March 1, 2008

Ume Plum Viewing in Tokyo

Above the stairway at the Ume Plum temple, signage guides visitors as the Ume plums which are over 250 years old, bloom behind on this cold, February day in Tokyo.

Ume (Plum Blossoms) at Tokyo's Yushima Tenjin shrine
It's an overcast, cold day in Tokyo as we wait for the JR train to take us to Yushima Tenjun shrine to view my favorite floral and cultural event in the great city of Tokyo, the blooming and celebration of the Ume plums.

The idea of viewing plum blossoms, or Ume, has a long and rich history in Japan. Don't confuse these with Sakura, the cherry blossoms though, the Plum, or sometimes referred to as Apricot, are actually varieties of Prunus mume, hardy in the US to about USDA Zone 7, and sometimes zone 6, if protected. In Tokyo's mild climate which is closer to zone 9,, the few winter snows are gone by early February, and that is when the Ume plums begin their long blooming period which sometimes last a month or so.

Festivals surround the blooming of many plants in Japan, but Ume starts the seasons, and on a cold, sunny Saturday, I was able to recreate my visit three years ago, where i attended the Tokyo Grand Prix orchid show, the snow peony's in Ueno park and the blooming of the Ume plums. My only day off during my work trip, gave me full access to these areas, so I will share them with you now.

Viewing plums dates back to the Nara Period (710 - 794), J when the Japanese started to organize :viewings, at temples, around Ume (梅, Japanese Plum Blossoms, since they were the first blossom that signaled that Spring was near. Around the Heian Period, however, Sakura (the showier cherry Blossom) viewing parties became more popular among the elite. Ume remain more restrained, however, and they still seem to draw the crowds to a number of shrines around the country, where at least a dozen Ume festivals are occurring this spring, complete with street food, music, Ume wine, Ume cookies, Ume jewelry, Ume bonsai, and Ume trinkets. even the potatoes being grilled are cut into the shape of the Ume.

Ume wine for sale

Ume Blossoms in Bloom

Crowds come traditionally with students, who write prayer plaques in hopes that they pass their entrance exams.

Wishes are tied in the shrine

On weekends, traditional dance and music accompany the viewing. Very much like a US church even, here, the generations cross as young children run around and eat the special treats, and high school kids sing on stage, as their grand mothers don traditional dress and the fathers take hundreds of photos.

Bonsai versions of the larger, ancient Ume.

A stunning white Ume bonsai - perfection.

The best bonsai are displayed in the Shinto shrine


  1. Congratulations for your blog!
    It is very interesting Friendly regards from Spain

  2. I love these shrubs/trees. I have been looking for a prunus tomentosa (sp.).....Nanking Cherry, as they are hardy where I live. They are really pretty spring bloomers. It's kind of neat that they have celebrations revolving around it. The bonsai's are something else. Very pretty.

  3. Thanks for this tour-very lovely and well composed pics-unusual scenes and plants. You really gave a feel of the whole scene and energy.

  4. Thanks for this great tour. Lovely, well composed pics and scenes and unusual plants-really gives a feel for the culture and atmosphere.

  5. i love the flowering bonsai!

    i assume from your posts that you are visiting japan right now. how wonderful!

  6. Your pics and reports from Japan are wonderful. I hope you had a chance to get a good noseful of the Prunus mume blossoms before you left. I think it's one of the most ravishing fragrances in the world, and depending on cultivar can be strong and sweet.

  7. charvy chau8:52 AM

    wowzer they are so pretty i love flower. My teacher talks about you alot! the are gorgeous picture! you make me want to visit japan one day even more i love their culture. Thankyou!

  8. Is there someone who could send me ume scionwood from Japan? It´s said it´s not allowed to do so, but one friend tried it and there was no problem. Scions have "caught" and I love them. But it´s just one cultivar. I need more :-)

  9. Hi Tom, good question, I will have to look into this. I did find a few cultivars available at forest Farm.com. but you are correct, they are hard to find.

  10. Yes, I had few emails with Ray from the Forest Farms, he even sent me some scions. I think I cannot disturb him so much :-) I need some real Japan cultivars :-D Next year I goona make a trip to Japan with my japanese friend, but it will be in summer - which is bad time to take scions...
    I would like to have some seeds too. Seedlings can vary, they can be different than the parent plant - with some good luck they can be even better than the parent :-D I like genetical concerts among seedlings. I know it from my momiji (Acer palmatum) seedlings.


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