Plum Blossoms and Heian Era Tradition at the Setagaya Ume Matsuri


A major event which will soon cause much excitement in Japan is of course, the cherry blossoms, seen across the country in springtime. Their transient beauty attracts tourists from far and wide, all flocking to the hotspots to get the best views, in search of a spectacular ‘シャッターチャンス"(‘shutter chance’-one of my favourite katakana words, meaning good photo opportunity!) BUT you don’t have to wait until March and April to see pretty blossoms! Before you head to the temples of Kyoto or Yoshinoyama in Nara for the cherry blossoms, don’t miss the beautiful plum blossoms that bloom around Japan in February and March!

Plum blossoms (梅花 ‘ume no hana’) come in white, pale pink and dark pink shades and have a slightly different petal shape to the cherry blossoms. They also smell much stronger than the cherry blossoms, so make sure you get a noseful! And what better way to enjoy their fragrance than by throwing a hanami party. Hanami (花見 literally ‘flower watching’) refers to a picnic with family, friends or colleagues held whilst sitting under blossoming trees – an activity very much alive and popular to this day! I recently learned that in the Heian era (794-1185 CE) it was the plum blossoms that the nobility used to admire and recline under whilst enjoying a hanami, and the cherry blossoms were seen as flowers for the common people! However, by the Edo era (1603-1868 CE) everyone was enjoying hanami under the cherry blossoms and hanami became synonymous with these flowers.

Walkway through the plum blossom grove

But no need to wait until the cherry blossoms bloom when you can still enjoy a hanami under the unique beauty of the plum blossoms today! There are a few locations around Japan where they bloom, the temples of Kamakura being a fine example, but there is a particular park in Tokyo which has such a spectacular grove of plum trees, there is even a festival held to appreciate them and welcome visitors to admire their beauty!

Hanegi Park in Setagaya-ku, lies between the stations of Umegaoka (Odakyu line, 14 mins from Shinjuku) and Higashi Matsubara (keio inokashira line, 10 mins from Shibuya). When exiting Umegaoka station, turn right and the entrance to the park is less than a 5 minute walk away!

The entrance to Hanegi Park from Umegaoka Station

The stairs lead up to the park and the plum tree grove

Hanegi Park is known for its 650 or so plum trees arranged along the hillside of the park, complete with enchanting walkways and secluded resting spots, allowing you to pause, breathe in their scent and find that ‘shutter chance’! There is a picnic bench area and two open spaces either side of the grove where you can stretch out your mat and enjoy your hanami! The best time to visit is during the Setagaya plum festival (せたがや梅祭り, ‘setagaya ume matsuri’). The festival is held from Saturday 11th February – Sunday March 5th in peak plum blossom season. During the festival there will be food stalls from around 10am-4pm, plum-filled treats for sale and occasional performances and cultural events on the weekends within the festival periods – for free! (For more information on the special events, see ‘Highlights’ below).

Japanese sweets made with plums sold everyday

Food stalls are open every day. There are even more stalls at the weekends.

On top of that, the park itself always has a great community feel and there is also a baseball pitch, tennis and basketball court and a sort-of experimental playground for children; children are given access to all manner of DIY tools and can make (or destroy) whatever they like! And if you fall in love with Hanegi Park, you can come back again in late March/early April to catch the cherry blossoms too!

Flower and plant market where you can even buy your own plum tree!

The tea house in Hanegi Park is open during the Setagaya Plum Festival.

If visiting the park, you could also include a visit to Gotokuji Temple—home of the waving, lucky cat figure (maneki-neko), and maybe head on to Shimokitazawa for dinner, a drink or a gig in one of its many eateries, cool bars or livehouses.

I would absolutely recommend a visit to Hanegi Park—whether you come for a relaxing stroll through the grove, to attend a morning tea ceremony or go all out on a hanami party Heian-style (with some umeshu-plum liquor perhaps?) —be sure to catch these less-well known but certainly no-less beautiful blossoms before they go!

Setagaya Ume Matsuri

Information in English: https://www.gotokyo.org/en/kanko/setagaya/event/sumefes.html?PHPSESSID=3383pb9jbp58d6ed9bsch2ei00 
Information in Japanese: http://www.city.setagaya.lg.jp/event/1993/d00150829.html

When: Saturday 11th February – Sunday 5th March
Where: Hanegi Park, 4-38-52 Daita, Setagaya-ku
Access: 5 minute walk from Umegaoka station (Odakyu line, 14 mins from Shinjuku)

Highlights:
– Saturday 11th February, 1.30pm-2:30pm, Koto performance.
– Saturday 18th February, from 1pm, Japanese taiko drumming performance.
– Saturday 25th February, from 11am, Japanese taiko drumming performance.
– Sunday 26th February, 10am and 1pm, mochi (Japanese traditional rice cake) making event and from 10am, Matcha tea ceremony (ticketed – arrive at 9.30am to receive a ticket).
– Sunday 5th March, from 10am, Sencha tea ceremony (ticketed – arrive at 9.30am to receive a ticket) and also from 10am, woodworking workshop.

For more information → http://www.odakyu.jp/english/