Wagaya no Ume-matsuri
Our Japanese Apricot Festival Experience


Sugawara-no-Michizane loved ume (Japanese apricot) very much, so many ume trees are planted in the Temmangu Shrines throughout Japan, which are dedicated to him. My family and I visited the Dazaifu-temmangu Shrine several times, and we liked to visit it especially in the ume season. The ume tree to the right of the main shrine building, called Tobi-ume, is the most famous of all. According to the legend of Tobi-ume, an ume tree flew from the garden of Michizane’s residence in Kyoto to Dazaifu in one night, following him. The blossoms of Tobi-ume bloom beautifully in early spring.


Umegae-mochi is a rice cake which is made from the dough of rice powder and water, containing mashed anko (sweetened bean paste) and is baked on an iron plate with a curved seal of an ume blossom. Its origin is said to be found in a strong in which a lady, who lived nearby, gave this rice cake with a twig of ume to Michizane who lived a simple life after his exile from the capital.


Many people enjoy ume blossom viewing in Ume Park in Yamada City (the present Kama City), where volunteers planted 1000 ume trees, in the cherry blossom season from the middle of February to the beginning of March. There was Chikuzen Ankokuji Temple near this park, and the grave of Shiranui Kogoro, a great yokozuna (a grand champion) sumo wrestler in the early Meiji period (1868-1912), stood at the entrance of the temple.


I went to the ume festival at the Tsunashiki-temmangu Shrine in Chikujyo Town, Fukuoka Prefecture in February 2003 (Heisei 15th yr). Michizane Sugawara stopped at the beach because of a storm on his way to Dazaifu. The name of this shrine originated from the ropes of fishing nets
which local residents spread on the beach for Michizane to take a rest. About 1000 ume trees are planted in the precincts of the shrine, and an ume festival is held at blooming time every year.


In March of 2005 (Heisei 17th yr), my husband and I went to Shizutani School in Bizen City, Okayama Prefecture with our dogs. It is the oldest school for common people in Japan. It was established by Mitsumasa Ikeda, the feudal lord of the Okayama clan, in the early time of the Edo period (1600-1867). It took 32 years to construct these majestic buildings roofed with tiles of Bizen-yaki pottery. In 1953 (Showa 28th yr), the auditorium was designated as a national treasure. This school is famous for not only red leaves in autumn but also ume, and the ume blossom viewing festival is held there every year.


In August 2006 (Heisei 18th yr), my son visited Kitano-temmangu Shrine in Kyoto with an American teacher. Ume fruits from the shrine yard were being dried in the sun to make ume-boshi (dried and pickled ume fruits).


In February (Heisei 21st yr), I went to Setagaya Ume Festival in Hanegi Park, Setagaya Ward, Tokyo. There were about 670 ume trees in the park, and among them I also saw a pair of red and white ume trees which were separated from the roots of Tobi-ume.


Local storekeepers opened booths of snacks, ume sweets, ume-shu, and so on. The square was crowded with people enjoying ume-blossom viewing, eating, and drinking. There were various performances, a Haiku contest as well as a photography contest.


Yushima-temmangu Shrine (or also known as Yushima-tenjin) is a representative Temmangu Shrine in Tokyo. In 458 (Yuuryakutenno 2nd), this shrine was established by the order of Emperor Yuuryaku. In 1355 (Shohei 10th yr), Sugawara-no-Michizane started to be enshrined. There were wonderful Bonsai of ume at the main shrine and the ume decoration emerged beautifully in the light. Ama-zake (sweet low-alcoholic drink made from fermented rice or sake dregs), beer, and hot sake were sold in the precinct.


Many Ema were hung to pray for success in entrance examinations or accomplishment of learning by candidates for entrance examinations and students on school trips. (Ema is originally a small wooden board with a picture of a horse on it. One writes his prayer or wish and his name and address on the Ema and offers it to a shrine or a temple).


It was a clear and sunny day on February 12th, 2012 when the 55th Yushima-tenjin Ume Festival was held. Many people enjoyed Nodate (an open-air tea ceremony), a belly dancing performance and a parade of Matoi (firefighters’ flags with each group’s mark in the Edo period, 1603-1867).


In the precinct of the Yushima-temmangu Shrine the products from the Tohoku area (the north of Japan) were sold at the charity shops of the reconstruction support for the Great East Japan Earthquake which occurred the previous year. I bought walnut Yubeshi (Japanese sticky rice cake with a citrus flavor), a specialty of Tohoku. I also bought a recovery supporting doll “Mammaru-san” made by the earthquake victims.

2010年(平成22年)2月に夫と2匹の愛犬と一緒に東京都文京区の牛天神の梅祭りに行きました。境内の梅の花が満開でした。 本殿横の紅梅が特にきれいでした。

In February of 2010 (Heisei 22nd), my husband and I went to the Ume Festival at Ushi Tenjin Shrine located in Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo with our dogs. The ume blossoms in the shrine yard were in full bloom. Especially, the red ume blossoms by the main shrine were very beautiful.


In the Kamakura period (around 1185-1333), Minamoto-no-Yoritomo sat on a rock in the shape of a bull and took a rest. Then Sugawara-no-Michizane on a bull appeared in Yoritomo’s dream and told Yoritomo that he would have two auspicious events. In the following year, Michizane’s message came true, so Yoritomo dedicated the rock and established Ushi Tenjin Shrine. It is believed that people’s wishes will come true if they pet the bull-shaped rock which still exists in the shrine yard.


We had ame-yu (a beverage made of starch syrup and hot water with a little ginger juice)
as a treat in the shrine yard. I joined a line for ume-shu made from ume fruit raised in the shrine yard, but unfortunately, the ume-shu ran out just before my turn. Ama-zake, sweets of ume and twigs of ume are sometimes given out.


Kairaku-en in Mito City, Ibaraki Prefecture is a famous garden for beautiful ume trees. Kairaku-en is considered to be one of the three great gardens of Japan. In February 2010 (Heisei 22nd yr), my son visited the Ume Festival of Kairaku-en. He enjoyed the beauty of ume blossoms very much, though it was 4 or 5 days earlier than their best time. He luckily saw beautiful Ume-Musume (the Ume Girls selected as sightseeing ambassadors).


There are also many ume trees in the garden of Kodo-kan which was established by Nariaki Tokugawa as well as Kairaku-en. Kodo-kan is the school of the Mito Clan established at the end of the Edo period, where people of various social positions and ages practiced martial arts and learned many fields of study. In 1868 (Meiji 1st yr), this school was also the battlefield of the fierce internal conflict between the conservatives (Shosei-to) and the reformers (Tengu-to) in the Mito Clan. Nariaki was an ume lover, so he ordered many ume trees to be planted there and he said there were 1000 ume trees in Kodo-kan in his Kanshi (a Chinese style poem) “Kodo-kan ni baika shosu”.


Many designs with a motif of ume, a civic flower of Mito, are seen here and there in Mito City: manhole covers, balusters, fences or fusuma (papered sliding doors). It is fun to look for ume ornaments when we are walking around the city.


Many varieties of sweets made from ume fruits with a sour and unique flavor are sold in Mito City. We can enjoy ume ice cream when we are looking at Semba Lake which used to be an outer moat of Mito Castle.


In 2010 (Heisei 22nd yr), I went to Koishikawa Korakuen Garden in Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo for the ume festival. Tokugawa Yorifusa, the first feudal lord of the Mito Clan, opened this park in 1629 (Kanei 6th yr). His son, Tokugawa Mitsukuni, who is more famously known by his nickname “Mito Komon”, completed it. Ume blossoms were already slightly passed their best. There were shops selling ume products.


In February 2013, I visited Hodogaya Park in Yokohama City, Kanagawa Prefecture for an ume festival. Only a few people were in the park because it was a weekday, though on the weekend several events were held such as Saru-mawashi (a monkey show), a dance show and performances of Japanese drums and a brass band. This park is famous for not only ume blossoms but also cherry blossoms and autumn tints. Some Kanagawa Prefectural sport facilities are in a 34 ha-extensive site: a baseball ground, a rugby ground, a soccer field, tennis courts, a swimming pool and an athletic ground.


As for Kamakura city, I like walking along the approach to the Tsuruoka-hachimangu-shrine and Komachi Street, which are crowded with tourists, but I prefer quiet side roads. Joeiji Temple facing such a road is known as Botamochi-dera Temple. This came from a certain anecdote: one Buddhist nun who was associated with this temple offered goma-botamochi (a rice sweet dumpling covered with sesames) to Nichiren when he was about to be executed, and later he escaped the execution. I visited this temple in February 2013 and saw a Japanese bush warbler hopping on the branches of a white ume. White ume blossoms were as beautiful as their name in the language of flowers (floriography) “grace” suggests.


I made Ume-boshi (ume fruit pickles with peculiar sour flavor) and ume-shu (ume liquor) several times during the ume season. Ume-shu reminds me of the good old days: my mother made ume-shu every year because my father loved her ume-shu.


Various delicious ume-flavored sweets and snacks are sold. They are often seen in the supermarkets especially in an ume blossom season, in February and March.


(Back to “The Japanese Apricot Festival”.)


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