If you just can’t wait for sakura season to start in Japan, when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom, why not go in search of the equally lovely and early-flowering plum blossom groves?
Cherry blossom has become synonymous with Japan in springtime. The pretty petals sit suspended over parks and historic attractions and fall to the floor in a delightful pale pink carpet, creating picturesque views all over the country. It’s celebrated with everything from viewing parties and festivals to limited edition Starbucks sakura lattes (which are delicious by the way).
However, often overshadowed by the splendour of sakura, plum blossom season, known as ume in Japanese, begins a bit earlier. It is one of the first signs of spring, flowering from around February to March, depending on the region. So it’s not surprising that it has come to symbolise qualities such as ‘hope’ and ‘renewal’ as spring starts to burst out and break through the chilly winter.
The delicate ume flowers, which range from white through to dark pink, decorate some of Japan’s famous landmarks. You’ll be able to avoid the huge crowds that flock towards the popular cherry blossom viewing spots for a more tranquil way to see the sights against a backdrop of beautiful plum blossoms. Many of these sites also illuminate the blossom trees after dark if you want to view the ume with atmospheric lighting for an even more enchanting experience.
Here are some of the best city spots in Japan to see the plum blossom trees in bloom.
Tokyo is known for its huge cherry blossom viewing festivals, however its parks and temples are also great places to see the plum blossom trees in all their glory, if you time your visit right.
Hanegi Park: Just outside Tokyo by Umegaoka Station, which translates as ‘Plum Hill’, Hanegi Park is home to hundreds of plum trees of all different varieties. The flowering of the plum blossom is celebrated with weekend Setagaya Ume Matsuri festivals when you’ll also be able to sample some plum-flavoured snacks too, including plum cakes.
Koishikawa Korakuen: One of the capital’s oldest gardens, the 17th centuary Koishikawa Korakuen is best known for its weeping cherry tree which stands near the entrance. However, it also includes a grove packed with lots of plum blossom trees. There’s even a plum blossom festival here too, from February to early March, as well as guided plum tours through the gardens.
Well-known for its sakura-filled spaces in spring and koyo spots aflame with red maple leaves in autumn, there’s plenty of ume to be found here too. Many of the historic attractions around Japan’s ancient capital feature tranquil gardens with beautiful plum trees.
Kitano Tenmangu Shrine: One of the most popular places to see the plum blossom in Kyoto, this Shinto shrine is surrounded by around 2,000 plum trees. There’s also a traditional tea ceremony held in the gardens here each year in February, set against the beautiful backdrop of plum blossoms in bloom and hosted by Geisha and Maiko wearing elegant kimono outfits.
Umenomiya Taisha: As well as barrels of sake and lots of cats milling about, this Nara-period shrine also offers delightful garden views. It has a variety of plum blossom trees scattered about its plum grove, which you can find towards the western end of its garden. There’s also a huge pond filled with koi fish and surrounded by plum trees which are reflected off the surface of the water.
The bustling city of Osaka, perched along Honshu’s coastline, offers up its plum blossom trees in both parks and historic temple sites. There are also tea ceremonies and festivals to mark the occasion.
Osaka Castle Park: Take a trip to Osaka Castle Park in February and you’ll find a pretty grove full of over 1,000 plum trees sidled in between the castle’s moats. As well as the castle itself, which was first built in the 16th century, there’s also a shrine, tea house and plenty of cherry blossom trees too which come into bloom a few weeks later.
Domyouji Tenmangu: The gardens around this shrine are peppered with pretty dark pink and white plum blossom trees. There’s an annual plum blossom festival held each year to celebrate the short ume season, with traditional lion dances and an outdoor tea ceremony.
February to early March is the perfect time to visit Japan if you want to start celebrating the springtime blossom season early. Even though the ume viewing hot spots will provide you with beautiful vistas before the sakura season starts to set in, if you can fit both into your trip, then even better!
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