Years ago, my very first trip to Wakayama Prefecture included a visit to Minabe Plum Grove, Japan’s largest ume plum grove. It was fabulous. Plum blossoms covered the hills as far as the eye could see. We could also walk up the hillsides and enjoy the rows and rows of plum blossoms with stunning views and a pleasant aroma wafting in the air. The trees also bear ume plums after flowering. The main purpose of these plum trees is actually ume cultivation, not tourist decoration. The flowers are only a fringe benefit enjoyed by tourists for a limited time each year.
Minabe plum blossoms usually bloom from February to early March. During this flowering period, the groves are open to the public. Otherwise, the area is closed to the public since it’s farmland, not a public park. About 30,000 tourists come to see the blossoms and buy all kinds of ume plums, ume cuisine, confections, drinks, and other products. Besides onigiri rice balls, ume can be used in a great variety of edibles. On February weekends, various events and entertainment are also held on site. Sadly in 2021, the Minabe plum groves remained closed to the public due to the pandemic.
Minabe’s plum trees originated in the 17th century when Tokugawa-related samurai Lord Ando, who ruled this area (Kii-Tanabe Domain), had them planted. Since the area was mountainous and less fertile, local farmers had difficulty producing enough crops to pay their taxes. Lord Ando saw some wild plum trees growing in the mountains and thought it would be a good crop to grow. He lowered land taxes for ume plum farmers to encourage plum production. By the 18th century, even the Tokugawa shogun highly favored Minabe’s ume.
In the early 20th century, the ume became a staple food (even as a remedy for infectious diseases) for soldiers at war against Russia and China. The demand thereby skyrocketed. Lord Ando’s initiative sprouted into a whopping 80,000 ume trees today. Minabe now accounts for about 60 percent (!) of Japan’s ume plum production.
There are many varieties of Minabe plums, but the top-quality variety is recognized to be “Nanko-ume” (南高梅) commonly found in most supermarkets in Japan (upper right photo). Nanko-ume are large plums with a thin skin, smaller seed, and soft flesh. The lower right photo compares the size of the Nanko-ume plums and the seed. I happen to have this small pack of Nanko-ume from my local supermarket. Not cheap, around ¥400–¥500 for only five plums in this pack. The plum is big, fleshy, and very salty (22%). The honey-flavored ones are only 8% salted. For me, one plum is enough to go with three meals with rice. (Might have more of it in summer.)
Interesting that the Nanko-ume was discovered by chance by a Minabe ume farmer named Takada Sadagusu (高田貞楠) over 100 years ago. He used to be a mulberry farmer, but switched to ume plums by buying 60 plum trees from a neighbor in 1902. He later noticed one of the trees bore extra large ume plums in a beautiful red color. (Ume plums are usually light green.) He then used branches from this tree to grow more of these trees. His variety of plums was named after him as “Takada-ume” (高田梅). Later in 1932, another farmer named Koyama Teiichi (小山貞一) bought saplings from the Takada-ume tree and took over the cultivation of Takada-ume plums. Thanks to his efforts, Takada-ume plums have survived to this day.
Takada-ume plums finally gained prominence in the 1950s when a Minabe High School (南部高等学校) horticulture teacher named Takenaka Katsutaro (竹中 勝太郎) and his students conducted scientific research for five years to determine which ume plum in Minabe was the best. Minabe farmers had been cultivating about 100 varieties of ume plums, and they wanted to know which would be the best one to grow.
To determine this, Takenaka and his students carefully examined and monitored a total of 37 promising local varieties with each year’s crop. He finally concluded that the Takada-ume was the best. He named it “Nanko-ume” (南高梅) after his high school and the discoverer Takada Sadagusu. This “Nanko-ume” brand name was legally registered under Takada Sadagusu’s name with the Minister of Agriculture and Forestry in 1965 and has stuck ever since.
Today, many Minabe ume farmers grow the famous Nanko-ume which can be found in most supermarkets. Another key word you may see on ume packaging is “Kishu” (紀州), which is the old samurai-era name for “Wakayama.” The original Takada-ume tree still survives, age about 100 years. The ume farm started by Takada Sadagusu is also still in business in Minabe as Takada Kaen (高田果園).
Ume plum is said to be a health food that helps to relieve fatigue (with citric acid), reduce lipids in the blood, reduce bad cholesterol, and reduce blood sugar. It’s also the go-to panacea in summer to replenish your electrolytes lost through all that perspiration. Note that the widely-believed myth that eating ume with unagi eel will make you sick is totally false, medically speaking. Also proven to be false after a number of people who ate ume with unagi never fell ill. 😄
👉In Feb., buses run daily from JR Minabe Station (JR Kisei Line) to the plum grove taking 10 min. On Feb. weekends, JR Kuroshio Express trains also stop at Minabe Station. In normal years when there’s no pandemic, the plum grove is open 8 am to 5 pm. Small admission charged.