The parade of seasons in Japan returns with almost clockwork regularity. In early Spring, cherry trees or sakura are in the limelight during (o)hanami, when their sublime flowers become objects of contemplation.
Unfortunately, they sometimes overshadow the earlier, yet not less beautiful, blossoming of another tree, the Japanese plum tree (Prunus Mume). Careless onlookers often confuse it with sakura, whose blossoms appear a few weeks later.
Plum trees or ume (梅) in Japanese come out in full blossom at the end of winter as the herald of the coming Spring. Japanese gardens and parks are colored with plum trees’ rose-hued blossoms, and sometimes white or yellow flowers, depending on the species, and a strong, characteristic perfume is wafting into the air. Plum tree flowers generally have five petals.
As for the fruit, it can be described as having the taste of both plum and apricot (a more common name for the plum tree is "Japanese apricot tree"). It is rather acid and is usually processed, to make liquors such as the famous umeshu (梅酒). Japanese people also enjoy umeboshi (梅干), pickled plums, whose tangy sour-sweet taste enhances the flavor of onigiri rice balls.
Plum trees bloom calendar
In the most popular places such as Tokyo or the Kansai region, one can enjoy their sight as early as February and until mid-March when sakura take over.
Depending on the region and the latitude, blossoming may occur between the beginning of the year (in the South) and early May (in the North).
Where to attend Ume matsuri?
Plum flowers being the first to blossom, they became an incentive to hold dedicated festivals, called Ume matsuri. Shrines and temples, especially those dedicated to Sugawara no Michizane (Tenjin), who particularly favored plum flowers, are keen to hold them.
Here are a few examples of festivals or famous places where Japanese plum blossoms can be admired:
- In Tokyo, from early February to the middle of March, some of the most notable places are Hanegi Park in Setagaya (700 trees), the Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens, Kyu Shiba Rikyu Garden, Shinjuku Gyoen Garden and Baji Koen Park, or else the shrines of Yushima Tenjin and Ushi Tenjin Kitano;
- Kairakuen in Mito, one of the most beautiful gardens in Japan (just over an hour by train, north of Ueno): the festival is held every year from mid-February to the end of March and dedicated to the contemplation of the 3,000 trees in the garden;
- Umeno Park in Ome (less than one hour by train, west of Shinjuku) and its 1,500 trees, one of which being three hundred years old. In the same area, Yoshino Baigo harbors 25,000 trees of 100 different varieties;
- Yokosuka’s Taura park or Ume no Sato (in Tokyo Bay) and its 2,700 plum trees;
- In Kyoto, the best spot to admire plum blossoms is Kitano Tenmangu with its 2,000 trees. Jonangu is also interesting for its forest of weeping plums;
- In Osaka, Banpaku Park in the North (150 different varieties) takes precedence over the castle’s surroundings. Domyoji Tenmangu is also worth mentioning;
- In the Kansai area, the main places of interest are Hikone castle, Nara’s park;
- In Wakayama, visit the wonderful Minabe Bairin in the mountain, that is said to be the bigger plum garden in Japan;
- In the Mount Fuji area, the town of Odawara holds a yearly Ume Matsuri; the same goes for Atami Baien in the town of Shizuoka.
- Finally the Tenmangu in Daizafu near Fukuoka harbors no less than 6,000 Japanese apricot trees!
It is to be noted that the word hanami does not apply to plum trees and is typically used in relation to cherry trees only.