Last weekend (February 26), I headed south to the town of Yugawara, in Shizuoka Prefecture, to climb a mountain and attend an ume matsuri–a festival dedicated to the blooming plum tree blossoms (known as ume in Japanese).
For centuries, Japanese people have celebrated the ume as harbingers of spring. Outside Japan, the pale pink sakura (cherry blossoms) are more famous, but ume are just as beautiful, and arrive about a month before the sakura spread their petals to the sun.
I learned about the ume festival on the Yugawara town website, while searching for places to hike and see the blossoms. Makuyama (幕山) is a small but lovely mountain about 15 minutes from Yugawara Station by local bus, and there’s a dedicated route between the station and Makuyama Koen during the ume festival each year (which runs from roughly mid-February until the end of the first weekend in March). The bus costs 260 yen (about $2.50 USD) and stops at the entrance to Makuyama Koen.
The picture above shows the view from the entrance to the park, which sits at the foot of Makuyama and features a terraced grove of 4,000 ume (Japanese plum) trees. The picture doesn’t do the blossoms justice–the entire hillside was covered in various shades of pink, white, and red. The approach to the park is across the bridge on the bottom left side of the frame, and the “front” trail up Makuyama curls up the right side of the mountain, through the trees.
Before heading up the mountain, I walked through the festival area and looked at the booths. Local vendors were selling everything from bags of local tangerines and oranges to jars of handmade ume jam, several different kinds of cookies, and souvenirs. There was even a booth with beautiful pottery made at Kouganzama (向山窯), a local kiln and pottery studio. I saw a handmade plate and bowl I loved, and then was forced to decide between hoping it would be there when I returned and carrying it up the mountain with me–a rough decision, to say the least.
One of the highlights of the festival is ume softo–ume-flavored soft serve. I’d never tried it before, but I’d read about it on the festival website and was looking forward to it.
10:30 a.m. isn’t too early for soft serve, is it?
The soft serve was creamy and refreshing–more sweet than tart, with a lovely, floral fragrance and a delicate taste. I could definitely taste the ume.
When I finished the soft serve, it was time to begin the hike. I headed up the stairs to the ume grove–but didn’t hurry. It was fun to walk through the blooming trees. They’re hard to photograph, but it’s fun to try.
The trailhead sat near the center of the grove. People were walking here and there among the trees; most of them weren’t dressed for a hike, and clearly had come for the festival (rather than to climb the mountain), though there were quite a few hikers too.
The ume trees are planted around the base of the mountain, on terraced slopes. Paths wind through the trees, and you can pretty much walk anywhere you want to.
My favorite pictures from the day are the one I shot upward through the branches. I love the way the blossoms stand out against the blue sky. Makuyama Park has many varieties of ume trees, with blossoms that range from deep red to snowy white. There’s even a tree that apparently has both pink and white blossoms, but it wasn’t yet in bloom the day I visited.
They also have a section filled with weeping ume trees, whose branches grow downward instead of toward the sky:
As I started up the mountain, I saw more than a dozen rock climbers making their way up the massive boulders near the base of Makuyama. The park is apparently a famous climbing site, where local climbers go to practice their skills on the massive stones. You can see a climber near the top of the rock on the right side of the frame below.
About five minutes from the trailhead, I caught my first glimpse of the Pacific through the trees.
Yugawara sits on the Pacific Coast, about an hour south of Tokyo (via a combination of shinkansen and local trains – slightly longer if you take only locals or a non-shinkansen express)–and though I couldn’t see the ocean from the base of Makuyama, most of the trail up the mountain had excellent views of the sea.
The ascent was a little steep in places, but not difficult. I passed a number of families making the hike with little children–including a couple of kids who looked as young as four or five.
About halfway up the mountain, I realized I could see Oshima–the largest of the volcanic Izu Islands, and the site of one of my favorite climbs of my 100 Summits year–on the horizon.
The trail curled upward through a forest that’s probably lovely (if hot and muggy) in the summer, though it also probably blocks most of the ocean views. The climb itself took only about an hour–Makuyama isn’t large–and was a great way to stretch my legs on a morning that felt more like late March than February.
The final bit of the trail to the summit passed through a field of dried pampas grasses–which also are probably lovely in greener months.
I was surprised to find the summit covered in people–the entire plateau was filled with couples and families picnicking in the sun. The festival atmosphere I’d experienced lower on the mountain was in full swing at the top of it too. I spread out a little blanket and had some lunch myself.
After eating, I headed down via a different trail, which curls down the west side of the mountain. (The one I ascended is located on the east, and is steeper, but has better views.)
For part of the trail, the path acts as a dividing line between “natural” forest on the left and logging forests on the right. Note the pink flashes on the trees in the picture below…just in case you aren’t sure you’re on the trail…
I even saw a little snow on the ground beneath some of the trees–which was neat, because I’d considered this my “winter-to-spring” transition climb, and seeing ume and snow on the same afternoon pretty much reinforced that theme.
Farther down, the trail passed through a bamboo forest, before emerging at a narrow asphalt road that led past a Shintō shrine.
Beyond the shrine, a bridge across a river brought me back to the ume grove.
I strolled along the path, enjoying the blossoms and the warmth of the sun.
This was my first time seeing the ume in Yugawara, but I hope it won’t be the last. The festival made for an excellent and unusual start to the hike, and the trees were beautiful.
Oh…and that special plate and bowl? They made it up and down the mountain in perfect shape. (You didn’t think I left them behind at the vendor, did you?)
A beautiful souvenir of an even more beautiful memory–and a highly recommended hike, if you find yourself in Japan when the ume bloom.
Would you try ume soft serve? Have you ever seen the ume bloom?
Access/Trailhead: Makuyama Koen (closest station: Yugawara)
Elevation Gain/Loss: 492/492 (it goes up, and it goes down)
Time Spent: 3:10 (including lunch, because I forgot to turn off my hiking program – hiking time maybe 2.40?)
Note to the wise: The bus may or may not run to Makuyama Koen during other times of year, but there’s definitely service during the ume festival. The mountain is fun, and worth hiking, but it’s definitely not a full-day endeavor, and the ume festival definitely turned it into an excellent full-day adventure.