Report by Isla Phillips for Fukuoka Now
Tenmangu shrines exist across Japan and are dedicated to the spirit of the scholar Michizane Sugawara, the Shinto god of learning. Dazaifu Tenmangu is particularly famous because it’s built over the actual grave of Michizane Sugawara, who died there in 903. To the right of the main shrine is Tobiume, the shrine’s most famous plum tree. Legend has it that after Michizane was exiled to Dazaifu, this tree yearned so much for him that it uprooted itself in Kyoto and flew south to reunite itself with Michizane in Dazaifu. Because Michizane loved plum trees, the temple’s extensive grounds are covered with more than 6,000 stunning plum trees which blossom in unison every spring. There are in fact over 200 different kinds of white and red plum blossoms in the grounds, justifying it as one of the best places to view plum blossoms in the whole of Japan.
Each year, Dazaifu Tenmangu hosts a national umeshu (梅酒, plum wine) festival to coincide with the plum blossoms. Umeshu is a traditional Japanese liquor made by stewing plums in sugar and alcohol. It was first consumed as medicine to soothe sore throats but in the Showa period, laws were relaxed and people started to brew it at home. It can be served straight (on the rocks) and at different temperatures. It’s very sweet and is one of my favorite Japanese drinks and I was (rightly) very excited for my umeshu-soaked afternoon.
I arrived on a very sunny afternoon for the opening day of the festival. Dazaifu, as always, was bustling with happy tourists. As we were walking along the lovely cobbled streets that lead to the temple’s main gate, we chanced upon nothing less than a big cow pulling a cart of sake. We were handed wooden boxes of sake and then witnessed the ensemble parade up towards Tenmangu, followed by a procession of flutes, drums and string instruments. This was definitely an auspicious start to our plum wine tasting.
We made across the bridges, which symbolize the past and the future, over the heart-shaped pond to the festival area. After buying and showing your ticket at the desk you are ushered under the pavilion to watch the introductory video (which is in Japanese but is helpfully animated). We were told about the different areas within the marquee and about the strict 30-minute time limit. We were also warned not to be deceived by the little cup because if you drank 140 tasters (there are 150 plum-wines in the tent) you’d have drunk an equivalent of a whole bottle of umeshu. The show also allows the festival to manage the flow of people into the marquee so that space never becomes too crowded with excited umeshu lovers. So, armed with the knowledge of the alcohol content, and our little plastic cups, we were finally ready to become umeshu connoisseurs.
It was a blissful thirty minutes. Let loose in a marquee filled with umeshu from all over Japan, my understanding of how this sweet, sweet drink can taste dramatically improved. There were a total of eight different areas which all had plum wine in different forms. First, there was the plain umeshu section, and even here I was surprised at the contrast between umeshu made from white plums was from red plums. The latter was much more tart, reminding me of a sour granny apple. Other sections proffered umeshu in combination with other spirits, such as sake (rice wine), shochu (sweet potato liquor), and even brandy. There was a section of nigori (cloudy) plum wine, which is a type I’ve never tried. It’s unfiltered which means it has finely-grated pulp of the ume plums in it. There was even a couple of bottles of expensive koshu (aged) plum wine to try. I was told that one was a one-hundred-year-old umeshu.
Other exciting umeshu included the sparkling umeshu and the umeshu with pieces of gold leaf in it. My taste buds were particularly excited by the spicy umeshu, that you absolutely must try if you visit the festival. Before my tasting adventure, I considered umeshu to be a very sweet drink, which is partly true, but now I can really see that there is an umeshu to suit everyone. If you do like the sweetness though, I’d recommend Hiroshima Carp’s own blend, which is red and very, very sweet.
Out of all the umeshu I tasted, I particularly enjoyed the blended umeshu. I loved the citrus blends and also elderflower, mango, and cherry. Interesting flavors like rosehip, hibiscus, and ginger are also up for grabs. I personally wasn’t a big fan of the umeshu blended with rose though. It comes in a bottle that looks like perfume, which is apt because the taste reminded me of kissing someone with perfume on their neck. On the other hand, it is a very different flavor and would make a good gift. Another excellent umeshu to gift would be the limeade umeshu, it tasted really unique and reminded me very much of a gin and tonic type flavor. I’m also a big fan of the tea-blended umeshu, both black tea, and green tea. If you like this you must also try the cocktails that are on offer outside the tent – they have a fabulous Kobai cocktail, made with umeshu and black tea, which is very lemony and refreshing. The Nippon Bartenders Association have three different cocktails which you can try at the festival.
Before leaving the tent to get yourself a cocktail however, you need to indulge in some umeshu jelly for the novelty at the very least! Once your thirty minutes are up, you might decide to wander up to the Kyushu National Museum, which is very close to the shrine, if you feel inspired by the scholarly spirit of Michizane. Alternatively, if you’re a bit tipsy, you can grab a bowl of curry for ¥600 as you leave your tasting session. Other food stalls are dotted around the temple, like chips, pizza, and other festival foods you’d expect. I’d also encourage you to try the umeshu beer. Either stir the drink or let it rest for a bit and then enjoy the smooth and slightly sweet taste – a kiss of umeshu. There are some beautiful ikebana on display around the wall of the main temple and umeshu is available to purchase outside the marquee.
A list of all the umeshu at the festival can be found here.