Traditionally, Kisaragi (如月, the old name for February) was considered a month of hope — a chance to wipe the slate clean and start over. Before the nation switched to the Western calendar, it was the month for ushering in Oshōgatsu (お正月, New Year) and marked a time when everyone took it easy and waited for spring. February was also the month when ume (梅, plum) blossoms started to bloom, along with the very first of the hyakka (百花, the 100 indigenous flowers of Japan), reminding everyone that the worst of the cold, the suffering of winter, would soon be over.
Officially speaking, sakura (桜, cherry blossoms) are Japan’s national flower. The ume is the B-grade version, the modest sister who shies away from center stage. If sakura is masculine, with no qualms about showing off, then ume is feminine, with a penchant to hide itself while scenting the air with a sweet, astringent aroma.
Blossoming during one of the coldest months of the year, often covered in ice and snow, the ume is sometimes thought of as a metaphor for chinmoku (沈黙, silence or reticence) and nintai (忍耐, patience). The documented history of the plum blossom goes back at least as far as the “Manyōshū” (万葉集, a collection of Japanese poetry compiled around 759), when famed poets from Ki no Tsurayuki to Fujiwara no Teika wrote of its fresh beauty and demure charm.
Around 300 years ago, Ogata Kourin — the rock star painter of his day — used the ume in what many describe as his masterpiece, the “Kōhaku ume (紅白梅, red and white plum blossoms),” a painting on gold-leaf covered byōbu (屏風, folding screens).
One of Japan’s best-loved warriors, Minamoto no Yoshitsune, decreed that anyone who dared steal or break an ume branch would have his fingers broken.
A wonderful aspect of the ume is that it can hanamo mimo aru (花も実もある, yield both flower and fruit). Once the petals are gone, the leaves turn a bright, green and the trees start to bear ume no mi (梅の実, plum berries), treasured for their medicinal powers and seemingly eternal shelf life. At the tail end of spring, when the temperature begins to rise and humidity settles in, that’s the time for ume-shigoto (梅仕事, working with ume). If a tree is handy (perhaps in your grandmother’s garden) or you know of a secret grove in the mountains, the process becomes easier — and free. Nowadays, it’s more the norm to go out and buy a bag of oume (青梅, green and unripe ume berries), available by the bagful in most supermarkets. You can then turn them into umeboshi (梅干し, dried, pickled plums), umezu (梅酢, vinegar), boil them with sugar to make ume-jamu (梅ジャム, plum jam), turn them into wagashi (和菓子, Japanese sweets) or even marinate them with fish, and that’s just the beginning.
There are brand-name berries of course, the leading variety being the “Kishū Nankōbai (紀州南高梅)” hailing from Wakayama Prefecture. By the way, Wakayama harvests about 69,000 tons of ume berries a year and is renowned for using them in every way possible. Kishū Rāmen consists of a bowl of rāmen flavored with umezu and topped with umeboshi.
The umeboshi is actually a miracle food. Long before washoku (和食, traditional Japanese food) became recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage thing, we Japanese were well aware that our traditional daily diet was something special —and the humble plum plays a important role. A single umeboshi — taken at breakfast, ideally — can cure the following: itsū (胃痛, stomach ache), shōkafuryō (消化不良, indigestion), zutsū (頭痛, headache), hakike (吐き気, nausea ) and futsukayoi (二日酔い, hangovers) whose symptoms include all of the above. Umeboshi are also known to aid estrogen levels, which is why, until Western pharmaceuticals took over the Japanese health care system, the ume berry was prescribed by many doctors as a cure for funin (不妊, infertility). Umeboshi is a girl’s best friend, giving her bihada (美肌, beautiful skin), boosting physical strength and easing symptoms associated with premenstrual syndrome.
Umeboshi also have the distinction of lasting a long time, and there’s a story going around about a 17th-century Tokugawa Shogunate’s secret umeboshi vat, which was used for centuries to cure any heavy-duty illness within the family. This has a ring of truth to it, considering the incredible longevity of that clan.
If you’re looking to make ume a part of your own diet, try to buy the mutenka (無添加, additive-free) stuff, as the alternatives are often loaded with sugar and MSG.
And lastly, we come to umeshu (梅酒, plum wine), that most delectable of liqueurs. As a way to wait for spring and clear the air of winter’s sadness and evil, the tea masters of old drank tiny cups of umeshu that had a single ume flower on the surface of the syrupy liquid. A sip of umeshu is a sip of reflection and inner peace — an ideal way to look forward to the coming year. Call it the Japanese way of ruminating over New Year’s resolutions.