In Japan however everything seems to be in accordance with the changing seasons. There are seasonal activities, seasonal flowers, trees and animals, seasonal foods, and people sometimes even seem to adjust their wardrobe choices more to the calendar than to the actual weather.
Probably the most famous seasonal thing from Japan is the so called hanami which literally means “flower viewing”, but when Japanese people are talking about going to see flowers using that word in 99% of cases they mean cherry blossoms, i.e. the famous sakura. Blooming cherries have been a symbol of spring for quite a while now, but actually before they became famous there was another flower which ruled the Japanese imperial court entertainment at the beginning of the year and professed the coming of spring long time before cherry blossoms awoke from their wintery sleep – Japanese plum flower, i.e. ume. The plum trees were originally brought from China and were used and valued for the medicinal properties of the fruit. However, very soon – already in the Nara period at least – the beauty of the flowers was also appreciated and courtiers started organizing “flower parties” around plum trees. Sometime in the Heian period, though, plums were gradually pushed aside by cherries, the latter being a good poetic metaphor for the short lived beauty and other related concepts, as they wither really quickly. Then at the end of Heian period the culture of the bushi rose to prominence with its cult of giving your life for your Lord, which made short-lasting but glorious cherry blossoms even more meaningful with sakura trees being planted almost everywhere until Edo period.
I prefer ume to sakura mostly because of their beautiful sweet smell and distinct shapes of the old trees with fresh thin branches springing up everywhere. In Kansai region where I live they start blooming in the middle of February and you can enjoy them for around a month. They are the first beautiful natural sight in the new year. I especially like the time when the first blossoms appear on naked trees and that’s when I usually try to go to one of the famous plum gardens in our area.