I love Bonsai and the plum trees in blossom so finding the two brought together in Nagahama was something special. The art of Bonsai applied to flowering plum trees seems to be written in English as bonbai, bonmei or even bon-ume. The official site and what we were told while we were there was bonbai so that is what I’ve stuck with. What is certain is that THE place to see them is at the annual Nagahama plum blossom bonsai exhibition.
It combines two of my great loves in Japan, the zen art of bonsai and the seasonal bloom of ume, the plum and apricot trees. This show began in 1952 and is now a regular annual event held in late winter to early spring.
While it’s been a highlight on Nagahama’s calendar for many years it seems that its international popularity is limited and fairly recent. The hosts were very welcoming but seemed a little surprised to see two obvious foreigners arrive and insisted on taking our photo in front of the prized 400-year-old tree.
We’d also travelled to Tokyo on this trip to see the esteemed Kokufu-ten bonsai show and it has to be said that it was an incredible experience for anyone who enjoys the art form with top specimens being shipped in from around the world. The Bonbai show in Nagahama was a last-minute addition to the itinerary but I have to be honest and say I enjoyed my visit to the Nagahama Bonbai Exhibition even more than the far more famous show.
While Kokufu-ten shows magnificent bonsai it is extremely formal, there are no cameras allowed, and it’s housed in a multi-story city building. You are required to progress through the displays in a set sequence and once we’d purchased our ticket no one interacted with us at all.
The Nagahama Exhibition was almost the exact opposite. The Bonbai are displayed in historic Keiunkan, a traditionally styled wooden building set in delightful gardens that were beautifully dusted with snow when we arrived. You are allowed, even encouraged to take photos, and to take as long as you want to wander through, returning again to your favourites.
We lingered in the garden for a while before we went inside, it really is quite beautiful in winter and we must come back out here to see it in another season. A lot of work had gone into shaping many of the trees including this little beauty and they were protected from the weight of the snow with ropes like the trees we’d seen being worked on at Kenroku-en gardens in Kanazawa.
There were also several statues and engraved commemorative stones placed throughout the garden. Google translate didn’t help with this one at all but he seems to be a sumo wrestler with his warrior style topknot and the ceremonial apron or keshō-mawashi. I would love to know who it represents and how it is related to the area.
We made our way to the ticket office and inside. No one spoke much English and we don’t speak much Japanese but there was clear communication on how much the show was enjoyed and which were the favourites. One lady even took me back to show me her contribution to the show.
In addition to the show itself allow some time to appreciate historic Keiunkan, the wooden building and gardens are a treat in themselves. They were built in 1887 as a guesthouse for Emperor Meiji and named by Japan’s first Prime Minister, Hirofumi Ito. The views framed from the windows out over the garden are beautiful.
The hero of the Nagahama exhibition is a tree believed to be over 400 years old but there are all extremes here, from the tiny Shohin bonsai to blooming trees almost stretching to the ceiling.
There are some 300 bonsai pots in total that belong to Nagahama city and they are displayed in turn so you won’t always see the same thing even if you return multiple times in the same season. During our visit there was a good number out for display, I think maybe 80-100 plants each staged and displayed to its best advantage.
The plum and apricot trees actually make very good bonsai as even while relatively young they tend to have a rough bark and knarled form that makes them appear much older than they might really be.
The only other place we’ve seen a dedicated display of bonbai or spring-flowering bonsai was at Osaka Castle during the plum blossom festival there. We started chatting to one of the city’s free guides while waiting at traffic lights on our way to the castle and she gave us a personal tour of the plum grove, we were very fortunate to have met up with her as she had so much knowledge on the plum trees and the history of the castle.
The timing of our Nagahama visit wasn’t ideal but it was fixed around the Sapporo Snow Festival and other winter events around the country. We were there in early February but a couple of weeks later would have been better.
Of course with many plants not in full bloom, the structure of the tree can be seen more clearly and there was still plenty of plum blossom to enjoy. I later learned that if you time it right the “Night Bonbai” from mid-February is an optimal time to go and also enjoy the beautifully lit garden in the evening before returning to town for a steaming pot of Nagahama nabe, a delicious and satisfying meal cooked in a hot pot at the table.
Nagahama has become one of our favourite towns to day trip to from Kyoto. If you have time you might also enjoy exploring the castle and park, Lake Biwa, Kurokabe Square and the delicious food available in town. The Nagahama Hikiyama Festival held in April each year is also a great experience.
When, Where and Other Bonbai Details
Nagahama Bonbai Exhibition is held annually, while it varies by a few days each year it runs roughly from the 10th of January to the 10th of March.
The Nagahama Bonbai Exhibition was cancelled as a precaution during the pandemic but we hope to see it back in 2023.
The Adult entry ticket is Y800 and you have the option to enjoy tea and sweets upstairs at an additional cost. It’s well worth it in my opinion, sipping matcha overlooking the same gardens once admired by an Emperor isn’t something I get to do every day!
If you live in Japan and keep bonsai yourself there are some available for purchase as you leave, unfortunately for international travellers, you just have to admire them and accept that you won’t be getting the bonsai stock bargain of the century.
Take a JR train to the Nagahama station and use the exit towards the lake and castle. Turn left as you leave the station, then take the first left and walk up past the canal to Keiunkan, it isn’t very far maybe 5 minutes and I was walking pretty slowly on those icy footpaths.
Nagahama station is about 35 minutes from Kyoto or an hour from Shin-Osaka station by train, both options require a switch at Maibara. The Japan Rail Pass fully covers the trip. If you feel you won’t spend the full day in Nagahama another good option is to combine it with a visit to Hikone Castle. It’s around 20 minutes further by train on the same line, Hikone also lies on the eastern side of Lake Biwa.
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