Although cherry blossoms are considered to be quintessentially Japanese, plum blossoms, their lesser known cousins, are also the heralds of spring in many parts of Japan, their fragrant flowers of pink, red, and white blooming in late winter and filling the hearts of locals with hope for an end to the chill. Ibaraki in particular has a strong relationship with plum blossoms. Around 3000 trees of 100 different varieties of plum blossom trees fill Kairakuen, one of Japan’s three most famous parks, located in Mito.
While cherry blossom festivals are decidedly more numerous, there are also a number of local festivals from late February to mid-March that celebrate the annual appearance of the plum blossoms. One such festival is the Mt. Tsukuba Plum Festival. Held annually in the Plum Forest (bairin), which sits around 250m above sea level on the slopes of the mountain. Far above the city and away from the constant background bustle of people and traffic, this festival offers attendees a rare view of the Kanto Plain through branches peppered with soft petals of pink and white. When we visited the festival in mid-March, we were blessed with a beautiful sunny morning, allowing us to appreciate the contrast of the pale petals against a brilliant blue sky.
There are a number of paths winding through the trees, so you can take a leisurely stroll through to appreciate the blossoms (pausing for pictures of course). A small stream flows down the mountain through the forest, and during the festival it fills with fallen petals. The same petals flutter through the air and form a pink and white carpet upon the forest floor, creating an atmosphere that is truly ethereal.
Upon climbing to the upper reaches of the forest, you will find an observation deck, which provides a breathtaking view of the whole forest and the city of Tsukuba below. On a clear day you can see Tokyo, and sometimes even as far as Mt. Fuji.
During the festival, the road is lined with food stalls selling local products, including many plum-themed snacks such as plum youkan (sweet jellied azuki bean paste) and plum-flavoured soft serve. Beside the forest there is a small building where you can escape the seasonal chill and enjoy complimentary cups of tea. For something a little more substantial, the Omotenashi building that sits just below the forest serves as a rest area where visitors can warm up with steaming bowls of rice miso soup and hot drinks.
Just outside the Omotenashi building is a stage set up for the duration of the festival where visitors can see a number of shows, including one by a gama no aburauri, a spruiker from the Edo Period who would give lively performances in order to sell bulrush oil, a local cure-all. From swordsmanship to silly puns, this short routine has got it all, and is worth checking out. On weekends there are also several additional folk entertainment performances.
This unique festival is definitely worth a visit, and can easily be made into a great day trip if you add in a climb to Mt. Tsukuba’s summit, a visit to the Mt. Tsukuba shrine, and a dip in one of the numerous nearby onsen facilities. You could even stay overnight in one of the fantastic local inns. If you are looking for something to do in late February or March, look no further!
Mt. Tsukuba Plum Festival
When: Dates vary each year, usually begins around February 20th and ends in the last weekend of March
Where: Mt. Tsukuba Plum Forest
By Public Transport
Take the Mt. Tsukuba Shuttle Bus from Tsukuba Station and get off at Tsukuba Jinja Iriguchi (roughly 40 minutes). It is a short walk from there to the Plum Forest.
From the Tsuchiura Kita IC on the Joban Expressway: Around 20km along National Route 125 in the direction of Shimotsuma and Mt. Tsukuba
From the Sakuragawa Chikusei IC on the Joban Expressway: Take National Route 50 then it is around 20km along Prefectural Route 41 toward Mt. Tsukuba
There are five parking lots: Parking Lots 1-4, which are managed by the City of Tsukuba, and Tsutsujigaoka Parking Lot, which is managed by the Prefectural Government. Parking Lot 1 is the closest to the Plum Forest where the festival is being held.
*As the roads and parking lots tend to be crowded during the festival, it is recommended that you take public transport.