The plum blossom – or ume - seems quite sober in comparison to its more famous cherry blossom cousin. Yet during the Nara Period, the word ‘flower’ most often referred to the plum. Renown for their beautiful fragrance, plum blossoms are characterised by the leisurely pace at which their flowers bloom and petals fall. Tokyo’s plum blossoms approach their full glory at the beginning of February, delivering the fragrance of an early spring. Join Time Out Tokyo’s investigation in to all things ume, a cornucopia for your sensory pleasure.
Yushima Tenjin Shrine ‘53rd Ume Festival’
Yushima Tenjin is dedicated to Sugawara no Michizane, a plum blossom aficionado and historical figure deified as a Shinto god of scholarship. Renown since Edo times as a prime plum blossom possie, the shrine precinct boasts approximately 300 mostly white plum blossom trees, averaging full bloom mid-February to early March. Festival highlights include performances of Yushima Shiraumejin taiko drumming, a mikoshi portable shrine parade, the nodate open-air tea ceremony (open to participants at 300yen) and kodan and rakugo comic storytelling. No Japanese festival is complete without a chance to indulge in some retail therapy: special commemorative goods on offer include the ‘Ume Matsuri Kinen Ema’ or votive wooden tablet (1,000yen) and ‘the Ume Handkerchief’ (in three colours, 500yen a pop).
Date: Until Mon Mar 8
Address: 3-30-1 Yushima, Bunkyo, Tokyo
Telephone: (03)3836 0753
Tsuruse ‘Musubi Ume’
Located right next to Yushima Tenjin gate, Tsuruse is a long-established store specialising in wagashi or Japanese-style sweets. Most famous for the seasonal ‘Musubi Ume’, this okowa-type sweet consists of steamed glutinous mochi rice dotted with soybeans, crowned with a Kishu umeboshi (pickled plum). The sweet is named after an old tree – a rare white plum, its trunk split into male and female limbs entwined at the ends – which stood in Yushima Tenshin’s grounds for over 190 years. Immensely popular, Musubi Ume sell out on busy days but Tsuruse takes orders by phone.
Where: 3-35-7 Yushima, Bunkyo, Tokyo
Telephone: (03)3833 8516
Hanegi Park ‘33rd Setagaya Ume Festival’
The ‘Setagaya Ume Festival’ in Hanegi Park offers a perfect opportunity for those who’d like to spread out a picnic blanket, eat a bento and relax while gazing at over 650 plum blossom trees incorporating 60 red and white varietals. Just west of Umegaoka Station on the Odakyu line, the park is located on a slight hill. The festival programme is bursting with activities such as a matcha green tea service, koto performances, haiku classes, photography sessions, amazake drinks and outdoor tea ceremonies. Gourmands wanting to indulge in all things ume can sample local produce such as homemade daifuku rice cakes, jam, juice and ‘Hanegi Ume Pies.’ Peak viewing time begins early February.
Date: Until Sun Feb 28
Address: 4-38-52 Daita, Setagaya, Tokyo
Telephone: Setagaya Call (03)5432 3333
Kameya Ume Daifuku
Kameya is a small wagashi shop located close to Kyodo Station on the Odakyu line. While the store’s shofuku monaka (beckoning cat sweet) is much sought-after, the ume daifuku sold at Hanegi Park this time of year ranks number one, with stocks selling out on a daily basis. A sour-sweet rice cake made from daifuku mochi wrapped around a white bean paste and green ume filling, ume daifuku sell for the duration of the ‘Setagaya Ume Festival’.
Address: 3-12-2 Miyasaka, Setagaya, Tokyo
Telephone: (03)3429 0208
Open: 10am-8pm, closed Wed
Sumida Park ‘6th Asakusa - Sumida Park Ume Festival’
Straddling both sides of the Sumida River, Sumida Park extends to Asakusa on the right bank and Mukojima on the left. Perhaps better known as a cherry blossom-viewing spot, Sumida Park also features a 150 tree plum garden and offers a seasonal walking tour. In addition to the fully bloomed red and white blossoms, outdoor tea ceremonies, koto performances and the work-in-progress ‘Tokyo Sky Tree’ broadcasting tower all compete for your viewing pleasure.
Date: Sat Feb 20–Sun Feb 21
Address: 1, 2, 5 Mukojima, Sumida, Tokyo
Telephone: Parks and green areas department (03)5246 1321
Ume Dutch Coffee at Angelus
Angelus is a comfortable European-style cafe situated on Asakusa’s Orange Street. Perfect for an après-Asakusa stroll, be sure to check out the house specialty ‘Ume Dutch Coffee,’ an iced coffee spiked with mesh liqueur (fruit included). Ume-flavoured iced tea is also available.
Address: 1-17-6 Asakusa, Taito, Tokyo
Telephone: (03)3841 9761
Open: Tues–Sun, 10am – 9.30pm
Baikatei Sanshoku (Three Colour) Ume Monaka
Asakusabashi’s Baikatei is a wagashi store famous since mid-Meiji times for adhering to traditional hand-made methods. The store’s ‘Ume Monaka’ not only recreates the plump, full shape of the plum blossom itself, it also comes in three varieties: ‘koubai (red plum blossom), ‘shiraume’ (white plum blossom) and ‘tasogare no ume’ (twilight plum blossom), each containing particular bean pastes ranging in colour and texture: chidori-an, koshi-an and ogura-an.
Address: 1-2-2 Yanagibashi, Taito, Tokyo
Telephone: (03)3851 8061
Open: Mon–Sat 8:30am–6pm (5pm Sat), closed Sun and Nat. holidays
Koishikawa Korakuen Garden
Koishikawa Korakuen welcomes spring with an ume festival in Komon-sama grove
Koishikawa Korakuen garden is associated with the Edo period daimyo Mito Mitsukuni; its grounds contain a plum blossom grove of about 120 red and white plum trees. The festival offers free, guided garden tours at 11am and 2pm (60 minutes, park admission must be paid separately) on a daily basis. Special events and visitors are scheduled for Sat Feb 13 with the Mito Ume Ambassadors (women in charge of promoting tourism for Mito city), and Komon-sama (a popular fictionalised character from Mitsukuni) both making an appearance. Edo-Daikagura, erhu and biwa performances round up festival programming.
Date: Until Sun 28 Feb
Website: teien.tokyo-park.or.jp/event/090113_koi.html (See details & map)
Early Spring at Rikugien Enjoy a Taste of Japan
Along with Koishikawa Korakuen, Rikugien is one of Tokyo’s most noted traditional Japanese landscape gardens, and was created between 1695 and 1702 by Edo-period daimyo Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu. Taking inspiration from the six elements of traditional waka poetry, this garden incorporates a variety trees for mixed foliage colours, a pond and a hill from which to enjoy the view. Scheduled to coincide when the blossoms reach their peak, garden management has programmed seasonal events celebrating Japanese cultural sensibilities.
When: Until Sun Feb 21
Mukojima Hyakka-en Garden Ume Festival
Opened in the Edo period by a retired antiques dealer, Mukojima Hyakka-en still attracts plum blossom fans from near and afar to its annual Ume festival. During weekends festival volunteer guides give free, half-hour tours at 11am and 2pm (garden entry fee not included). It’s also possible to escape to bygone times and enjoy Edo culture through quaint activities such as traditional tosenkyo games, Edo daidogei street performers and shinnai joruri narrative singing.
Date: Until Sun Mar 7
Address: 3-18-3 Higashi-Mukojima, Sumida, Tokyo
Telephone: (03)3611 8705
Admission: General entry and Junior High Students 150yen, Seniors 70yen (free for Elementary School Students and Junior High School students living or studying in the Tokyo Metropolitan area)
Kameido Tenjin Shrine Ume Festival
Kameido is otherwise known as the ‘Shitamachi no Tenjin-sama’ – Tokyo’s downtown or old-school Tenjin shrine. Famous for its arched drum bridge, the grounds are constantly abloom with flowers, also earning it the moniker ‘Hana no Tenjin-sama’ or Tenjin shrine of flowers. In spectacular bloom at the moment are the precinct’s 200-plus red and white plum trees: the ‘Goken no Ume’ tree – on which both red and white blossoms bloom – is a standout. For those wanting an extra dose of history with their flower-viewing experience, be sure to visit on February 25 when a natane goku ceremony is held on the anniversary of Michizane’s death.
Date: Until Sun Feb 28
Address: 3-6-1 Kameido, Koto, Tokyo
Telephone: (03)3681 0010
Ushi-Tenjin Kitano Jinja Shrine
28th Ushi-Tenjin Red Plum Blossom Festival
The ‘Ushi-Tenjin Red Plum Blossom Festival’ caters for all sorts. Eating and drinking are very much part of the festival experience, with amazake and shogayu ginger tea available every Saturday. Sundays are even more of a gourmand affair: Ume sweets (the ‘Ushi-Tenjin Kitano no Koubai’), ume fruits (limited to 100 a day), ‘Kitano no Fukukoubai’ ume liqueur (made from the shrine’s ume fruit and matured up to ten years) and amazake are all on offer. On the very last Sunday of the festival, the first 200 visitors can even take a little piece of the festival home via a small plum tree branch (one per person). Original limited edition ‘tanzaku ema’ wooden tablets, red plum blossom omamori charms for good health and koubai charms for household safety are also available at specially designated stands for those who miss out.
Dates: Until Thurs Feb 25
Address: 1-5-2 Kasuga, Bunkyo, Tokyo
Telephone: (03)3812 1862
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Translated by Virginia Okno