The parade of seasons in Japan hardly ever fails to return with almost clockwork regularity. In early Spring, cherry trees or sakura are in the limelight during (o)hanami, when their sublime blossoms become objects of contemplation.
Unfortunately, they sometimes overshadow the earlier, yet no less interesting, blossoming of another tree, the Japanese plum tree (Prunus Mume) which is often confused by careless observers with its cousin whose blossoms appear a few weeks later.
Plum trees or 梅 ume in Japanese come out in full blossom at the end of winter to herald the coming Spring. In the most popular places such as Tokyo or the Kansai region, one can enjoy the sight of them as early as February 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).
Plum trees spread their mostly rose-hued blossoms going on white or yellow depending on the species all over Japanese gardens and parks, wafting a strong, characteristic smell into the air. Most consist of five petals.
As to the fruit, it can be described as partaking of the taste of both the plum and the apricot (a more common name for the plum tree is “Japanese apricot tree”). It is rather acid and is mainly processed, in particular to make liquors such as the famous 梅酒 umeshu. Japanese people also enjoy 梅干 umeboshi, pickled plums served for dessert.
Where and when is it possible to admire Ume matsuri?
Because they are among the first buds to come out every year, plum blossoms provide an opportunity to hold dedicated festivals (called ume matsuri) in particular in some of Japan’s shrines and temples.
Here are a few examples of festivals or famous places where Japanese plum blossoms can be admired:
- In Tokyo, 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: from early February to the middle of March.
- Kairakuen in Mito, one of the most beautiful gardens in Japan (just over an hour’s ride 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 (just under an hour’s ride by train, West of Shinjuku) and its 1 500 trees, one of which is 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.
- In Osaka, Banpaku Park in the North (150 different varieties) takes precedence over the castle’s surroundings.
- 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.