Japan is known for its incredible seasons, particularly the spring when towns, cities and countryside are awash with colour from vibrant petals on myriad types of blossoming trees and plants. Although cherry blossoms – sakura – get all the glory, Japan’s blossom season starts in late February/ early March with the much more fragrant Japanese plum trees – ume.
Ume, blooming in February, are much more hardy than their cherry tree sisters and so the season is slightly longer than the fleeting visit of salmon-pink sakura petals. As the first whisper of spring breathes life into these picturesque little parcels of brilliance, the reminder that the regeneration of life through the ongoing seasons is so too just around the corner.
The Japanese have a wonderful tradition of celebrating the viewing of flowers and blossoms, it’s called hanami, which literally translates as ‘flower’ and ‘see’. The appreciation stems from the connection to nature that the Japanese people have long held. The acceptance and admiration for the transcience of life as mirrored in these bountiful blossoms is these days usually reserved for the more famous sakura blooms, but actually began in the Nara Period (710-794) with ume. In my opinion this was the far wiser choice. Bursts of a balmy, floral bouquet and pops of colour, from fuschia to taffy to buttery yellow and winter white (a reminder that we are still victim to the biting cold that is constantly resisting the separation that the spring sunshine brings), are utterly breathtaking to behold. It wasn’t until the Heian Period that hanami came to be associated with sakura and I’m afraid that’s a decision I’ll just have to lament in private… And on the internet.
As a “friend of winter,” ume blossom most vividly represents the value of determination through hardship and the hope that one will overcome adversary, so it is not surprising that the arrival of these blossoms are celebrated through festivals known as Ume Matsuri where revellers descend upon temples, shrines and parks to honour this natural floral phenomenon.
Here are my favourite places for plum blossom viewing or Ume Matsuri in Kyoto…
Jonangu’s extensive garden, Rakusuien, is full of weeping plum trees that are a stunning juxtaposition to its moss garden. It feels like a magical fairytale grotto and even though it is a little hard to get to, it’s worth the trip!
Kitano Tenmangu Shrine
Kitano Tenmangu has the highest density, in number and variety of plum trees in Kyoto. So much so that it is one of the most famous places in Japan to view these stunning blossoms.
Kyoto Imperial Palace
The plum grove on the west side of the Imperial Palace grounds is particularly lovely to wander through or even picnic under, if the weather allows!
I hope you enjoy the ume as much as I do. As much as Matsuo Bashō…
On the mountain path
The sun suddenly shows its face
By the fragrance of the ume