The rainy season has started. Now is the time when the day's light hangs like twilight from morning on. Everything is wet, the green in the garden greener, the grays in the roof tiles almost patent leather bright. Often a distant thunder is heard like far-off cannons rumbling.
In the countryside, the newly planted rice paddies reflect the turbulent June sky and the breezes make the new plants bow while sending constant ripples across the flooded fields.
In our garden, May was a festival of pastels and sunshine. The azaleas were splendid hills of rolling color. Now it is June, green and weepy. Everything has settled down to the serious business of growing, of developing. June is like the year's adolescence.
In Japanese the word for rainy season is tsuyu. The kanji represent the characters for plum and rain. It is the season that the plums ripen and fall to the ground along with the rain, like heavy, bright droplets.
Outside our kitchen window is an old plum tree. It is said that the uguisu Japanese nightingale is fond of plum trees. This may be true for occasionally in the spring and summer, to my delight, the uguisu's song comes from that tree. But the tree is old and the blossoms and fruit become sparser and sparser, year by year. My mother-in-law tells of 50 years ago when she came to this house as a bride, and how she sometimes woke wondering what the muted thump thump sound was in the night. Then she discovered it was the sound of the plums falling and hitting the ground. The sound of plum rain.
Did you know that plum blossoms were once more important in Japan than cherry blossoms? Back in the Nara period, during the 8th century, viewing plum blossoms was a favorite spring pastime for the upper classes. This is easy to realize when you read the old Japanese classics. In fact, when the ancients said the word blossom they probably were referring to the plum whereas today it probably would mean cherry.
Proof of the plum blossoms' popularity can be found in the Manyoshu, a collection of poems put together around A.D. 750. In that book there are far more poems written to the plum blossoms than the cherry.
The fruit of the plum tree has also long been considered good medicine for the stomach. Sick people in Japan usually will eat a salted plum called umeboshi along with okayu rice-gruel and this is supposed to help the appetite. Ume-shu or plum wine is made in almost every Japanese household and is considered good for the stomach besides being a very good drink. When you begin to see the green plums sold on the local markets this is for homemade plum wine.
If you are a foreigner, reject what you don't like in Japan, but do try some things. Make up a batch of ume-shu and let it age for a month or so. Then on a hot August night, pour some over ice for yourself and guests and experience the taste of plum rain.
One of the best plum wines I have ever tasted was the first plum wine I had in Japan. It was at the home of my best friend in Niigata, Mrs. Chieko Kazama. I have been following her recipe and I like it far better than the sweeter plum wines some like.
How To Make the Ume-shu
- 4 kilos (about 8 lbs.) of green plums. Don't buy them if they are not green for wine making
- 1.5 bottles of shochu or white liquor available in most grocery shops during the ume-shu making season
- 2 kilos (about 4 lbs.) kori-zato rock sugar
Wash the plums and make sure you dry them well. Put them in a deep jar and pour the shochu over them making sure the plums are covered. Now put the rock sugar in and cover the jar lightly. Foil with a rubber band or string will do. Put it in a dark cool place and let it age for at least a month. In the summer serve over ice. In winter it is good served at room temperature. I sometimes cut up fruit such as strawberries or prince melon and let soak in ume-shoo in the refrigerator before serving for dessert.
Other Things To Do With Ripe Plums
Stew plums by covering with water (just enough to cover) and add about 2 cups of sugar for each kilo (about 2 lbs.) of plums or more if you like it sweeter. You can add half a summer orange, cover, bring to a boil and let simmer. Nice for breakfast chilled or with cream for dessert.
Since Joan wrote this lovely piece some decades ago, the Japanese may be slightly less inclined to make their own ume-shu at home, but the popularity of the fruit hasn't diminished. This may be in part due to the he health-giving properties of bainiku the flesh of the sour plum. It has been shown to have anti-ageing, anti-cancer free radical-destroying, stress-reducing, blood-cleansing and anti-allergy, anti-bacterial properties. Sour plum vinegar has been demonstrated to aid weight loss, and the plums themselves are long famous for treating flu and curing hangovers.
There is however a darker side to the popularity of umeboshi dried sour plums. As this FGL post goes to press, Wakayama Prefectural police are reporting the theft of 670kg of prime Kishu Ume pickled plums, from a 58 year-old farmer's storage facility in Tanabe city. The rural Wakayama constabulary report it with all the brow-furrowing gravitas of a NYPD drug bust, pointing out the sour plums 'have a street value of somewhere in the region of ￥335,000 yen' (about US$3000). Apparently such heinous activity is not uncommon, with thefts having been recorded totaling millions of yen over the last decade. One still can't help but feel thankful that, in these troubled global times, Japan's crime worries largely concern sour plums and the odd umbrella.