When one uses the word hanami (花見, flower viewing) on its own, it is understood by native speakers of Japanese to refer to the the enjoyment of blooming cherry blossoms alone and not any other flower. This clearly shows the high regard given to the fragile pink blossoms which have since ancient times symbolized the transient nature of all things, one of the cornerstone concepts of Japanese aesthetics and philosophy. Going to a meisho (名所, a famous place） for viewing cherry blossoms can reveal to you how the Japanese have turned the simple pleasure of enjoying flowers in bloom into what seems like a religious pilgrimage. From near and far they come, as couples, families, or groups shuttled in on karaoke equipped tour buses. They bring lunch-boxes and of course cameras. The blossoms are observed intently (and I mean with great intention, as if posing in a kabuki play) from afar and then from way in up close.
The atmosphere is solemn and celebratory, reverent and ribald.
Though not as philosophically appealing, the more prosaic plum (ume) blossoms also bring in the crowds (though the late night drinking and revelry beneath the trees is reserved for the cherry). This week you have a chance to see the 3000 plum trees of the famed Kairakuen Garden in Mito in full bloom. Until the end of the week, a temporary train station will be in use bringing you direct service to the gardens entrance. The garden offers the chance to see varieties of plum trees you never thought existed. The tora-no-o, which looks like a tigers tail, the darly pink kounshomu, the nearly translucent tsukikage, etc.
The plum blossoms are the first of the major flowers to bloom each year. Their fragrance in the air is a sign that spring is coming. Their hardiness and resistance to cold and wind make them a very auspicious symbol. If you read ancient Japanese poems there are hundreds of references to the blossoms of the beautiful and practical plum tree. It is because they provide the medicinally important and tasty plums for umeboshi (salted plums) which have become a standard part of every boxed lunch, that the frugal and practical minded Tokugawa Nariaki, the founder of the Kairakuen Garden planted so many of the trees.
You can enjoy the fruit of his efforts by getting on the Joban line this week, heading north just one stop past Mito station, and enjoying the blossoms, the spectacle and maybe a little plum wine (ume shu, 梅酒). Entrance is FREE!