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Plum Blossom Festival at Kairakuen: Full of Color and History

Kimono-clad plum blossom ambassadors welcome visitors to the display of red, white and pink flowers in bloom and the festival of flower candles at night.

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plum blossom
Four Ume Taishi (Plum Blossom Ambassadors) greet visitors arriving at the Kairakuen garden.

There was a huge visitor turnout at Kairakuen gardens, the venue of the Mito Ume Matsuri ー Plum Blossom Festival ー in Ibaraki Prefecture. 

Festival turnout was encouraged by the mild spring weather and the red,white and pink flowers in bloom.  As I mentioned in an earlier article, a prominent feature of the event was the kimono-clad Ume Taishi, or Plum Blossom Ambassadors. They were standing by the blossoms to greet visitors and attracting crowds who wanted to pose with them for a picture. 

plum blossom
"Mito-chan" is the local mascot.

Mascot with Strong Flavor

Mito-chan, the local mascot character, was also represented. He is just one of many "yurukyara" which have been created to promote a particular region of Japan. The term is derived from two words. "Yurui," which means relaxed, soft and gentle and "Kyara" which is a shortened Japanese transcription of the word "character." 

Mito-chan's head is shaped like a bundle of straws which are used to wrap natto (fermented soybeans), which is a local specialty. Even among lovers of Japanese food, the preference is divided. For some, natto is an acquired taste and eaten with rice for breakfast. Others, meanwhile, cannot handle the sticky, slimy texture and powerful smell. 

Nevertheless Mito-chan is a common sight in town, appearing in shopfronts and painted on the side of city buses. 

Blast from the Past

In the Kairakuen gardens, the feudal lord of Mito, Tokugawa Mitsukuni (1628-1701) reappeared from the Edo period for a photo shoot with visitors. His traveling companions Suke-san and Kaku-san were also there. 

The life of Mitsukuni, more popularly known as Mito Komon or Komon-san, is dramatized. According to legend he traveled around Edo period Japan after his retirement disguised as a commoner. Although it seems there are no records to suggest that Komon-san actually traveled the country, he is a folk hero who always ends up confronting villains or exposing corruption. 

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Komon-san makes a special appearance at the Plum Blossom festival.

At the same time he helps the weak, the honest, hard working commoners and encourages them before traveling on. In the climax of almost every episode he pulls out a small hand held lacquer container bearing the flower shaped crest of the Tokugawa Family to reveal his true identity, takes everyone by surprise and delivers justice. 

Nowadays people who have never visited Mito will still recognize Komon-san. So even the local mascot character Mito-chan is dressed like the legendary figure.   

Blossoms Awesome at Night

This year (2023) the blossoms at the Kairakuen gardens were lit up at night with a sound and light show.  Another awesome sight was the large number of candles laid out on the ground in the shape of flowers. 

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Kairakuen is lit up at night with a festival of candlelight plum blossoms.

There was also a performance by the wadaiko (Japanese drum) members from the group "Wakana." Actually, these performers turned out to be the "Savvy Foxes" featured in my article back in 2020. 

During those uncertain COVID-19 times most crowd-gathering events were canceled. However, the local community in Kasama, not far from Mito, held a festival online to keep a long local tradition alive, dressed up as foxes. 

This was one of my earliest contacts with Ibaraki Prefecture. And since then I have continued asking the event organizer who these foxes were and how to reach them. Only recently I found out. I managed to meet the group face to face for the first time at the Mito Ume Matsuri. 

Reaching Out Beyond Kairakuen 

There was a bit of international flavor too at Kairakuen's 2023 celebration. I happened to talk to some Indian expats who came from nearby Tokai Town. 

For them It must have felt like Diwali (the Hindu Festival of Lights) at home. I also overheard some Thai being spoken in the crowd. Having been to Thailand myself during Loy Krathong (A festival where decorated flower baskets with lanterns are released on the river and temples are lit up at night) those glowing candles surely reminded me of their beautiful traditions and festive atmosphere.     

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(Read the article in Japanese)

Author: Kaoru Kuriyama

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