April 27, 2017

Mito & Kairaku-en

Mito is the capital city of Ibaraki. In addition to striking the perfect balance between urban and rural, Mito is also home to an amazing garden.

Cherry blossoms near Mito's Lake Senba during spring in Ibaraki Prefecture

Today, we will be journeying back up north to the capital of Ibaraki Prefecture for a hidden gem that is often overlooked, the city of Mito. Though firmly located off the beaten path, Mito is by no means a “countryside” destination. Indeed, the immediate area around the JR station is much like a mini neighborhood of Tokyo or Osaka unto itself. Nevertheless, Mito is the perfect compromise for those who want to escape the inner-city crowds while not going off the grid entirely.

Despite its location, Mito remains deeply rooted within Japan’s historical past. Originally settled in the fourth century, control of the region has passed through many hands. During the Edo period (1603–1868), Mito was firmly under the control of one of the Tokugawa branch families. Due to its close ties with the shogunate, the city of Mito was connected to Tokyo (then called Edo) by the Mito Kaido, one of five medieval trade routes that linked the country’s cities together.

Under the reign of the Tokugawa branch family, Mito grew into a flourishing city of scholarship and the arts. Eventually, the city became the home to what would be called the “Mito School.” This congregation of scholars advocated the Western learnings that were brought into Japan by the Dutch as a means of furthering technological advancement and international strength. While too in-depth for this piece, the Mito School’s philosophy served as a major backbone towards launching the Meiji Restoration.

This all said, Mito’s claim to fame is that it is home to Kairaku-en, one of Japan’s top three gardens. Unlike the other two on the list, Kairaku-en’s creator, the daimyo Tokugawa Nariaki, designed the garden to be enjoyed not only by the ruling elite but also by the general public (Kairaku-en means “a garden for everyone’s pleasure” in Japanese). The garden is stunning year round and perhaps most attractive during late February and March when the plum tree forest is in full plum. Situated on the edge of Lake Senba, Kairaku-en is by far the area’s biggest attraction and not to be missed.

Getting to Ibaraki Prefecture & Mito

The area in front of Mito Station in Ibaraki Prefecture

The city of Mito is located about 120 km Northwest of Tokyo. While there are no bullet trains that service the area, you can reach the city via an express train that departs from Ueno for just under 4,000 yen. Alternatively, if you’d rather take your time, the local trains cost about half as much but take twice as long. Regardless, be sure to check Hyperdia in advance to see which train works best for you.

Though Mito can honestly be done in a single overzealous day, I highly suggest you overnight up there. Not only will this allow you a more leisurely start (I mean who wants to rush for the 7 AM train) but there are a lot of cool things to do in and around Mito. Furthermore, if you’re not a fan of the sheer number of people in a megalopolis like Tokyo, the personal space that Mito affords can be a breath of fresh air.

Behold Mito’s Beautiful Kairaku-en

Mito’s Kairaku-en garden in Ibaraki Prefecture

The most popular attraction in Mito is of course the Kairaku-en garden. As mentioned, you’ll find the garden nestled along the banks of Lake Senba. There are several buses that service the garden but I suggest you take a leisurely stroll to Kairaku-en along the lake shore. In the warmer months especially, the change of pace from the inner-city madness is a much needed escape and is in and of itself one of the Mito’s many charms.

Kairaku-en is built into a slope along the northwestern side of Lake Senba. The garden is comprised of a series of winding pathways that weave their way up and down Kairaku-en’s hillside. Well over 3,000 plum trees call Kairaku-en home and the period from late winter to early spring is definitely the most popular time to visit. Kairaku-en also has a bamboo grove, cedar woods, and a slew of other perennial beauties meaning that no matter what season you visit, the garden is sure to grant spectacular and stunning views.

Additionally, though not part of Kairaku-en proper, the nearby area around Lake Senba is a nice spot to relax on a warm spring or summer day. There are some swan boats for the kids to enjoy as well as a handful of shrines and temples that you could check out. There is also a museum that houses a lot of artifacts from the Tokugawa family that you could investigate. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to visit it myself due to it being closed but I hear it’s pretty good if you’re into that type of thing.

The Kobuntei in Mito’s Kairaku-en

The Kobuntei villa in Mito’s Kairaku-en garden

Though the Kobuntei is actually located in Kairaku-en, it’s well deserving of its own section. Originally a villa belonging to Tokugawa Nariaki, the Kobuntei was a home away from home for this lord of Mito. Here, he would relax and take in the beauty of the seasons while entertaining guests and granting audiences to subjects. The facility is even equipped with a wing just for his wife, concubines, and their ladies-in-waiting.

The Kobuntei’s original structure burned to the ground during allied air raids on Mito in World War II and has since been rebuilt. In keeping with the traditional Japanese style, most of the villa’s rooms feature walkways that run along the outer edge of the house. From these verandas, visitors to the Kobuntei are presented with either a majestic view of Kairaku-en or the nearby Lake Senba. The upper levels of the house offer a commanding panoramic view of the surrounding area that is to die for!

A painted sliding screen inside of Mito’s Kobtuntei villa in Ibaraki Prefecture

By far, one of the main attractions at the Kobuntei is the hand painted wall-screens in the women’s quarters. The story holds that each screen has been painstakingly reproduced by artists at Tokyo Arts University. In keeping with traditional composition, each wall panel celebrates a different theme. Among the collection you’ll find images of cherry blossoms, maple leaves, and plum motifs.

The panels are decorously illuminated by the glow of a small floor lantern. Meandering through the Kobuntei’s halls is much like taking a journey back in time. The lighting and traditional craftsmanship make it easy to imagine what it would have been like to experience the villa almost two-hundred years ago. Though not large by any means, I would highly encourage you to take your time and properly enjoy the beauty of this outstanding landmark.

There’s Still More to the Mito Area

The iconic nemophila of Hitachi Seaside Park in Ibaraki Prefecture

In addition to Kairaku-en, Mito and the surrounding areas have many other attractions for you to check out. In the spirit of keeping this piece reasonably on topic, I will not go into too much detail but feel free to pick and choose from the suggestions below if you’re overnighting as I recommended; unfortunately, you day-trippers will have to be content with the above.

  • Hitachi Seaside Park
    Chances are if you’ve been looking at pictures of Japan in spring, you’ve seen the endless fields of nemophila pictured above. If you’re visiting when they’re in bloom (late April to early May), I highly recommend that you make the trek over here. That said, even if you’re not visiting in spring, the 350 acre Hitachi Seaside Park has been landscaped such that something is always in beautiful bloom. The grounds are even home to a small amusement park.
  • The Kodokan
    History buffs will delight in knowing that the Mito School’s most well-known place of learning, the Kodokan, is still open to the public today. Here, young samurai would be instructed not only in traditional subjects like the military arts and the classics, but also in Western learnings brought into Japan by the Dutch. The school also served as the place of house arrest of the final shogun. Located only a few minutes from JR Mito Station, the Kodokan makes an easy addition to any itinerary.
  • Neighboring Oarai
    Oarai is a beach town located not too far from Mito. This is great if you’re in the area for summer and have time to catch some rays. For the rest of us who are busy, the real attraction here is the famous Kamiiso-no-Tori (meaning “Gate of the Seashore God”) at Oarai Isosaki Shrine. Located on a rock right by the shore, this beauty offers a breathtaking view into the world of the divine that will leave you entranced for hours.
  • The Drunken Duck
    A piece on Mito would not be complete without this little boozy gem. Located about ten minutes on foot from the JR station, the Drunken Duck is a bar that has an impressive array of really, really good food. Whether you’re in the mood for standard bar fare or something a little more exotic like kangaroo or crocodile, the Duck has got you covered! The staff all speak some level of English as well so you should have no problem ordering. If you overnight in Mito and are looking for something to do after hours, I highly suggest you make a stop here. The food is definitely worth the hangover!

Until next time travelers…