Japanese Plum

Originally introduced from China, the Japanese plum (~, ume; sometimes referred to as Japanese apricot) has played an important role in Japanese culture for many centuries. Its popularity was eventually surpassed by that of the cherry tree.

The plum is associated with the start of spring, because plum blossoms are some of the first blossoms to open during the year. In the Tokyo area, they typically flower in February and March. The event is celebrated with plum festivals (ume matsuri) in public parks, shrines and temples across the country.

Like cherry trees, plum trees come in many varieties, many of which were cultivated by humans over the centuries.

Most plum blossoms have five petals and range in color from white to dark pink. Some varieties with more than five petals (yae-ume) and weeping branches (shidare-ume) have also been cultivated. Unlike cherry blossoms, plum blossoms have a strong, sweet fragrance.

The actual ume fruit is more sour than the Western plum or apricot, and is usually processed in various ways before eaten.

The most popular processed form is the umeboshi, a sour, pickled plum, which is usually enjoyed with cooked rice. Umeboshi is one of the most typical Japanese flavors. Umeshu, a sweet alcoholic beverage made of plums, is also popular.

Some popular plum spots in and around Tokyo

Kairakuen (Ibaraki Prefecture)
Mito Station, JR Joban Line
Ranked as one of Japan's three finest landscape gardens, Kairakuen features over 3000 plum trees of 100 varieties. A plum festival is held from February 20 to March 31, 2015. More details.

Koishikawa Korakuen (Tokyo)
Korakuen Station, Marunouchi Subway Line
This beautiful Japanese landscape garden in central Tokyo features a few dozen plum trees. It used to be the site of the Tokyo residence of the feudal lords of Mito, the city where Kairakuen (see above) is located. An ume matsuri is held from February 7 to March 1, 2015. More details.

Yushima Tenjin Shrine (Tokyo)
Yushima Station, Chiyoda Subway Line
A popular shrine among students who wish to pass entrance exams. A plum festival is held annually from February 8 to March 8, with various events on weekends and holidays.

Hanegi Park (Tokyo)
Umegaoka Station, Odakyu Line
A small public city park with about 700 plum trees of many varieties. The Setagaya Ume Matsuri is celebrated here on weekends and holidays from February 7 to March 1, 2015.

Most popular plum spot in Kyoto

Kitano Tenmangu Shrine
Short walk from Kitanohakubaicho Station
The foremost shrine devoted to Tenjin in Kyoto, Kitano Tenmangu has about 2000 plum trees in its garden. A special tea ceremony (Baikasai) is held in the garden on February 25. More details.

Other famous plum spots

Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine
Short walk from Dazaifu Station
The most important of all Tenjin Shrines is located in Dazaifu near Fukuoka on Kyushu Island. About 6000 plum trees can be found on its grounds. More details.

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Page last updated: January 14, 2015