Japan's 72 Microseasons - #27
"Plums Yellow And Ripen"
June 16 - 20
うめの み きばむ
Ume no mi kibamu
”Plums yellow and ripen”
A sudden rain breaks the heavy humidity that had been building overnight, and shining golden in the newly cleared summer air is a branch laden with plums ripe for plucking. The ume (梅, Japanese plum1) is so closely related to the days of the rainy season that it’s part of the name: tsuyu (梅雨)2.
While the (some would say underappreciated) flowers of the Japanese plum tree didn’t receive their own kō like cherry blossoms and peach blossoms did, neither of those trees produce actual, delicious fruit so I think we know who the true winner is. Unlike rice, grains, livestock, and other crops, all a fruit tree needs to provide tasty produce is soil, sun, and space to grow. Every tree has its own way of working, and we have spent a long time getting to know the signs of when they’re ready to share their bounty. The fruit of their labor, you could say.
For the fruit of the Prunus mume’s labor, that sign is when they turn from leaf-green to sunset-amber and begin to fall to the ground like raindrops. There’s a neat uncommon verb used in this kō to describe this color change: kibamu (黄ばむ), meaning “to turn yellow with age.” The leading kanji character 黄 (ki) means “yellow” and the ～ばむ(-bamu) suffix means “to show signs of.” This verb can also be used to describe yellowing leaves in autumn, or paper that yellows over time.3
While we’re on the topic of vocab, there’s another interesting tidbit here. First off, when we talk about ume, that’s the overall plum concept: tree, flower, fruit, foodstuffs, the whole thing. If we want to be specific about the fruit then we’d want to use ume no mi (梅の実). You’ll notice, if you looked back up at the top, that the 実 character isn’t in the name of this kō. What’s there instead is 子. Typically read “ko” (not the lengthened “kō”), its meaning is “child.” So we have a cute and poetic “plum child” rather than a more direct “fruit of the plum,” which is—you guessed it—a holdover from the Chinese.
実 is a very interesting and important character in Japanese: on its own it most typically means “truth,” “reality,” or “result,”4 and it’s that last one that brought us the various words for fruit that are “___ no mi” as well as the general term for fruits, berries, and even nuts: kajitsu (果実). Other “___ no mi” fruit words include kuwa no mi (桑の実, mulberries), kaki no mi (カキの実, persimmons) and matsu no mi (松の実, pine nuts), but really you can use the suffix any time you want to refer to a fruit and not its tree or bush.
One type of “___ no mi” fruit that could be more familiar to non-Japanese speakers, however, would be one that fans of the anime One Piece may have already picked up on: the Aku no Mi (悪魔の実), or “Devil Fruits.” Each of the power-giving fruits in the series have the same naming convention of “(doubled word)5 no mi.” So not just Luffy’s famous Gum-Gum Fruit (Gomu-Gomu no Mi) but ones like the Chop-Chop Fruit (Bara-Bara no Mi) and Flame-Flame Fruit (Mera-Mera no Mi).
Anyway, back to ume no mi, a fruit you can safely eat without becoming embroiled in a massive pirate war or losing your ability to swim. Ripe ume growing on neighborhood trees are still a common sight in Japan, and those finding themselves with an abundance of them can make a trip to the supermarket or home goods store, where kits are sold with everything you need to make homemade umeshu (梅酒), plum liquor6. The “recipe,” such as it is, consists of fresh ume, rock candy-like sugar crystals, and a clear spirit usually just called “white liquor.” Ratios vary depending on desired sweetness and strength of the alcohol used, but 1:1:1 in a big sealed jar left in a cool, dark spot for a year is the basic idea.
And although less popular these days, there are also still plenty of folks who still make traditional umeboshi (梅干し), the dried and pickled ume that add a splash of color and a hint of bitter sour to the rice in a bento box. Skip the pickling and dry them even further and you get hoshiume (干し梅), something a bit closer to a sour candy treat. You can also make a really lovely, tart syrup with them! Here’s the basic process courtesy of the YouTube channel KAWAHARA, a traditional soba restaurant that shares their various homemade techniques. (They also, of course, have one for umeboshi)
Which I think leads us quite nicely into our seasonal items for this kō:
● Seasonal fruit
ume, 梅, Japanese plum (or apricot)
● Seasonal seafood
suzuki, すずき, Japanese sea bass
● Seasonal flower
suikazura, すいかずら, honeysuckle
We’re nearly halfway through the year and things are beginning to ripen. May the plans you’ve made and things you’re growing bear delicious, golden fruit.
See you next kō~
Keep up with the seasons
Or apricot, given the tree is a relative of both and its resulting fruit is neither
Over the history of the Japanese language, the season has also been called meiyu and baiu, differing pronunciations applied to the current kanji characters imported from China, where the rainy season has been “the plum rains” since at least the 8th century
The meteorological system that creates the rainy season is called the “meiyu front”
And yes there are similar words for other colors! Aobamu (青ばむ) for turning green*, kurozumu (黒ずむ) for turning black/dark, benizumu (紅ずむ) for turning red, and the very specific akachakeru (赤茶ける) for turning rusty reddish-brown
(*I can’t nest these footnotes, but 青 can mean both green and blue in Japanese—it’s a long story but when it comes to plants, traffic lights, and naïve freshmen at least, 青 means “green”)
Much as in English, the phrases “fruit of one’s labor” and “to bear fruit (as with preparations)” both make use of the 実 character: rōku no seika (労苦の成果) and mi wo musubu (実を結ぶ)
More specifically, they come from a huge list of what are called "ideophones” in linguistics and include familiar onomatopoeia (like “moo moo” or “crunch crunch”) as well as more abstract states (like doki doki, a heart fluttering; or pika pika, something sparkling)
It’s actually best to use unripe green ume for this, but this kō felt like a good time to bring it up