon it to be over 200 years of age. I’m sure by its size alone it must qualify for a world record. Dodan-tsutsuji is deciduous, native to Japan and much used in Japanese gardens. Its tiny, white urn-shaped flowers appear in April.

On the same lawn there is a fine specimen of a Japanese mountain cherry (yama-zakura, Prunus serrulata var. spontanea). This cherry tree originally grew in Kyoto’s Imperial Palace. Emperor Ninko presented the tree to Lord Nariaki and the Imperial Princess Tomiko as a wedding gift. It was planted in its present position in 1939.

Yama-zakura, being a natural species, will live for a long time; some trees are hundreds of years of old. Man-made cultivars are comparatively short-lived.