Ume Festival: When Is An Apricot A Plum?

Growing up in California, I ate my share of apricots and plums. Well, my neighborhood was actually full of orange trees, so I ate those mostly as a quick snack stolen right off the tree. But I knew the difference between a plum and an apricot. The former smooth skinned, a glorious deep purple in color, with a sweet taste and a soft juicy texture. (Makes me long for the taste just thinking about them). Apricots on the other hand have a more firm texture, a skin not too different from a peach and a flavor that is less sweet. Right?

These days I am less certain about that. In late February through the month of March, the ume trees (pronounced "oooh-meh") blossom in Japan. I have some in my yard and there are lots of them around the neighborhood. The blossoms can be white, red, pink or combinations of colors on the same tree. They are a heart warming sight after a winter of more subdued colors, and reassurance that the weather really is getting warmer.
Image hosted by Photobucket.comIn Mito City, the capitol of Ibaraki -my fair prefecture- there is a park called Kairakuen. It was built by Lord Tokugawa Nariaki in 1841 and is considered to be one of the three best landscape gardens in Japan. Kairakuen, which means "park to be enjoyed together" was the first park of its kind to be built not just for its lord but also for the public. I boasts 3,000 ume trees of 100 different varieties, some of which were planted by visiting royalty over a century ago. As we walked along the paths, our field of vision full of the colors of the flower petals bursting forth, we were also steeped in the gentle sweet fragrance which permeated the air. In addition to the ume trees at Kairakuen, there is a bamboo forest, cedar grove, and a beautifully designed villa, which is open for tours. The park has a lovely view of Lake Senba which is surrounded by cherry trees.

Somewhere along the line, long ago, the word ume was translated as "Japanese Plum", though it is now sometimes translated as "Japanese Apricot". Yet all the bilingual signs and most guide books still say "plum". The fruit now growing on my ume trees sure look like apricots to me.

A common use of small varieties is to pickle them (ume boshi) and use a single one as garnish for the rice in a Japanese box lunch (bento). We treated ourselves to delicious bento lunches, which we ate as we sat on the lawn, admired the blossoms and watched others, from toddlers to a group of pensioners in wheel chairs, do the same.
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(note the "ume boshi" atop the rice)

Other varieties are made into liquer or delicious deserts such as honeyed ume covered in mochi (pounded sweet rice). Yum.

Perhaps the confusion caused by the translation into English as either plum or apricot is why they now have "Ume Ambassadors". During the festival, there were three lovely young ladies dressed in kimono with sashes which read "Ume Ambassador". They stood along one of the main paths of the park, smiling and greeting the hundreds of people who had come to enjoy the blossoms. Their sole function appeared to be to look sweet and perhaps reassure people that what ever an Ume is, apriccot or plum, it is harmless, tasty, and has a lovely blossom, so please not to worry. I for one, was reassured.
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Ah, the lovely ume blossoms! If these are the ambassadors, where do I sign up for duty in the Foreign Office?


yama-zakura said...

A: Bento ha *umee-ka?
B: Umee!!

*'Umee' is a colloquial term of delicious in Japanese.

The Moody Minstrel said...

The last time I was at Kairakuen was when two American friends of mine were over here visiting. That was in February of last year.

It started raining as soon as we arrived and stayed soggy, gloomy, and cold until we arrived at Noriaki's old villa (I forget the name) only to find it had just closed. We hung out and chatted under the eaves of the empty ticket booth waiting for the rain to subside. It didn't, so we just got soggy making our way back to the car.

Strangely, my two friends were pretty excited about the whole thing.

Even after having lived in Japan for fifteen years, I'm not sure whether or not I like umeboshi. Umeshu (plum liquor), on the other hand, is like a magic elixir: when someone offers it to me (usually when I visit Kyoto), I have a habit of drinking it on and on and on till I suddenly drop off into an enchanted slumber.

Wonderful things, ume.

Pandabonium said...

That's too bad. Somehow it always rains when I have visitors.

The villa is worth a trip back to see - in better weather - any time of year. Its called Kobuntei (love of literature) and was a place where men of letters were invited for poetry reading. It has beautifully painted sliding screen doors and each room has a theme revolving around a specific tree or flower. Noriaki banned music playing at the castle to save money (some things never change, eh?), and so musicians often came to Kobuntei as well.

The building was destroyed in WWII but was rebuilt in the late 50's from the original plans. The architecture is brilliant.