It’s true, cherry blossoms do tend to overshadow Japan’s other stunning flowers. However, plum blossoms in Tokyo—which typically bloom in late February to signal the start of spring—should not be overlooked.
Plum blossoms vs. cherry blossoms: How to tell the difference
Plum (ume) blossoms’ reddish, pink, or white flowers remain in bloom until early March, although there’s an occasional overlap between late-blooming plum blossoms and early-blooming cherry blossoms, which can lead to some confusion. When in doubt, just remember that cherry blossoms have split-ended petals, whereas plum blossoms don’t. Also, several cherry blossoms bloom from a single bud and are attached to the branch by a long stem, while there’s only one plum blossom per bud.
Where to see plum blossoms in Tokyo
Before the Nara period (10-794 AD), hanami (flower-viewing) referred to plum blossoms, not cherry blossoms, and they still haven’t been forgotten to this day, if the plum blossom festivals (ume matsuri) around the country are any indication. Here are some good places to see plum blossoms in Tokyo.
Normally, while most of these places’ ume matsuri (plum festival) start in early February, the best time to actually visit is late February, as most of the flowers will hardly be blooming at the start of the month. (But keep your eyes peeled, plum blossoms have been know to bloom early, like in 2017). In some parks, such as Koishikawa Korakuen and Hanegi Park, the plum blossoms already started blooming in late January—much earlier than the official dates for the plum blossom festivals.
1. Yushima Tenjin
This shrine is devoted to Sugawara no Michizane, a scholar who became deified as a tenjin (god of learning). Since the University of Tokyo is a short walk away, it’s unsurprising that many prospective students come here to pray for luck in the entrance exams. Although the shrine is small, it’s known for its beautiful plum blossoms, and, annually, it commemorates the plum blossoms with a month-long festival filled with performances, a mikoshi (portable shrine) procession, and food stalls. The tree-lined staircase going down past the shrine and out into the streets is a scenic sight.
Ume Matsuri 2018 dates: February 8-March 8
Address: 3-30-1 Yushima, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo
Access: 2-minute walk from Yushima Station (Chiyoda Line), 10-minute walk from Hongo-Sanchome Station (Marunouchi or Toei Oedo Line)
Website: http://www.yushimatenjin.or.jp/pc/ume/index.htm (in Japanese)
2. Hanegi Park
The park’s location, Umegaoka (which means “plum blossom hill”) in Setagaya ward should already tip you off about what to expect here! Hanegi Park, while also small, has about 650 plum trees, making it a fitting location for Setagaya’s ume matsuri. During this festival, on weekends, vendors will sell plum-themed food such as madeleines and jelly, and there will also be some performances.
Setagaya Ume Matsuri 2018 dates: February 10-March 4
Address: 4-38-52 Daita, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo
Access: 5-minute walk from Umegaoka Station (Odakyu Line)
3. Koishikawa Korakuen
A quiet garden near Tokyo Dome, Koishikawa Korakuen is beautiful all year round. While it has dates marked as plum blossom season, it’s not quite a festival in that there are no booths or special performances; it’s all about enjoying the fragrant blossoms in tranquility. The park only has a few plum trees, but you can enjoy the rest of the scenery, and not just the plums.
2018 plum blossom dates: late January-early March
Admission: 300 yen
Address: 1-6-6 Koraku, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo 112-0004
Access: 8-minute walk from Iidabashi or Korakuen Station
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4. Kameido Tenjin
Another place with Tenjin in its name? Here’s a hint: Tenjin shrines tend to be associated with plum blossoms. Kameido Tenjin is known as the shitamachi (downtown) Tenjin shrine, and it has over 300 plum trees. Amidst those is a famous tree—”Goken no Ume”—which has both red and white blossoms. Its arched bridge is also a sight to behold.
Ume Matsuri 2018 dates: February 4-March 3
Address: 3-6-1 Kameido, Koto-ku, Tokyo
Access: 15-minute walk from Kameido Station (Sobu Line)
Website: http://kameidotenjin.or.jp/ (Japanese)
5. Ushi-Tenjin Kitano Shrine
This shrine is known for its red plum blossoms (koubai) and shidare ume, or pink weeping plum blossoms. For the duration of the festival, you can try amazake (a fermented rice drink, which is actually non-alcoholic) and ginger tea on Saturdays. On Sundays, they offer plum sweets, dried plums, and Kitano no Fukukoubai, a kind of umeshu (plum wine) that’s been fermented for 5-10 years. On Feb 18th, the first 200 visitors can take home a small plum branch, and visitors will be treated to amazake and tonjiru (miso soup with pork)—as long as there’s enough to last, of course.
If you’re into collecting goshuin (temple/shrine stamps/seals), Ushi-Tenjin Kitano will have commemorative ume matsuri stamps on the 3rd, 4th, 10th, 11th, 12th, 17th, 24th and 25th. Also, throughout the duration of the festival, anyone who avails of omamori (charms), goshuin, or ofuda (amulets) will be presented with some umeshu (plum wine).
Koubai Matsuri 2018 dates: February 1-25
Address: 1-5-2 Kasuga, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo
Access: 10-minute walk from Korakuen (Marunouchi or Nanboku Line) or Kasuga Station (Toei Mita Line)
Website: http://www.ushitenjin.jp/ (Japanese)
6. Shiba Park
Here’s where you can enjoy the plum blossoms with Tokyo Tower in the background. With only 70 trees, Shiba Park’s so-called plum forest may be modest compared to the other places listed here, but it’s nonetheless a sight to behold. The trees, which used to be called the “Silver World” in the Edo period, were transported here from present-day Shinjuku in the Meiji era.
At Shiba Park’s 2-day festival, visitors can enjoy a koto performance, and up to 350 guests a day can join an open-air tea ceremony for 350 yen.
Ume Matsuri 2018 dates: Festival dates to be confirmed for 2018
Address: Shibakoen, Minato-ku, Tokyo
Access: 1-minute walk from Shiba-Koen Station (Toei Mita Line) / 6-minute walk from Akabanebashi (Oedo Line)
Website: http://shiba-italia-park.jp/shiba/ (Japanese)
And if you want to go somewhere slightly past Tokyo for a day trip…
7. Odawara Ume Matsuri
Odawara is in Kanagawa Prefecture, but is only an hour and a half away by train from Tokyo. The festival mainly takes place at and around Soga Bessho Bairin, a grove of about 35,000 plum trees that offers a clear view of Mt. Fuji. There are different kinds of plum blossoms here—red, white, pink, weeping; you name it! Make sure to check out the festivities as well—there’s a yabusame (horseback archery) demonstration on Feb. 11 at 1pm (or postponed to the 18th in case of bad weather), plus lion dances, a calligraphy performance, concerts and more. Be sure to check the event schedule (in Japanese).
2018 dates: February 3-March 4
Access: 15-minute walk from Shimosoga Station (Gotemba Line)
Website: http://soganosato.com/index.html (Japanese)
This post is updated annually. Last update: Feb 6, 2018
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