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Plum blossoms herald spring in chilly Japan
For many, the cherry blossom is the quintessential Japanese flower, its fragile pink petals symbolising the transience of life and its advent in spring an excuse for “hanami” picnics beneath the boughs, where sake and song flow in equal measure.
But some, myself included, confess to a deeper affection for the more modest plum, whose five-petalled white and pink flowers bloom in February, heralding spring despite a winter chill.
This coincides with the first month of the lunar calendar, and the flowers are included as a symbol of new beginnings in New Year decorations, along with the pine for longevity and bamboo for strength and flexibility.
Imported from China more than 1,000 years ago, the fragrant “ume”, also known as Japanese apricot, was a favourite in the poetry of royal courtiers in the Eighth Century.
Unseasonably warm weather last weekend meant plum trees burst into bloom, wafting sweet scent through Tokyo parks and residential streets.
For those willing to venture further afield, one newspaper listed the best spots for viewing the blossoms in all their variety, from palest white to nearly crimson.
Japanese fans of plums often say the flowers bring a sense of solace when spring seems far off. “Plum trees blossom in the cold of winter and we feel our hearts are comforted,” a junior priest at Yushima Tenjin shrine in Tokyo, dedicated to a Ninth Century scholar who loved plum blossoms, told me one chilly February a while back.
Such solace could be especially welcome this year, as Japan’s economy slides deeper into what may be a long recessionary winter of discontent.
PHOTO CREDIT: REUTERS/Kim Kyung-hoon