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Plums: The Beginning of Spring in Japan

Japan is fortunate to enjoy the delicate soft pink color of cherry blossoms at the beginning of spring, but another flowering tree begins the progression toward spring. With their blossoms varying between shades of white and dark pink, plum trees indicate the subtle change of season. Between mid-February and early March, people flock to see small plum flowers opening.

Located a little more than two hours by train from metropolitan Tokyo, Kairaku-en Park in Mito City, Ibaraki, is known for its upscale plum garden. The park was developed in 1842 by the local lord and is highly acclaimed as one of Japan’s three greatest parks. Kairaku-en is home to around 3,000 plum trees of about 100 different varieties, all presented in an elegant Japanese garden style. The blossoms peak between late-February and mid-March, and Mito City holds an Ume Matsuri (Plum Festival) every year, with light installations all around the park at night.

While Kairaku-en offers a well-designed garden view, three vast bairin (plum forests) in Gunma Prefecture present magnificent views of dynamic landscapes. There are 100,000 plum trees planted in the Misato Bairin on the hillside of Mt. Haruna, whose elevation stretches from 460 to 1,280 feet high. When the trees are in full bloom, they create a mist of white blossoms on the hill. Going west from Misato Bairin, there is Haruna Bairin, which has 120,000 plum trees. It offers a panoramic view of white blossoms with beautiful Mt. Haruna in the background. Akima Bairin is another site with 35,000 plum trees located further up the mountain, where the upper stream of the Akima River flows. These trees have both pink and white blossoms. During the blooming period, from February to March, all the bairins host various events and walking tours.

Both Ibaraki and Gunma Prefectures are in eastern Japan, but the country’s most famous region for plum farms is in the West: Wakayama Prefecture, where Minabe Bairin stretches over 909 acres of land. There are close to 80,000 plum trees in Minabe, and most of them grow plums for consumption. Minabe’s plum orchards are on very sunny, rolling hillsides, and this is the epicenter of Japan’s plum industry, where the best umeboshi (pickled plums) come from. During plum season, Minabe Bairin––the largest plum orchard in the country––attracts 50,000 visitors on average.

There are other plum blossom sites worth a visit, but you can also see plum trees in someone’s front yard. As you admire the blossoms, enjoy this sign of spring in the sunlight that grows brighter day by day.

tr0215_1Kairaku-en in Ibaraki Prefecture is the second-largest public park in the world after Central Park in New York City.

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Cherry blossoms have oblong petals with split tips, but ume plum blossoms have lovely, round petals.  Also, plum blossoms have short stems and look as if each flower grows directly out of the branch unlike cherry blossoms whose stems are long.

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© Takasaki City, Gunma

The top three plum forests in Gunma are Misato, Haruna, and Akima Bairins, which are all beautifully shaded on the hills, mountainsides, and forests. You can appreciate a superb view of Misato Bairin and Mt. Haruna, considered a holy mountain by the locals, at the same time. The grand mass of the blossoms creates light pink clouds that appear to be floating at the bottom of the mountain.
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© Takasaki City, Gunma

Gunma Prefecture is the largest plum-producing region in eastern Japan. Umeboshi (pickled plums) are, not surprisingly, one of the region’s top-selling products and make a perfect souvenir.