Kairakuen in Mito City, Ibaraki Prefecture ranks as one of the top three gardens in Japan along with Kenrokuen in Kanazawa and Korakuen in Okayama. Being the nearest to the Tokyo Metropolitan area as compared to its peers, Kairakuen is also the second largest city park in terms of area space, just behind New York’s Central Park. At present, this garden is managed directly by the Ibaraki Prefectural Government and recognized as a cultural asset of Mito. Join me to find out more about this garden and why this is a place you should not miss during your trip!
Kairakuen (偕楽園) is the “youngest” among the top three gardens as it was built in the year 1842 by Tokugawa Nariaki, the 9th ruler of the Mito Domain. He asked for the clearing of Mount Shichimen (七面山) which was facing Senba Lake (千波湖) at that time.
Unlike Kenrokuen and Korakuen which were constructed primarily for the enjoyment of the ruling lords, Nariaki wanted to create a circuit-style garden which his people could also make use of, thus he named it “Kairakuen” which means “a garden which everyone could enjoy.” It was said that this idea of his came from the Chinese classic “Mengzi” where there’s a line, “inishie no hito wa tami to tomo ni tanoshimu, yue ni yoku tanoshimu nari,” which means that the people of the past became even happier after they enjoyed it with the people.
In line with Nariaki’s wish to open this garden to the people, Kairakuen was opened to the public on every date of the month that had the numbers 3 and 8 since the Edo era. At present, the garden is the only one among the top three gardens to provide free entry to everyone except for the Kobuntei (a traditional Japanese-style building) which you need to pay for before entering.
Kairakuen is especially famous for its 3,000 plum trees of about 100 different species, thus making it a popular plum flowers viewing site. However, do you know why there are so many plum trees here? Nariaki was said to be a big fan of plum flowers and saw the value of the plum trees beyond just viewing their flowers. As the plum fruit can be used as preserved food and has medicinal effects, Nariaki ordered the mass planting of plum trees in Kairakuen so as to prepare for emergencies. Apparently, Nariaki loved the plum flowers so much that he named Kobuntei as such since the Kanji characters 好文 were said to be another name for plums in China.
Although Kairakuen is most famous for its plum flowers, you will be surprised to find that there is more to it regardless of which season you visit the garden. In early spring, plum flowers start the ball rolling from late February to March with the Plum Blossom Festival (Kairakuen no Ume Matsuri), followed by the iconic sakura flowers in the first two weeks of April. By late April to mid-May, the Kirishima Tsutsuji (azalea) flowers explode in a sea of red splendor to greet the visitors. In the sweltering summer, you can check out the vast greenery in the bamboo and cedar forests. And as we enter the cooler autumn, the hagi i.e. bush clover and maple trees show off their beauty respectively in September and November.
If you are planning to head to Kairakuen during August, do check out the Mito Komon Festival (Mito Komon Matsuri) which takes place on the first weekend of the month. There will be about 4,500 fireworks launched from Senba Lake during the festival.
Due to the abundance of plum trees in the garden, the Ibaraki Prefectural Government harvests the fruits in June and sells them to the public. However, the price and the number of bags of plums available for purchase will vary annually according to the volume of the harvest. In 2015, the plums were sold for 300 yen per bag weighing 1.5 kg, but this June 2016, they were sold for 200 yen per bag weighing 1 kg due to the smaller harvest as a result of bad weather. As such, people could buy three bags of plums each last 2015 but were restricted to just one bag each this 2016. If you happen to be there during this period, you may be able to get a slice of the action and bring home some lovely plums!
Kairakuen has undergone many changes to date so it is not exactly the same as how Nariaki built it during his time. Here are some of the more significant events and changes to the garden:
- Kairakuen had a few name changes such as being renamed as Tokiwa Kouen in 1922 and reverting back to the original name 10 years later. In 1948, it became Kairakuen Kouen but it was changed back to Kairakuen in 1957. These changes arose primarily due to the change in the government departments managing the garden.
- The garden has grown due to the inclusion of its surrounding areas such as the Senba Park and the green spaces around the lake in July 1999 so these places are also considered to be part of Kairakuen. However, if you are referring to the main garden built by Nariaki, that is the area featured in the map above.
- There used to be a theme park called Kairakuen Lakeland in the garden which was open from 1968 to 1982.
- Some structures in Kairakuen are not in their original form anymore due to natural disasters and accidents. For example, the Koubuntei was rebuilt twice since it was burnt down during the World War II air raids in 1945 and caught fire again after being struck by lightning in 1969. During the March 11 earthquake in 2011, some structures in the garden were at risk of collapsing, the ground suffered from liquefaction and sinking and Koubuntei was yet again affected due to damages to its walls. This led to the cancellation of the Ume Matsuri that year and it took 11 months before everything was repaired and things went back to normal.
Despite all these changes and challenges, Kairakuen has survived the test of time and became how it is today.
As shown in the map, there are a number of entrances to Kairakuen. The Omotemon which is located at the northwestern side of the garden and also called Kuromon i.e. Black Gate (黒門) due to its color, is the official entrance to Kairakuen. Once you enter from here, you will be able to see the bamboo and cedar forests which will lead you to Koubuntei after going through a few more gates. Apparently, the design of the garden is meant to represent the yin and yang of the natural world. The western half of the garden occupied by the cedar and bamboo forests represent yin, while the plum forest represents yang. As such, this order as dictated by the location of the Omotemon is said to be the correct way to tour the garden in accordance with Nariaki’s design.
However, in recent years, the Omotemon has become less popular with the tourists since it is too far from the main carpark and the Kairakuen train station. As such, most tourists would use the Higashimon instead where they will go through the plum forest first.
Due to the number of structures and greenery to see in Kairakuen, it is impossible to go through every single one of them. However, here are four of the must-see spots which you should consider including during your visit:
1. Koubuntei (好文亭)
Koubuntei is a 2-section 3-storey wooden structure designed by Nariaki and went through two changes. Initially, it was a one-storey building but was expanded later to become how it looks like today. Upon completion, this structure became a residence, event hall, and recreation center for Nariaki to host his guests and hold events and celebrations. Due to Koubuntei’s location on top of a hill, it offers a bird’s eye view of Kairakuen. Note that this is the only facility in the garden which requires an entrance fee of 200 yen for adults and 100 yen for children. If you are in a group of more than 20, the discounted rate will be 150 yen and 80 yen respectively. In addition, Koubuntei is closed from 29 to 31 December while the garden is open every day. Last but not least, seniors above the age of 70, those receiving government welfare handouts, people who have a handicap notebook, as well as primary, junior high, and senior high students who visit on Saturdays except during spring, summer, and winter vacations will be exempted from paying the fee.
The fee must be paid in cash so it is recommended that you prepare the amount required accordingly rather than attempt to use credit cards. Eating and drinking, as well as the use of tripod stands, are banned. As this building has no barrier-free facilities, those in wheelchairs may not be able to visit. As for those who use walking aids such as crutches, the staff will provide a modified version to the visitors instead of letting them use their own because they need to protect the flooring in this historic building.
2. Senekidai (仙奕台)
Senekidai is an observatory platform which offers a breathtaking view of Senba Lake and its surrounding areas. What’s unique about this place is that there are go and shogi boards made of stone which allow people to have a game of intellect outdoors and a koto board for people to play the musical instrument while taking in the natural sights. It used to be said that the platform could also double up as a fortress in case of an emergency due to its location.
3. Togyokusen (吐玉泉)
Togyokusen is a white limestone from Mount Mayumi in Hitachiota City, Ibaraki Prefecture used by Nariaki to collect the spring water sprouting from underground which is abundant in this area. Due to the difference in elevation while building Kairakuen, Nariaki decided to use the limestone for aesthetic purposes rather than build a typical well to collect the water. The current limestone seen at Kairakuen is actually the 4th generation version which was set up in December 1987. It is said that the spring water here is good for curing eye diseases and has been used at the teahouse Karouan (茶室何陋庵) to boil the tea when the garden was first opened. Even in summer, the clear spring water is still cold to the touch.
4. Mito no Rokumeiboku (水戸の六名木)
Mito no Rokumeiboku which means “the six famous trees of Mito,” features six plum and sakura trees which were selected in 1934 for their beautiful flowers and scent which made them stand above the other species in the garden. The names of the six are provided below with the period when the flowers bloom:
- Rekkoubai (烈公梅) – late January to late February
- Shironaniwa (白難波) – late January to late February
- Tsukikage (月影) – mid-February to early March
- Kounan Shomu (江南所無) – early March to early April
- Yanagawa Shidare (柳川枝垂) – early February to early March
- Toranoo (虎の尾) – early February to early March
After learning so much about Kairakuen, are you ready to visit this people’s garden and experience its charm for yourself? You might wish to start by following Kairakuen’s Facebook page (*Japanese only) to get the latest updates and make plans to visit!