When Minabe townspeople ask for the fourteen-hundredth time if you’ve tried umeboshi and force the pickled plum down your throat, don’t tell them you already tasted it. Don’t tell them umeboshi tastes less like a plum and more like a warm, salty apricot/olive that has been rotting in the back of a smelly gym shoe for the past year.
Instead, hide the grimace that could follow a shot of whiskey and express your love for the healthy delicacy grown right here in the countryside town of Minabe, Japan.
Located on Japan’s main island Honshu, in Wakayama prefecture, Minabe sits on the pacific coast just two hours south of Osaka and 350 miles southwest of Tokyo and is home to rice farmers, charcoal producers, and of course ume farmers.
What might you ask is the appeal of umeboshi? For one, ume acts a home remedy for a plethora of aliments including bad breath, constipation, morning sickness, tiredness, and the common cold.
Ume is actually a species of apricot that made its way to Japan from China during the Eighth Century, but ume is known as a “plum” throughout Japan.
From the flowering to the picking to the pickling, to the vast number of products created from it, there is always an exciting ume event going on in Minabe, where I have lived for the past year.
Ume forests bloom in late January and festivals and walks through the plum forest abound in the early days of February when people from all sides of Japan flock to view the pink-flowered trees.
The neighboring Iwashiro plum forest hosts a walk to the ume trees in February. The Iwashiro elementary school children join the walk. In the plum forest, the children draw pictures of the first buds of spring.
In June the picking and pickling begins! Ume farmers often pay up to $100 a day for help gathering ume from their trees. The unripe green ume is then sold to stores. Customers buy this ume and make umeshyu, an alcohol, or ume juice or jam.
To make umeshyu, buy an eight liter jar and fill it half-way with ume. (Use the green, unripe ume, not umeboshi, the pickled plum). Then add half a bag of rock sugar, followed by more ume and more rock sugar to taste (regular sugar can be used as well). Then add two liters of brandy or shochyu (a Japanese alcohol). Let the mixture ferment for at least two months. To speed up the process, freeze half of the ume before putting them in the jar. When all of the ume are sufficiently wrinkled, the mixture should be ready for drinking. Remove the ume from the jar, and then bottle the umeshyu.
After the ume are picked, one batch is shipped to stores. People then buy the ume and make umeshyu, juice, or jellies. The rest of the ume are used to make umeboshi.
To make umeboshi, the ume are first placed in a machine that washes them and sends them rolling across a sort of conveyer belt filed with holes. As each ume falls into its appropriate sized hole, the ume become sorted by size.
Next the ume move to a new container where they are soaked in a salt mixture, and pressed under a heavy weight. During this time, moisture grows in the container, forming a sweet juice.
One ume farmer explained that once the ume are removed, he adds water to this liquid and drinks it.
After a month or so the ume are removed and dried in the sun on a net, where they are flipped periodically for about three days.
Once dry, the ume are placed back in their container with red shiso (the leaves of a beef steak plant), which give the ume their red hue. The ume are left to sit with these leaves for two to three months.
Some of this umeboshi will be sold to stores, while another batch will repeat this process again with different leaves to change the flavor and color of the ume, thus creating many varieties of umeboshi.
A hinomaru bento is a boxed-lunch composed of only rice with an umeboshi in the very center. Throughout Japanese history, a hinomaru bento (named for its resemblance to the Japanese flag) was extremely popular in times of war, a result of both poverty and patriotism. Soldiers could often be spotted with an ume onigiri in their pocket.
While visiting the plum forest, stop in at the Ume Museum, open Wednesday through Monday from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Thanks to the fact that I’m foreign, I was not charged the 400 yen admission fee. This probably had to do with the fact that the entire exhibit was in Japanese.
Minabe townspeople will be happy to point you in the right direction, or cabs are available at Minabe station. Ask the driver for the Ume Hakubutsukan (historical museum). From the fourth floor lookout, view the ume field down below, beautiful in late February.
When Japanese natives take a weekend trip or extended vacation they return bearing omiage (oh-me-ah-gay) for the workplace and close acquaintances. Omiage, a gift usually consisting of food or candy can be purchased at one of the millions of omiage shops found on virtually every other corner throughout the country.
The second floor of the ume museum boasts a large gift shop with everything ume. Choose from ume ice cream, candy, ume shampoo. A 250g box of ume runs about 1000yen.
In Minabe Junior High School, students learn to make ume juice by placing five ume and a few cups of sugar in a jar and refrigerating it for five days. After five days a juice has formed and the ume taste like sweet sugary apricots. The juice can be diluted with water, vinegar, or wine to make a tasty drink.
Umeboshi most commonly appears in rice bowls or in the center of an onigiri (rice triangle covered in a seaweed wrap). As ume does not rot it is used in boxed lunches to keep rice fresh. Popular throughout Japan, ume is said to cure hangovers.