Sunday, March 3, 2019

Ume . . . 'd Me Love You

--Susan, every other Sunday

Last weekend, I went mountain climbing in Gunma and Tochigi, a pair of adjacent Prefectures about three hours from Tokyo by express train (you can get much farther in that time by shinkansen, but many of the bullet-train-reachable mountains currently pose high avalanche risks, so I'm climbing a little closer to home for another month or two).

Mt. Ryogai, Tochigi Prefecture, Japan

I looked forward to Sunday's climb, in particular, because I planned to end it at an orchard where Buddhist priests had planted over a thousand ume (Japanese plum - a little like a cross between a standard plum and an apricot) trees, which--weather permitting--would be in bloom.

In Japan, ume blossoms are beloved harbingers of spring. Outside Japan, most people have heard of the more famous sakura (cherry blossoms), which are also iconic, and highly loved, but in Japan, we look for the ume first.

The day started out as the best days in the mountains do: with sunshine, pleasant temperatures (unexpectedly pleasant for February, especially given the bitter temperatures I faced during Saturday's climb in Gunma) and thousands of Buddhas lining the mountain trail.

Buddha on Gyodosan

As I climbed to the summit of Gyodosan, my first peak of the day, I searched the hills for ume trees, but saw only pines and Buddhas.

Lots of Buddhas.

Buddhas overlooking Ashikaga City

(Many of the Buddhas on this particular mountain lost their heads during a portion of the Meiji Period (1868-1912), when Emperor Meiji declared Buddhism a "dangerous foreign religion" in an attempt to restore the power of the indigenous Shintō faith. Since then, Buddhism's status in Japan has been restored, and many of the missing heads have been replaced with stones.)   

From Mt. Gyodo, I continued along the trail, descending and re-ascending to the summits of Mt. Oiwa and Mt. Ryogai - where I saw a sign that indicated that the trail to the Ume garden would soon branch off the primary route. (You see what I did there . . .)

I continued along the trail, which rose and fell along a series of increasingly smaller mountains until I reached a sign indicating that I had reached the Ashikaga City Park.

At sea level.

Without ever seeing the branch trail to the ume trees.

I turned around and looked back up the trail, considering my options--none of which looked good.

If I wanted to see the plum trees, I would have to climb back up and over at least two mountains (possibly three) to try and find the trail.

I considered giving up and going home. I had already hiked almost ten kilometers that day, and reached the summits of four mountains--three of which were high enough to count toward my 100 Summits goal. (And taking the current mountain count to 80.)

On the other hand, I really wanted to see those blooming plum trees.

If they were blooming. (They might not be.)

And if I could find them. (Which I'd failed to do the first time down the route.)

According to my GPS, I could also get to the plum trees via surface roads--four miles of surface roads--which I'd then have to retrace, on foot, to get to the train that would take me back to Tokyo.

Eight more miles of walking wasn't happening, so I heaved a heavy sigh and started back up the trail.

Half an hour and two retraced-mountains later, I came upon a tiny narrow trail branching off the side of the main hiking route. Heading down in the other direction, I had missed it due to the trees that grew on either side and the fact that the "sign" indicating the ume grove measured less than two inches wide by approximately four inches high.

A well-marked trail . . .

"There had better be ume blossoms down here," I grumbled as I started down the trail.

Two minutes of steep descending later, I found myself in a grove of twisted, gnarled fruit trees.

Entering the ume grove.

Thirty seconds after that, I realized I had found my destination.

Delicate ivory blossoms hung from the branches, almost glowing in the afternoon sun. A delicate scent of apricots and the buzzing of bees filled the air. Branches arched across the path, creating a natural tunnel. I walked through it, mouth agape in awe at the beauty of the ume blossoms against the brilliant, cloudless sky.

Harbingers of spring

A few minutes later, other hikers arrived to view the blossoms, too. Like me, they wandered among the trees, enjoying the delicate blossoms and the cool, clear day that felt like spring, even though the calendar doesn't quite agree.

Under the Ume Trees

I'm glad I returned to look for the grove, even though it added an extra hour and a half (in total) to my day and a few extra kilometers to the climb. As I walked through the grove, I truly understood (for the first time) just how welcome these beautiful blossoms are after the long, cold winter. My spirit felt light, anticipating spring.

The ume bloom when the rest of the earth seems barren

I've always loved sakura blossoms, and have been looking forward to my first spring here in Japan, but ume always ran a distant second (if not farther back) among Japanese flowers in my mind and heart. That is, they did until last weekend.

And now?

I can say, with all sincerity, to the beautiful plum trees . . .

Spring is coming.

 Ume'd me love you.


  1. Wonderful, Susan. Just wonderful, in very way. The story. Its arc. The beauty of the experience--even vicariously!! And you! Especially YOU!!

    1. Thank you Annamaria :) Someday you'll have to come back for ume or sakura time, so we can go see the blossoms together. I think you would love them.

  2. Congratulations on reaching 80! :-) Lovely story, lovely pictures, lovely person. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you! And thank you so much for sharing it with me here at MIE.

  3. I bet you were plum tuckered out after all that extra hiking...but it certainly looked worth it! Bravo on 80, Susan.

    1. Yes, and yes. I was so tired I fell asleep on the train heading home . . . but I have absolutely no regrets.

  4. Delightful post. You make even more determined to return to Nihon.