How The Japanese Plum Heralds The Start of The Rainy Season

It could be said Japan has a fifth season: tsuyu — the rainy season. Tsuyu comes between spring and summer and is a time of consistent, gentle rains when the ume tree starts to bear fruit.

Plum Fruit (2020-07)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Tsuyu (梅雨 – literally ‘plum rain’) is also when the ume (Japanese plum) tree starts to bear fruit, thus the name of the season. From the end of May through the month of June, it is a period of incessant downpours. It is around this time that households across Japan pick ume plums from trees in their yards and start making things such as umeshu (ume liqueur, or Japanese plum wine) and umeboshi (pickled ume). This processing of ume at home is called ume shigoto (‘ume work’), a tradition passed down through the generations in Japan.

Plum Flower (2020-07)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Ume in Japanese culture

Before learning more about ume shigoto, we should firstly delve into the role the ume has played in Japanese culture for many centuries. In modern-day Japan, the pastime of hanami (literally, ‘flower viewing’) commonly refers to cherry blossom viewing. However, in the Nara (710-794) and Heian (794-1185) periods, people were so fond of the ume, its blossom was the first thing that came to mind when they thought of flowers. In fact, the Manyoshu, the oldest extant anthology of Japanese tanka poetry, features over 100 poems that describe ume — a far greater number than those that feature the celebrated cherry blossom.

One plum blossom
one blossom’s worth
of warmth.

So penned Ransetsu Hattori (1654-1707), disciple of the Edo period haiku master Matsuo Basho, in his famed poem. While still in the intense cold of winter, a single plum blossom announcing the coming warmth of spring brings joy.

Around the time when the ume blossom that signaled the coming of spring eventually gives way to growing fruit, the start of the long rains of tsuyu begins. People in Japan have long looked to the ume tree for a sense of the changing seasons.

Dried Plums (2020-07)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

An umeboshi a day keeps the doctor away!

Perhaps the most typical food made using ume is the umeboshi. These salted pickled plums, a beloved part of the Japanese diet since ancient times, are known for their preservative and nutritional qualities — so much so that people have long said, ‘One a day keeps the doctor away!’ Ume contain a high amount of dietary fiber and are packed with minerals like calcium and potassium. When processed into foods such as umeboshi, they also gain an abundance of citric acid, which has an antibacterial effect.

The properties of nutrient-dense ume have been known since ancient times. The various benefits of umeboshi, such as detoxification and recovery from fatigue, can even be found in the Ishinpō, Japan’s oldest surviving medical text that was written in 984. In addition, due to its high bactericidal effect, it is said that during the Warring States period of Japanese history (approx. 1467-1568), umeboshi was indispensable not only as a preserved food, but also for disinfecting wounds and preventing food poisoning. There is also a story that says a warrior on the battlefield could sate his thirst simply by bringing the sour umeboshi to mind and getting his salivary juices flowing. There is no shortage of other celebrated historical events in which umeboshi makes an appearance — it is a food that has been indispensable to the Japanese way of life throughout history.

Umeshu (2020-07)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries


Umeshu, a traditional fruit liqueur made by steeping ume in sugar and alcohol, has also been made since long ago. The Honcho Shoku Kagami (‘Encyclopedia of Food in Japan’), written over 300 years ago, not only describes how to prepare umeshu, but also proclaims its antitussive and detoxifying properties.

Plum Fruits (2020-07)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

It is said that around that time during the Edo period, farmers were encouraged to plant ume trees to supplement their income, leading to the spread of ume cultivation and processing. It is not uncommon even today to see an ume planted in the garden of Japanese households.

Plum Shigoto (2020-07)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Starting the ume shigoto

Michiko Miura makes umeboshi and umeshu every year with the ume she harvests from her garden. In the village of Kakinoki, nestled in the mountains of Shimane Prefecture’s south-west, ume blossoms bloom around February-March; the fruit appears when the rains of tsuyu are approaching.

Mr. Miura (2020-07)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

“You have to pick the ume after the summer solstice. That’s what my grandma taught me!” she explains. “It’s said that you should gather them around the 11th day after the summer solstice, but I pick them before they all start dropping to the ground.”

Plum Fruit (2020-07)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Making umeboshi

Miura’s umeboshi recipe has been passed down from her mother and grandmother. She looks forward to umeboshi-making season every year.

“I firstly put the ume I’ve picked in a box and wait until they ripen and turn yellow. I then soak them overnight in water to remove the bitterness before straining them well and salting them. You put the ume and the salt in a cliptop jar, weighing them down inside the jar with a stone, and store the jar away until tsuyu has passed. I usually put in about 15% of salt to the weight of ume. When summer comes, they go into a wide colander and leave them to dry for three days and nights. Once they’re dry, they go back into a jar with salted red shiso (red perilla) leaves. When you let that sit for about a year, they develop a mellow flavor and are really delicious — you can start eating the ones you made last year around the time you start on your ume shigoto!”

Plum Shigoto (2020-07)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Making umeshu

In contrast to the ripened ume used for umeboshi, umeshu makes use of the still unripe green fruit.

“It seems that you can get more extract by using the young fruit. You wash them first — oh, you have to remove the stem pits, too, because leaving them on will make things too astringent. It’s also good to poke holes in the ume with a fork to allow the juice to be extracted at a faster rate. Then all you have to do is prepare a jar with a tightly fitting lid, place rock sugar and the ume inside, pour in shochu or some other white liquor, and sit the jar aside. Making it with rum is pretty nice!”

Plum Syrup (2020-07)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

In addition to umeboshi and umeshu, there is also ume compote and ume syrup, made by soaking the ume in sugar. It may be quite the busy time, but Miura says that ume shigoto is a lot of fun.

Plum Fruits (2020-07)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Plum Fruits (2020-07)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

“When ume season comes around, you’ll find the big jars for making umeboshi and rock sugar for umeshu at any supermarket. But, as for the ume themselves, folks around here use the ones they have growing in their gardens. Since I was small, I think just about every family has had an ume tree. I watched my parents preparing ume — ume shigoto has been a way of life ever since I can remember. Every house has them drying out and it results in just the most delightful aroma wafting through the air. I’ve always loved that smell, right from when I was a little girl.”

Ume shigoto: a tradition passed down through the ages and one future generations will continue, every year when the early summer rains visit Japan.

Plum Harvest (2020-07)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Credits: Story

Photos: Yuri Nanasaki
Text/Edit: Masaya Yamawaka
Production: Skyrocket Corporation

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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