Last, but not least, on this Ibaraki travel itinerary is Mito, the prefectural capital.

Known to those who watch Japanese television as the home of Mito Komon, the leading character in Japan’s eponymous and longest-running TV series, which has been aired continuously since 1969, the city with a population approaching 300,000 also figures prominently in Japanese history. Not only did its lords support the Tokugawa Shogunate during the Edo Period (1603-1867), but their forces also played an important role in bringing about the defeat of the ruling Tokugawa clan, which ushered in the restoration of the Emperor in 1868 and the advent of the modernizing Meiji Era (1868-1912).

But before delving further into Mito’s history, there’s the marvelous Mito Plum Blossom Festival to consider. This annual event is held from Feb. 20 through March 30 at the city’s Kairakuen Park — whose name means “to share pleasure with the people” — which is today one of the nation’s most famous. Built by Nariaki Tokugawa (1800-60), the ninth daimyo (feudal lord) of the Mito clan, the park opened in 1842 and rapidly became popular with both the common people and the nobility. Nowadays, visitors in late February and throughout March can feast their senses on some 3,000 plum trees, representing 100 varieties, as they come into bloom across the park’s 13 hectares graced by many other attractive features.

Plum trees comprise nearly the entire eastern half of the park, whose main entrance is via its Higashi-mon (East Gate). South of Higashi-mon there is an area containing a huge cherry-blossom tree and groves of azaleas and lespedeza flowering shrubs. A wisteria trellis stands between this area and the plum-tree forest, creating a warm aura of red, pink and purple blooms across the entire area.

Meanwhile, on the western side of the park there are three cedar groves, with a bamboo forest separating their northern and central stands, while in the southernmost cedar grove is to be found the Kobuntei, an historic three-story wooden building built for the pleasure of the Mito clan samurai and their vassals and retainers. Parties were held there for the nobility, and writers and artists were often invited to them to compose poetry — inspired perhaps by the views of Mount Tsukuba, Lake Senba and the Oarai Pine Forest to be had from the third floor. Sadly, the original Kobuntei was destroyed by U.S. firebombing on Aug. 2, 1945, but was completely rebuilt between 1952-55.

Perhaps the most popular feature of the Ume Matsuri (Plum Blossom Festival), beside the plum blossoms themselves, are its 10 Miss Mitos, dressed in red kimono patterned with plum-blossom motifs and topped off with elaborate hair decorations. These selected young ladies stand at various locations throughout the park to chat with visitors, answer questions about Mito and Ibaraki, and — most of all — to pose for photographs.

The 2010 Miss Mitos, ranging in age from 19 to 32, were chosen from nearly 100 applicants on the basis of beauty, talent, character and their ability to serve as ambassadors of Ibaraki, Mito and the Plum Blossom Festival.

In the runup to the festival, the Miss Mitos are sent, each with a small entourage, to various cities around Japan, where they set up tables at the main train stations and promote Ibaraki products, such as natto (fermented soybean paste), sweet potatoes and ume shu (Japanese plum liqueur) — as well as the Plum Blossom Festival.

During the six-week festival, four Miss Mitos are on duty in the park on weekdays, on a rotating basis, and all 10 are present on weekends and holidays.

Once the Plum Blossom Festival is over, each Miss Mito will have one or two one-day events to attend monthly throughout the year, and all 10 will once again convene in August for the Mito Komon Festival.

Kumiko Noguchi, the senior Miss Mito 2010, was recently awarded a doctorate in American history, with a specialty in Native American history, by the University of California, Davis, and now teaches at Rikkyo University in Tokyo. Since the Plum Blossom Festival coincides with her vacation from university, she’s able to fulfill her duties, which include supervising the younger girls.

“Some visitors complained about Miss Mitos wearing inappropriate makeup such as pink eyeliner or too-red lipstick,” Noguchi remarked before going on to explain that “Miss Mito is really a more traditional thing, so I had to get all the girls together and talk about teamwork and respecting the traditions.”

Besides those drawn to the spectacular plum blossoms themselves, another type of visitor to the festival are the amateur-photographer “geeks” who obsessively follow the Miss Mitos around the park, often disturbing other visitors by setting up tripods and monopolizing space.

“There are a lot of photographers every day,” Noguchi explained, “and on weekends there are about 100 photographers and maybe 50 percent of them give the Miss Mitos their photographs. We each get about 100 photographs every day as well as DVDs and CD-ROMs.”

Fortunately the “stalking” has never continued outside the park, but each Miss Mito is required to proceed directly home after work and not be seen eating at restaurants or shopping while wearing their kimono.

Noguchi, unsurprisingly given her academic background, is also very knowledgeable about the history of Mito and Ibaraki. She explained that the historical Mito Komon was actually Mitsukuni Tokugawa (1628-1701), the second daimyo of the Mito domain.

While the popular jidaigeki (Japanese TV period drama) portrays him as a kind of Robin Hood figure roaming the countryside disguised as a merchant who, with a small retinue including samurai and ninja, defends the common people against the abuses of unscrupulous noblemen, his most notable achievement was bringing together a group known as the Mitogaku Scholars to compile the “Dai Nihon shi” (“Comprehensive History of Japan”). The chief tenet of this highly influential work begun in the early 18th century but not finally published until 1906 was its portrayal of Japan as a nation under the Emperor, himself the progeny of the gods — a representation that eventually helped underpin the rise of Japan’s ill-fated 20th-century nationalism.

The legend of Mito Komon stems from the “Mito Mitsukuni Man’yuki,” a narrative penned in the latter half of the 19th century that fictionalized his travels. The narrative tale was published as a novel early in the 20th century, and the first TV series aired in 1951. The current series, with its regular cast of characters, began on the TBS network in 1969.

Meanwhile, on a Friday before her weekend duties at the festival were to begin, Miss Mito Noguchi took us on a tour of Kodokan, the city’s Edo Period university renowned as the center for Mitogaku, a form of studies integrating Chinese Confucian philosophy with Japanese kokugaku (national studies) and Shinto. Kodokan was built in 1841 by the same daimyo, Nariaki Tokugawa, who built Kairakuen Park. His idea was to balance the academic and military studies of the Kodokan with a place to go after training to relax the body and the mind.

While Kodokan offered a diverse curriculum, including music, astronomy, geography, medicine and mathematics, as well as traditional martial arts and calligraphy, its Mitogaku doctrine of harmonizing Imperial Shinto with samurai Confucianism ironically helped bring about the 1867 downfall of the Tokugawa Shogunate — which Nariaki Tokugawa had, by establishing Kodokan, sought to strengthen.

Yoshinobu Tokugawa, the seventh son of Nariaki Tokugawa, was born in Mito in 1837 and became Japan’s 15th and last shogun in 1866. His first act as shogun was to invite French military advisers to help strengthen his army, and they built the Yokosuka arsenal and bought modern weapons from the United States.

However, such moves toward modernizing and strengthening the shogunate were opposed by the powerful Satsuma, Choshu and Tosa clans, who allied themselves under silk banners carrying the Imperial chrysanthemum crest and adopted the slogan “sonno joi” — “revere the Emperor, expel the barbarians” — which had been the creed of Mitogaku.

When the forces of the Tokugawa Shogunate, who held a great advantage in numbers, were attacked outside Kyoto in 1867, Yoshinobu, who was passionate about the principles taught by Mitogaku, abandoned the fight and returned to Edo (present-day Tokyo) by boat. Ironically, it had been the rebellios clans’ raising of the silk banners bearing the Imperial crest that had, in Yoshinobu’s mind, turned his army into rebels.

Upon reaching Edo Castle, Yoshinobu resigned as shogun and submitted to the Emperor — thus ushering in the Meiji Restoration of 1868. The city of Edo was therefore spared a major battle, the castle was turned over to the now legitimate Imperial army, and Yoshinobu and many of the Tokugawa clan retired to estates in present-day Shizuoka Prefecture. Then, finally, in 1902, Emperor Meiji awarded Yoshinobu the title of Prince and he died peacefully in 1913.

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