TsukuBlog

A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

Enjoying the Beauty, Fragrance, and Cultural Significance of Japan`s Plum Blossoms

A plum tree (ume no ki) blossoming by the entrance to the Hokuto-ji Temple (popularly known as Myoken-sama) in Kurihara, Tsukuba (February 18, 2021)

By Avi Landau

 

Though more often than not it is uncomfortably cold in early spring, for the Japanese it has always been the OCCASIONAL warm breeze, the stirring of certain plants and animals, and the blooming of the plum blossoms (especially on snow covered branches) – that is to say, the little CHANGES and HINTS which give hope and expectation of things to come – that this time of year has been appreciated for.

Plum blossoms in bloom at the Tenjin Shrine in Kurihara,Tsukuba (Feb. 14th 2016)

Plum blossoms in bloom at the Tenjin Shrine in Kurihara,Tsukuba (on the way home from the Hoshi Matsuri)

The blossoms of the plum tree (ume no ki), which has been bred into numerous varieties since being brought to Japan more than 1000 years ago by returnees of missions to various Chinese dynastic courts*, rival those of Japan’s national flower, the cherry blossom (sakura no hana) in terms of endearment in the hearts of the Japanese people. In fact, in the early Showa Period, there was a heated debate over which of the two would become the representative flower of the nation. The plum’s strong points were not only that it was beautiful, highly fragrant and the first major blossom of the new year- and thus a symbol of spring’s coming (often praised by the greatest of Japan`s classical poets), but it was also a  feature of the DAILY JAPANESE DIET- in the form of UME BOSHI, or salted plums, as well as a popular ingredient for liquor, juice and various sweets.

It was probably the fact that plum blossoms were already the national flower of China (which they still are in Taiwan), and had been introduced to Japan from there, that the UME lost out in the battle for National Flower. Of course, there is also the matter of the delicate cherry blossoms being more representative of the quintessential Japanese concept – MUJO (無常), the fleeting nature of all things. The fact that cherry blossoms fall away while they are in full bloom- without withering first- also made them perfect symbols to be used by the army and navy to glorify young men in their primes dying in battle.

Plum blossoms in Tsukuba

Despite the fact that they had been brought over from the continent, the first western scientists to encounter the plum trees, including Philip Von Sebold, mistook them for being native to Japan. This could also be because, though a popular motif in Chinese art, there is no special tradition of viewing their flowers nor is there the custom of regularly eating their fruit.

Celebrating the blossoming of some three thousand plum trees (in 100 varieties) at Kairakuen, in Mito. One of Japan`s so-called "Three Famous Gardens", and established in 1842 by Tokugawa Nariaki for the enjoyment of all people in his domain, Kairakuen is probably the most famous place in Japan for Kanbai (観梅) -plum blossom viewing

Celebrating the blossoming of some three thousand plum trees (in 100 varieties) at Kairakuen, in Mito. One of Japan`s so-called “Three Famous Gardens”, and established in 1842 by Tokugawa Nariaki for the enjoyment of all people in his domain, Kairakuen is probably the most famous place in Japan for Kanbai (観梅) -plum blossom viewing. The name Kairakuen derives from the words of the Classical Chinese philosopher Mencius who wrote: IISHIE NO HITO WA TAMI TO TOMO NI TANOSHIMU, YUE NI YOKU TANOSHIMU NARI (古の人は民と偕に楽しむ, 故に能く楽しむなり) – “In days of old gentlemen of culture enjoyed together with the common folk, therefore you will well enjoy doing the same” Kairakuen (偕楽園) uses the Kanji characters KAI(偕) – together, RAKU (楽) enjoy, and EN (園) garden.

Who needs to go all the way to Mito`s famous Kairakuen Garden? You can satisfy your plum blossom-lust right here in Tsukuba, at one of the small parks in – like this one in the Umezono neighborhood (Umezono (梅園), incidentally, means PLUM GARDEN!

For the Japanese, there is another interesting significance to the plum blossom: its connection to the passing of entrance examinations! The other day, just as I was mentioning plum blossoms to a friend of mine who has been driven to distraction by her son’s upcoming exams, someone’s cellphone rang. It was hers. A considerate friend had sent her a photo of a plum tree in bloom as a way of saying, “I hope your son is gonna pass!”

 

How did the ume no hana come to have such a connection to studies and the passing of tests? Well, the answer is simple: the plum tree was a favorite of SUGAWARA NO MICHIZANE, the great Heian Period poet, scholar and calligrapher who was unjustly expelled from the capital, died in exile, and was later enshrined as the GOD TENJIN, the patron god of scholars, poets, calligraphers and students. According to legend, when Michizane was leaving the capital on the road to exile in distant Dazaifu, Kyushu, it was only his plum tree that Michizane bade farewell with this, the most famous of all his poems.

KOCHI FUKABA NIOI OKOSE YO UME NO HANA
ARUJI NASHI TOTE HARU NA WASURESO

( Though I am no longer there, do not forget me- O plum blossoms –

Send your fragrance to me, when the East wind starts to blow)

Legend then says that the tree came flying all the way to Kyushu  to give the forlorn aristocrat solace to the end of his days (which was not very far off).

Plum-Blossom Viewing as seen in this woodblock print by Utagawa Hiroshige 2One Hundred Famous Scenes of Edo – the Kamedo Plum Tree Garden

Plum blossoms in Tsukuba

 

There are almost always plum trees, sometimes hundreds, at shrines dedicated to Michizane, or TENJIN, as he is called in deified form. In this season, millions of supplicants visit these shrines to pray for exam success, and appropriately the plum blossoms are opening, filling the sacred precincts with the fragrance of HOPE.

Luckily for those of us who live in Ibaraki, Mito, our prefectural capital is the home to one of the most famous places for enjoying plum blossoms, KAIRAKUEN.

A view of the low-lands beneath Mito`s Kairakuen Garden

A view of the low-lands beneath Mito`s Kairakuen Garden

It is because they provide the medicinally important and tasty plums for umeboshi (salted plums) which have become a standard part of every boxed lunch, that the frugal and practical minded Tokugawa Nariaki, the founder of the Kairakuen Garden planted so many of the trees. They were also symbolically important for the Mito Tokugawa Family which prided itself on its scholarship.
You can enjoy the fruit of his efforts by getting on the Joban line in the coming weeks, heading north just one stop past Mito station, and enjoying the blossoms, the spectacle and maybe a little plum wine (ume shu, 梅酒). Entrance is FREE.

The best of the 3,000 0r so plum trees (in 100 varieties) lit up at Kairakuen, in Mito. One of Japan`s "Three Famous Gardens", Kairakuen was established in 1842 by the Tokugawa Nariaki for the enjoyment, he proclaimed, of everyone in his domain (the Mito Domain)

The best of the 3,000 0r so plum trees (in 100 varieties) lit up at Kairakuen, in Mito. One of Japan`s “Three Famous Gardens”, Kairakuen was established in 1842 by the Tokugawa Nariaki for the enjoyment, he proclaimed, of everyone in his domain (the Mito Domain)

Enjoying plum blossoms at night - you do not need illumination at all - in fact there is a Haiku Kigo (seasonal word) HARU NO YAMI (春の闇) which implies a darkness filled with a fragrance of plum blossoms!

Enjoying plum blossoms at night – you do not need illumination at all – in fact there is a Haiku Kigo (seasonal word) HARU NO YAMI (春の闇) which implies a darkness filled with a fragrance of plum blossoms!

Closer to home is the Plum Festival at Mt Tsukuba.

The Mt. Tsukuba Ume Festival is now underway – thru March 21. You can combine plum blossom viewing with Mt. Fuji viewing – if the weather if right. You can drive there, or take a bus from Tsukuba Center (see comment below for more info)

 

But even if you don’t have the chance (or the will) to make it to these major events, you can enjoy blooming plum trees by taking a stroll in just about any neighborhood in Tsukuba.

 

* Recent archeological evidence shows that UME tree were brought over from the continent earlier than previously believed- during the Yayoi period, at the same time as rice cultivation was introduced from Asia.

This week you have a chance to see the 3,000 plum trees of the famed Kairakuen Garden in Mito in full bloom. On the weekend, a temporary train station will be in use bringing you direct service to the gardens entrance. The garden offers the chance to see varieties of plum trees you never thought existed. The tora-no-o, which looks like a tigers tail, the darly pink kounshomu, the nearly translucent tsukikage, etc.

Enjoying the plums in Ueno Park, Tokyo (March 15, 2018)

Enjoying the plums in Ueno Park, Tokyo

White Plum Blossoms (2000) by Tatsuya Ishiodori



One Comment

  • The 48th Annual Mt. Tsukuba Ume Festival (February 13 – March 21) in now open! Enjoy Tsukuba’s “Early Spring” with its fragrant, pink, red and white blossoms. Located a quarter of the way up the western slope of Mt. Tsukuba (about 250 meters above the the plain below) with the confines of the Mt. Tsukuba Geopark, is an vast plum garden. February thru March is the most beautiful time of year there, as about 1,000 plum trees (UME) burst into bloom. Above the garden is a “lookout-gazebo” (AZUMAYA) from which you can view the blooming plum trees, the sprawling plain below, Tsukuba Science city, and if you are lucky with the weather, Mt. Fuji and even the Tokyo Sky-tree. Within the plum garden itself you can enjoy the contrast between the blossoming tress and the moss covered rock formations distinctive to Mt. Tsukuba.
    There is a shuttle-bus that leaves from Tsukuba Center and takes about 40 minutes to reach the garden (get off at the Tsukubasan Jinja stop and form there it is a five-minute walk). It costs 740 yen each way.
    There are all kinds of local products available for sale there (including UME SHU, plum wine!) and the nearby restaurant and shop will be offering a variety of special UME based products.
    On March 7, there is going to be a sake event, featuring rice wine from 5 different local breweries.
    There are also a couple of hot-spring hotels nearby at which you can take a “day- bath” or stay overnight!

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