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Mito, in Ibaraki Prefecture, is well known throughout Japan for natto (fermented soybeans), an acquired taste. It is also known for Kairakuen Garden, one of the Three Famous Gardens in Japan, which I’ve written about before. Just a couple of kilometers south of Mito in the lush green countryside, there is a also another attraction: the Mito Botanic Garden.

Not to be confused with Ibaraki Prefectural Botanic Garden in Nakamachi, northwest of Mito, Mito Botanic Garden is managed by Mito City and directed by Ayako Nishikawa, a very enthusiastic and dedicated horticulturist.

This is no ordinary city park. Mito Botanic Garden was designed by landscape architect Mitsuo Taki, who was born in Hiroshima in 1936 and graduated from Kyoto and Columbia universities. The garden opened to the public in April 1987, with an area of 8 hectares. Taki has designed a modern garden that will please Japanese and foreign residents alike.

The spacious car park alone should get an award; it is one of the best-designed landscaped car parks I have seen in Japan. Check out the American sweet gum (momijiba-fu, Liquidambar styraciflua). These deciduous trees come from the eastern United States, and the leaves turn a lovely color in the fall. The branches are covered with a corky layer.

Inside the main entrance an overpass is lined with beautiful flowering baskets. Beyond this bridge is the formal terrace garden, with a semicircular waterfall which you can walk behind and look out through the sheets of falling water. This leads us to the garden proper, and the wide open space of the lawn and greenhouses.

Tree lovers will not be disappointed, for there are some unusual trees here. Consider the very fine weeping katsura (shidare-katsura, Cercidiphyllum japonicum pendulosum). The standard katsura is said to be the largest deciduous tree in all Japan. I was told that this specimen came from Akita Prefecture, home to the original weeping katsura tree. Although it is also cultivated in similar climates outside Japan, one seldom finds specimens as good as the one in Mito.

Down at the far end of the garden, in the wet mud where the purple loosestrife (misohagi, Lythrum anceps) is allowed to grow to its heart’s content, stand three deciduous conifers. The first two are the well-known dawn redwood (akebono-sugi, Metasequoia glyptostroboides) and swamp cypress (Taxodium distichium), growing side by side.

The third is the Chinese swamp or deciduous cypress (Glyptostrobus pensilis). This was my very first sighting of this tree. Glyptostrobus pensilis is native to southeast China and North Vietnam where it grows in swampy places to a height of 25 meters. It is similar to Taxodium distichium, but the leaves are trimorphic and it does not produce “knees” or pneumatophores. Around the entrance to the large conservatory there are pots and pots of colorful seasonal flowering plants, all very skillfully arranged. Those who have no garden but wish to cultivate some flowering plants in pots and containers should definitely study the collection here. There is a plant sales area and a coffee shop that looks out onto the woodland herb garden, the remnants of older woodland.

The well-designed greenhouse is stocked with magnificent tree ferns (maruhachi, Cyathea mertesiana). Cyathea can grow 4 meters tall in its native habitat on the Ogasawara Islands, those scattered islets that belong to Tokyo but are located some 1,000 km from the city in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. When the fronds fall, they leave very attractive oval marks on the trunk.

In the floral display greenhouse I came across an unusual green-flowering plant, the jade vine (Strongylodon macrobotrys), a native of the tropical forests of the Philippines. Its flowers are the color of jade, and hang in bunches up to 90 cm long; each clawlike flower is about 7.5 cm long.

The tropical fruit greenhouse contains some 50 different kinds of tropical fruits, including mangos (Mangifera indica), papaya or pawpaw (Carica papaya) and Japanese bananas (Musa basjoo).

Every year over 40 different garden- or nature-related exhibitions are staged in the floral gallery. There will be a display of nature photographs May 16-28, and normally the standard is very high. A display of natural dyes made from wild herbs and trees will run May 23-28, and in June there is a flower festival with a horticultural contest. You can also attend gardening classes and learn firsthand how to make those lovely flower baskets that are on display in the garden.

The lawn beyond the large greenhouse has a very gentle slope up from the pond, where an old zoki-bayashi woodland offers a pleasant prospect, but unfortunately cannot be entered. The “rock garden” has no alpines, as the name might suggest, but is an arrangement of local Mito granite, with a very unusual-looking rest house. A stream runs from the garden of rocks through the conifer section.

The greenhouses and propagation units, as well as commercially grown melons and a heated pool all derive their heat from the incineration plant located next door to the gardens. Humans create mountains of rubbish, and if we can wisely utilize the energy generated by burning it to support gardens such as Mito Botanic Gardens and Tokyo’s Yumenoshima, it will be a step in the right direction.

Mito Botanic Garden, 504 Kobuki-cho, Mito City, Ibaraki Prefecture, (029) 243-9311, fax (029) 241-0914. Admission 250 yen, junior school and below 150 yen. A bus runs once an hour from JR Mito Station. If you decide to drive, take the Joban expressway, exit at Mito and take the Mito bypass (Route 50) as far as the modern prefectural building. From there follow the signs or ask for assistance. Parking is free and there is space for 350 cars.

Garden shows and events

* At Ibaraki Prefectural Natural History Museum, an exhibition on the German physician and naturalist Philipp Franz von Siebold (1791-1866), titled “Nature in Japan,” until June 18. Admission 710 yen, high school students 410 yen. See the Web site at www.nat.pref.ibaraki.jp/ for more information, call (0297) 38-2000.

* The 2nd International Roses and Gardening Show 2000 at Seibu Dome May 18-22. Prominent English rose breeder and nurseryman Peter Beale will have his own stand displaying classic antique roses and offering his expertise. Roses and other garden goods not easily available elsewhere will be on sale. Tickets available in advance at JR railway station Midori no Madoguchi for 1,200 yen, students 600 yen; 1,500 yen and 700 yen at the gate. From Ikebukuro take the Seibu Line to Seibu-Kyujo-Mae Station. For more information, call (03) 3272-8600.

* Tsukuba Botan-en, at Kukizaki-cho, Ibaraki Prefecture, April 20-June 10. Here you can see 6,000 mountain peony (botan) from early May, and 5,000 Chinese peonies (shakuyaku), from the middle to the end of May, followed by a staggering 80,000 lilies May 31-June 10. From JR Ueno Station travel 55 minutes to Ushiku Station and take the bus bound for Yatabe. Again, discount tickets are available at JR stations, 560 yen for adults. For information, call (0298) 76-3660.