“Let the east wind blow and send your fragrance,
Oh, plum blossoms,
Do not forget the spring,
Even though your master is gone.”
– Lord Sugawara no Michizane
While cherry blossoms get all the glory when it comes to heralding the arrival of Spring, modest blooming buds of ume (plum blossoms) have been held in high regard here in Japan and are celebrated by the ume matsuri, the plum blossom festivals, all around the country.
Prior to the Nara Period (710-794 AD) it was in fact the blossom of the plum tree that Japanese referred to as hanami (flower viewing). Initially introduced to Japan from China, plum trees were considered ornamental trees intended for the gardens of the nobility and public spaces. They were also equated with good fortune and are still thought to ward off evil. That’s why so you will often find them planted around shrines, temples, or even private gardens.
Most often, you will find shrines hosting the festivities dedicated to the plum blossoms. These include performances, fun activities and plum-themed art and food stalls. Early February to mid-March is when the city starts to fill up with bursts of white, blush and hot pink. You can spot the blooming trees everywhere although there are a few spots which boast with a nice choice for plum-watching. Here are some of my favorite places to see Japanese plum blossoms in and around Tokyo.
Devoted to a deified scholar Sugawara no Michizane, Yusima Tenmangu Shrine (Yushima Tenjin) features a beautiful collection of 300 plum blossom trees. The shrine is very popular with students (and their parents) who come here to pray for luck during entrance exams and a successful school year. The shrine hosts the annual Bunkyo Ume Matsuri where you can enjoy traditional music, performing arts and tea ceremonies at weekends.
Kameido Tenjin attracts crowds during May when its beautiful wisteria garden blooms, but the 300 plus plum trees should not be overlooked. Kameido Tenjin is a beautiful place for ume hanami (as a rule of thumb, shrines with the word ‘tenjin’ in their name, the Kami name of Lord Sugawara, tend to be associated with plum trees) and offers a variety of entertainment from the middle of February to the end of March. The shrine’s arched vermilion bridge is very impressive, and it is worth checking out the famous ‘Goken no Ume’ tree that blossoms both red and white flowers.
Hanegi Park in Setagaya
With 650 and 700 ume blossom trees (of various color) the Hanegi Park offers one of the most beautiful spring scenes you can get throughout February. Located on Umegaoka (Plum Blossom Hill), you can expect a joyful spring atmosphere with koto string instrument performances, outdoor tea ceremonies, haiku classes and mochi rice pounding exhibitions. Needless to say, there are food vendors selling plum-themed food including jelly, ripe plum madeleines and daifuku buns.
Plum viewing might be used as a good excuse to get a little break from the hustle of the metropolis. If you feel like a little day trip, then ODawara might be a perfect destination. Not only will you get a chance to see the famous Odawara Castle, but also enjoy 35,000 plum trees on show of all different colors, shapes and sizes set around the Soga Bessho Bairin grove and framed by the iconic backdrop of Mt Fuji. Major festival attractions include calligraphy and lion dances among others.
If you crave some sun and sea, then Atami is a perfect place to be if the weather is right. It is a little resort town located within an hour from Tokyo and used to be a major honeymoon destination back in the day. Not only does Atami host the Kawazu-zakura festival – a type of sakura blooming in January/February – but it also is home to a gorgeous ume garden. Basically, you will be able to view plums and sakura in one trip!
Ome-shi Plum Park
Ome-shi features 1,500-tree plum grove which are truly a sight to see. The 1,500 trees that cover the sloping hills of the park make it look like mounds of cotton candy. There is also a 300-year-old plum tree. Like all other places, the park’s festival lasts from the end of February to the end of March.
Have you been in Tokyo during plum blossoms? Which was your favorite place for ume hanami?
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