Early bloomers: Plum blossom festivals around Tokyo

Events - January 30th, 2014
plum-blossom-festivals

Take a peek at the cherry blossom’s lesser-known cousin for the next month or so: ‘tis the season for plum blossom festivals, when delicate petals are already making their first appearance, reminding us that eventually spring will come.

The Japanese apricot (they’re not quite “plums,” as it turns out) trees originated in China but they were later introduced to Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam. They bloom in late winter, and the fruit is sourer than Western plums or apricots. Many non-Japanese call it an “acquired taste” but the fruit is versatile: pickle it to make salty umeboshi, the sour filling often found in onigiri or put on top of 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 nonetheless play an important role in Japanese culture, and even get their own festival. These month-long ume matsuri happening around Tokyo are a great way to see and smell the five-petalled buds—interestingly, unlike cherry blossoms, plum blossoms have a strong, sweet fragrance.

Yushima Tenjin

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 2014 collection of snaps. February 8–March 9.

More information: www.yushimatenjin.or.jp/pc/ume/index.htm (Japanese only)

Hanegi Park, Setagaya

Perhaps the most famous spot in Tokyo to view plum blossoms, in the aptly named Umegaoka neighbourhood. “Famous” also means “crowds,” but might be worth the wait to catch the haiku readings, koto performances and tea ceremonies. February 8–March 2

More information: www.gotokyo.org/en/kanko/setagaya/event/sumefes.html

Ushi Tenjin

Ushi Tenjin offers a red variety of plum blossoms, which can be viewed against the picturesque shrine backdrop. It’s also a good place to sample the fruit itself in all its forms- including sweets and liquor, of course. February 1–25

More information: www.ushitenjin.jp (Japanese only)

Ome Plum Park

If you’re not afraid to hop on a train and leave central Tokyo, this one won’t disappoint you. The park boasts an impressive 1,500 trees flanked by the surrounding hills, in shades of white, pale pink and hot pink. Throughout February and March.

More information: www.omekanko.gr.jp/ume/kouen.htm (Japanese only)

–Vivian Morelli

Main image: ark/Flickr