While weather forecasters in most countries concern themselves with cold fronts and warm fronts, the cherry blossom front (桜前線, sakura zensen) is of utmost importance in Japan. As Ooedo Living recently pointed out in a recent article, cherry blossoms, or sakura, are not only a symbol of spring, but also a symbol of Japan itself.
However, if you are coming to Japan prior to most of the predicted dates in April, don’t despair. From the middle of February to the middle of March, there are many plum blossom festivals and viewing locations all over Japan. While the weather may not be as warm as the season for cherry blossoms, plum blossom viewing can be just as enjoyable. In fact, I would say that it is more enjoyable because there are less crowds and prices aren’t as high.
In my many years of living here, I have learned that most people can’t tell the difference between the plum (ume) blossoms and the sakura. I have seen tour guides point to two different coloured blossoms and mistakenly say one was ume and the other was sakura, even though the trees were both ume and their signs indicated as much. With over 200 types of sakura trees and a similar number of ume trees, this isn’t so uncommon. Since they are both part of the same family of trees, their blossoms look quite similar.
Though the blossoms look similar, ume need less heat and less sun to bloom, making them the true heralds of spring. Most cities are prepared with entire sections of their parks devoted to the early blooming ume. This means that you can find those picture perfect iconic Japanese scenes without having to wait until April when the crowds are at their peak.
Until the middle of March, there are many places you can go to see ume blossoms, but many of the larger groves and festival places charge a fee. While the fee is rarely over 500 yen, there are several places you can go for free. As any Osakan will tell you, life is all about getting the best deal. Free admission with the best views is a pretty good deal.
Osaka Castle Park
There are over a thousand ume trees of various varieties in Osaka Castle Park’s plum grove, making it a definite stop for anyone looking for ume blossoms. With the castle looming above the colourful trees, you will have many great photo opportunities. Access to the grove and the rest of the park is free, so you can experience history and culture in one trip. I remember my first visit to Osaka Castle was during the plum viewing time. I wandered around the grove with my friends and had a fun time looking at all the many types of blossoms. We also made our way around the castle and opted to go inside the main tower, which is now a modern museum. While the museum may only appeal to some people, the views from the top of the museum were spectacular and really rounded out the day.
Admission: Free (The main tower with the museum costs 600 yen)
Dates: Middle of February to Early March
Station: Morinomiya Station (JR and Subway)
In Higashiosaka, Hiraoka Park is a great place see ume blossoms. The park has a large grove of various types of ume trees, though not as many as Osaka Castle. While it is out of the way from the main hustle and bustle of Osaka, that also adds to its attractiveness. Since the park is at the foot of the sacred Mt. Ikoma, a mountain with its own interesting history, there are many shrines and temples that can be found around the park. There are many hiking trails and even a waterfall.
Dates: Middle of January to Middle of March (Not Specific)
Station: Hiraoka Station (Kintetsu)
Website: www.osaka-park.or.jp/nanbu/hiraoka/main.html [Japanese]
Even if you don’t understand Japanese, the park has an active twitter account where they post pictures depicting the status of the trees and the various other sights around the park. You can follow them at @hiraoka_park.