You are most likely familiar with the famous Japanese cherry blossoms. You may have even attended one of the numerous cherry blossom festivals held each year in Japan or anywhere else in the world. Or you may have thrilled to the sound of “Sakura Sakura”, a traditional Japanese folk song which celebrates this colorful flower.
Before the cherry blossoms emerge, however, another beautiful tree graces the islands of Japan, which rivals – believe it or not – the beauty of the cherry tree. It´s the plum tree with its dark brown wood and its pink flower buds, sometimes in contrast with white snow, which paints a stunning portrait of nature.
Called “Ume” in Japanese, plum trees are the first ones to open their blossoms in spring and have hence come to be known as the heralds of spring. They have been adored by the Japanese people for centuries and enjoy a powerful symbolism in the country, representing the thawing of winter and the changing of seasons. The first picnic of the year is traditionally held beneath the plum trees.
In most areas of Japan, including Mie Prefecture, they typically flower in February and March, sometimes while still covered in frost. Unfazed by cold, they symbolize good health, vitality, strong endurance, hope and renewal. Just as these colorful blossoms must endure much hardship to prosper, we must develop inner strength and admirable qualities.
Additionally, as spring kicks off the farming season, plum blossoms also embody prosperity and a bountiful harvest. Associated with all these virtues and good fortune, plum blossoms, plums, and the trees themselves are thought to ward off evil. So, it was once common to plant them in the northeast corner of gardens, around shrines, temples, or other spiritual areas as this direction was considered most susceptible to misfortune.
In addition, plum trees were thought to ward off danger, and it was once common to plant them in the northeast corner of gardens, that direction being considered most susceptible to misfortune. Besides, plum trees have played an important role in Japanese history and are a medley of cultural values.
History of this charming bloom
“Ume”, like many things in Japan, were introduced from China. There, plum blossoms have been cultivated for over 1,500 years. During the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD), the golden age of ancient Chinese civilization, plum trees saw a rise in popularity in China.
At the end of the Tang Dynasty, China began trading with Japan, ushering in the Nara period. Nara was connected to the maritime Silk Roads via Osaka. This key location placed Nara as a hub at the heart of various cultural exchanges, where Japanese, Chinese, and Korean influences interacted. It was then when Chinese culture became ingrained in Japan: Chinese calligraphy, Confucian philosophy, and Chinese Buddhism — all these concepts became part of the foundation of Japanese society. Chinese fashion, inventions, art & craft, were all the rage in the Nara period. Among this culture exchange, “Ume” trees were introduced to Japan as well.
Both Aristocrats and priests were enchanted by these gorgeous trees, which were considered ornamental trees and used as decorations for both the gardens of the nobility and for public spaces.
In the Heian period (794 AD – 1185), however, when Chinese influences were in decline and the national Japanese culture matured, cherry blossoms became more popular. And yet, “Ume” never lost its significance for the Japanese people.
Hanami – flower viewing parties in Japan!
Historians believe that the plum blossom was the original flower that started off the tradition of “Hanami” in Japan. Like the highly popular cherry blossom viewing, plum festivals (Ume matsuri) are also celebrated in public parks, shrines, and temples across the country and are the perfect alternative for those who want to avoid the crowds. (especially in Kyoto and Tokyo area)
Our favorite Plum Blossom Spots in Mie
Suzuka Forest Garden (Suzuka no Mori Teien) in Suzuka City is one of the best places to enjoy plum blossoms in all of Japan. The garden is famous for the 200 beautiful weeping plum trees that attract visitors from all around the world. Plum blossoms in various colors flourish beautifully in the garden, creating a picturesque scenery. Some of these magnificent trees are estimated to be over 100 years old and believed to be the oldest in all of Japan. During the blooming season the trees are illuminated at night, creating a magical ambiance. A plum festival is held every year from mid-February to the end of March.
The Inabe Plum Grove, located in Inabe City’s Agriculture Park, is another excellent spot to view plum blossoms. You will be impressed by over 100 kinds of approximately 4,500 plum trees, which have been on the base of the Suzuka mountain range.
Stroll in the grove and enjoy the magnificent view of these colorful plum blossoms, the mountain serves as a stunning backdrop.
Plum trees, however, can be found anywhere in Mie. So, be sure to keep an eye out for these cheerful flowers next time you are traveling to Mie in February and March, despite the chill in the air. You will be enchanted by these colorful and powerful trees.