When one thinks of a Japanese spring, most folks will picture cherry blossoms. They are a beautiful sight, particularly those lining both the Noda and Nagareyama banks of the canal at Unga, Chiba prefecture, which connects to the Edo river (Edogawa), but interestingly, in the past, they were outshone in Japanese culture by another beauty; the plum tree blossom.
The Japanese prepare plums for consumption in various ways, but the two most popular are "umeboshi", a very sour pickled plum, coloured anywhere between a richly purple-shaded red to a dark pink, and "umeshu", a liqueur made with plums picked while still green and steeped anywhere from 6 months to ten years in at least a 35% alcohol-level clear liquor (often referred to as "White Liquor") and rock-sugar.
The alcohol level increases when the plums' natural sugar content kicks in. If you add a couple of chili-peppers (tohkarashi) to a 4- or 8-liter jar of "umeshu", it will give it that extra kick. That's what is nice about making your own Umeshu - you're the boss. Some add lots of sugar, or use honey, and others keep it slightly sour to enhance the plum's natural flavor. The use of rock sugar, like every part of the process of making this terrific drink, which will turn slowly orange, is that it takes time. The Japanese are traditionally slow, methodical and caring about creating. Perhaps hard to reconcile with the bullet trains and crowded subways, but that's Japan - a conundrum.
"Hanami" in Japan is a much-loved annual event and means picnicking under the (mostly) cherry-blossom trees and appreciating their beauty whilst drinking anything from beer to some pretty heavy liquor with one's friends and/or family and maybe a guitar or shamisen to add a little music to the occasion. Although I have a great love of the cherry-blossoms beauty, I have an even greater admiration for the plum blossom. The color can vary from a very subtle hue of eggshell white with a barely visible shade of pink, all the way to an intense, deep and vivid pink. If you're anywhere in the Nodashi area, then Shimizu-Koen is a great place to take part in Hanami. Omiya-koen is also a lovely park.
From early March to mid-April, the entire country is blessed with incredible pinks, and of course, flowers of every other color, too. Not only that, but the weather is perfect at that time of year. Enjoy! Yoroshiku!
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