Saturday, November 13, 2010

Ume Blossoms... The Sweet and the Sour of Hiraoka Kouen

8th May, 2008 - After the wonderful experience of the cherry blossoms, we had seen on the local Sapporo news that the Ume trees (I'll explain about ume later) were in full bloom at Hiraoka Kouen, to the south-east of Sapporo. Otousan had very graciously volunteered to drive us there the following day (the 8th)... and we were expecting big things.

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Now I don't want to be overly critical of the Sapporo television channels, but the report that they showed the night before, and what we found were slightly at odds. Instead of being at full bloom, we found the ume to be past their peak. But in true stoic Japanese style, we made the most of what was there. Hiraoka Kouen (park) is a free city-administered park, with some 1200 ume trees. Now ume is known by a few names... Japanese plum, Japanese vine tree, Japanese apricot... well according to my research (it's botanical name is prunus mume) it's actually closer to an apricot-variety that had come to Japan from China a long time ago... And depending on the variety, will either blossom as a pink or a pale green/white flower.

Now the Japanese love to make the most of their attractions. If you're going to see the ume blossom, why don't you eat the ume blossom. I guess it's very efficient. Anyhow, they make ume flavoured soft-cream (ice-cream) for all to enjoy. In fact, today was L-kun's first icecream experience...
And no... I wasn't eating for two... I was holding T-chan's.

Actually, ume is a not uncommon flavouring in Japanese dishes (especially at this time of year). If you haven't tried umeboshi, then I would definitely recommend it. With a warning. I love sour, explode in your mouth surprises. Umeboshi is a sort of pickled ume fruit, which is extremely sour and salty, and might possibly constitute a violation of human rites if forced to eat it. It's sometimes served with meals, or with rice balls (onigiri), and is noticeable. It is very Japanese (despite it's Chinese roots), and something you should seek out. Even if it's ume-flavoured candies... which are good if you need to wake up in a hurry.

The flowers were definitely beautiful on the trees that were still well and truly in bloom.

And the variety between colours was also unexpected.

But I have to say that I felt a little cheated that we'd driven all this way based on the news story which had to have been filmed at least a couple of days earlier. Despite the disappointment, it was an enjoyable excursion, and we all had a good time (especially the now ice-cream obsessed L-kun).

And sometimes, when we expect the grand vistas of blooms and find they're not there - we realise that it's not necessarily the quanity that matters. The blossoms are amazine en masse, but the meaning is deeper. This is Spring. The winter has departed. Life re-emerges from it's cold slumber to re-affirm it's dominance over the landscape.

I'm not sure that L-kun was taking all of this in... but there is something singularly beautiful about a tree in full-bloom. Is it really surprising that someone with less than a year's life experience can see this?

One of the things that we saw that day was a school trip, where all the kids had been decked out in their near-matching outfits and hats. As we watched, there was a definite difference in our perspective. Last trip, we most probably wouldn't have given this school group a second thought. Yet now, when we watched, we saw something of L-kun's future. It might not be in a Japanese school, but you never know. The future seems far less abstract once you have your own children. It's no longer like looking through a cloudy window out at some other's world... this was like looking at our future. That sort of thought makes you sit up and notice.

This sort of moment is an umeboshi for the soul!... still plenty of sweet to offset the sour.


  1. beautiful photos as usual. I wonder if cherry blosson trees would survive in Jamaica? hmmmmm

  2. Thanks... If it makes you feel any more corageous, sakura survive in Adelaide's summer (40-45degC maximums). That doesn't mean you don't have to use a lot of water. However, I'm not sure in more tropical environments.

    I did a check on the internet and see Jamaica has it's Cherry Tree (Muntingia calabura). Not quite the same thing as growing the Japanese one... in fact it looks pretty unlikely that you can grow the real thing. Then again, Jamaica's beaches most probably makes up for it just a little.

  3. wow, some cool pics! now i am inspired to make a trip to sapporo, a place i have not yet ventured to. out of interest, around what month does the sakura in adelaide bloom?

  4. Hi Reesan... thanks for comments. Sapporo's a great place, and not just for being a gateway to Niseko (which is unfortunately all too often the way it's visited). There's so much to do in the city.

    Now, as for Adelaide, the sakura bloom around early October (see here and here for some of my Raising Adelaide Posts on Sakura). Not quite as impressive as in Japan... but sometimes a hint of something can be a powerful thing.

  5. These are wonderful photos of the Japanese plum. I love how the ume blossoms can have a variant of colors from delicate white to that glorious pink you have in that picture. These are the best pictures I've seen so far. Because you mentioned Umeboshi, I'm suddenly curious to try what they describe as a rather sour and salty delight. I guess I would rather have the Onigiri, as the balls of rice will help remove the sour and salty taste? They say it's definitely worth trying anyway. Hmm, I'm also wondering how that ume ice cream tastes. Anyway, here's a lovely ume blossoms wallpaper that you can use.

  6. Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately we had arrived after the peak. Umeboshi is definitely a unique taste, and worth trying...and yes, it's also beautiful in onigiri. Japan loves seasonal flavours, especially in their icecream. The flavours are light, but clear. I especially love Sakura flavour icecream (but you only see it come spring time).

  7. Helo Ben, sorry for dropping comment on an old post. am looking around for cherry blossoms viewing this year.. do you think there is still a chance to enjoy the blossoms on 16 may in sapporo?

    1. No probs nami... not that I'm the expert in such things, but normally sakura season in Sapporo falls around Golden Week, so normally earlier in May. At least that's my understanding. Of course it all depends on the year, and Sapporo's had a pretty cold winter already.

    2. I see.. hmm then we need to re-think of the plan. see, we only have 9 days in Japan, and really wish to make it to cherry blossoms viewing, so we want to rush to sapporo, even though it is time consuming (we bought the flight tix to osaka). but if the chances are really low then maybe we need to drop the sapporo plan and make the most of the trip in tokyo & kyoto..

      thanks a lot for replying!! am glad i came across your nice blog :)