It was just after mid-December, much earlier than usual, that an ume (Japanese apricot) tree in the Hamarikyu Gardens in central Tokyo started to bear red blossoms. After the turn of the year, another tree also came into bloom. They are the most precocious trees in the gardens.
Ume in full bloom is very appealing. But some say that partially blooming trees are even more beautiful. When I took a walk in the gardens on Jan. 7, I found the first tree that bore blossoms had many swollen buds. Now is the time to enjoy the beauty of early flowering before the trees reach full bloom.
Masashi Hashimoto, an official of the gardens service center, said he was surprised at the early blossoms because as far as he could remember, no ume tree had bloomed this early before.
“Even though it has become cold, there were warm days now and then when the temperature reached 15 degrees,” he said. “Maybe the trees had become bewitched.”
Neat, clean and decorous are just a few of many complimentary adjectives associated with ume blossoms. In China, the tree is regarded as noble and its blossoms are said to have been admired since ancient times, according to “Chugoku Meishishu” (Anthology of fine Chinese poems) by Ritsuko Inami, a scholar of Chinese literature. A famous verse about plum blossoms by the Northern Song Dynasty poet Lin Bu (967-1028) goes: “Fragrance in the dark, floating, moon, yellow dusk.”
It describes the subtle movements of plum blossoms in a moonlit dusk as their delicate scent wafts in the dark.
In Japan, too, poet Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241) composed the following poem about ume blossoms and the moon: “Above the sleeves with the lingering scent of ume blossoms/ Moonlight falls from the eaves and fights.”
According to “Teika Hyakushu” (One hundred poems by Teika) by tanka poet Kunio Tsukamoto (1920-2005), it means the scent of ume blossoms clings on his clothes and falling moonlight glitters as if intertwined with their fragrance.
Ume blossoms that nobly bloom in the cold all by themselves are beautiful. Spring is still far away. It seemed like a good idea to come face to face with a branch of early blossoms and admire their colors and scent with nobody else around me.