Take a peek at Japan’s early bloomers for the next month or so: ‘tis the season for plum blossom festivals, when the ume’s 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 their fruit is sourer than those of 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 nevertheless, they 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.
Students hoping to pass the entrance exams in April often visit The Yushima Tenmangu 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 2015 collection of snaps. February 8–March 8.
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 7–March 1.
More information: www.gotokyo.org/en/kanko/setagaya/event/sumefes.html
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)
Jindai Plum Festival
The Jindai Botanical Gardens were once a nursery to raise the trees that currently line Tokyo’s streets. In addition to ornamental peaches, dogwood, rose, azalea, peony, water lily and cherry, the garden has an impressive lineup of plum trees, as well as guided tours. Feb 3–Mar 1.
More information: http://www.tokyo-park.or.jp/event/2015/01/post-423.html
Odawara Ume Matsuri
Any excuse is good to get out of Tokyo for a little getaway, especially when the destination involves an array of colorful plum blossoms with a clear view of Mount Fuji in the background. This festival includes dance performances, calligraphy and even horseback archery, so make sure you check the schedule closely. Jan 31–Mar 1
More information: http://soganosato.com/index.html (Japanese only)
Main image: shail05/Flickr (CC)