Despite the recent flurry of snowfall in Tokyo, there are some delicate petals already making their first appearance of 2013, reminding us that eventually spring will come. These are not cherry blossoms yet, though, but petals of Tokyo’s ume trees.
What exactly do you know about the tree with fruits variously translated as plums/Japanese apricots? For one, it originated from China but was later introduced to Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam. It blooms in late winter, and the fruit is more sour than the Western plums or apricots. Many foreigners call it an “acquired taste” but the fruit is versatile: pickle it to make salty umeboshi, the sour filling often found in onigiri or topping rice, or pop it in some booze for a few months to make the sweet, alcoholic umeshu many of us are familiar with.
Varying between shades of white and pink, plum blossoms are usually overshadowed by the cherry blossoms’ popularity, but they play nonetheless an important role in Japanese culture, and even get their own festival. The one-month long ume matsuri at Yushima Tenman-gu shrine in Tokyo is probably one of the best spots in the city to see and smell the five-petalled buds – interestingly, unlike cherry blossoms, plum blossoms have a strong, sweet fragrance.
Students hoping to pass the entrance exams in April often visit The Yushima Tenman-gu shrine, as it is devoted to the god of learning, so don’t be surprised if you see them roaming about amongst amateur photographers adding to their 2012 collection of snaps.
Plum Blossom Festival
When: Feb. 7 – March 7
Where: Yushima Tenjin Shrine
Main image: MShades on Flickr