Visiting Japan in June “Rainy Season”, Hydrangeas and Umeshu
The first or second week of June typically marks the start of what is termed the rainy season in Japan, which usually lasts 5-6 weeks. For those visiting Japan in June, the temperatures are very mild (average 65-75 degrees F). But the humidity definitely increases and you can have a light mist and rain for several days in a row. The rainy season is an integral part of the natural rhythm of life in Japan as it heralds season change, Japan turns even a deeper green and the Aji-sai (hydrangeas) go into full bloom. It is the time when ume (Japanese plums) come into season.
Ume are not actually plums, but more closely related to apricots, and they must be pickled, salted or infused before they are edible…but what a treat. Ume usually end up either as “umeboshi” (Japanese salt plums) or “umeshu” a wonderful and unique, slightly sweet and refreshing lightly alcoholic beverage.
Umeboshi are a popular kind of tsukemono (pickles) and are sour and salty. They are usually served as side dishes for rice or eaten on rice balls (often without removing the pit) for breakfast and lunch. Umeboshi were esteemed by the samurai to combat battle fatigue and the standard Japanese folk remedy for colds is okayu (rice porridge) with umeboshi.
Umeshu is a Japanese liqueur made from steeping ume fruit while still unripe and green in alcohol, typically Japanese Shocho [Link to blog on Shochu] and sugar. It typically has a sweet, sour taste, and an alcohol content of 10–15%. Often people who don’t typically enjoy alchohol, very much enjoy the taste and aroma of umeshu. Varieties abound in Japan and some are available with whole ume fruits contained in the bottle, and many families (including ours) make their own umeshu at home. There are many ways to enjoy it but our personal favorites are simple umeshu on the rocks (pronounced umeshu rokku), umeshu tonic, or the rainy season and summer favorite umeshu soda (with 2/3 carbonated water over ice). It is particularly well suited to afternoon sipping during the rainy season and the summer as it has a cooling effect, much like a pastis in France.
People can be put off of travelling in June due to the weather. But in reality, the rainy season mist makes for a wonderfully atmospheric quality to many shrines, temples and nature trails in Japan, and is typically less crowded. Again, a slightly different mindset is all that’s required to make Japan a truly exceptional during this period. Be ready to experience a bit of rain and mist, pack accordingly, and experience the incredible history, nature, museums, and UNESCO World Heritage that abounds in Japan. Some of our favorites include the Kamakura hillsides for the bold and beautiful hydrangeas set among the deep greens and many lovely temples, visiting Kyoto’s top shrines which are truly special in the mist and usually slightly less crowded than usual, the nature of the northern island of Hokkaido which actually doesn’t experience a rainy season, and of course the museums with our choices being the Edo-Tokyo museum and the Kyoto National museum. Generally, carve out more time for rest, reflection and reading during this period all while sipping an umeshu soda, and you simply can’t go wrong.