Around 100km northeast of Tokyo, MITO (水戸) was once home to the Mito clan, one of the three main families of the Tokugawa Shogunate – although you’d hardly guess the town’s former importance from its nondescript central district, dominated by an inelegant train and bus terminal complex. Most of the town’s worthwhile sights were the work of Mito’s ninth lord, Nariaki Tokugawa, who in 1841 created the sprawling Kairakuen (偕楽園), now officially classified as one of the nation’s top three gardens. The garden’s name means “to share pleasure”, and it’s justly famous for its three thousand fragrant plum trees which blossom in February and March, attracting crowds of visitors, though the garden is lovely in all seasons.
Kairakuen lies several kilometres outside the town centre. Coming into Mito on the train from Tokyo, you’ll pass right through it. The station in the park, is usually only open during the peak plum blossom season on weekends.
At the centre of the main section of plum tree plantings stands Kōbuntei (好文亭), a replica of the original two-storey house that was used by Mito clan members as a retreat and a venue for poetry readings; it’s decorated with beautifully painted screens and the second-floor observation room affords sweeping views of the garden and nearby Lake Senba. From here it’s a brisk twenty-minute walk across the train lines to the Tokugawa Museum (徳川博物館), housing artefacts once owned by various Tokugawa feudal lords and their families, with a focus on clan family portraits and samurai armour and weaponry.
Returning to Mito Station, take the first right on the left-hand side of the Livin’ department store and walk uphill, bearing right, for a couple of minutes until you reach the well-preserved Kōdōkan (弘道館), the Mito clan’s school of calligraphy and swordsmanship. The visual displays, paintings and artefacts offer an insight into the lives of those who were privileged enough to receive the rigorous academic training provided here. Some eight hundred apricot trees also blossom here in late February and March.