Last Sunday was the 46th annual Sumomo (Plum Blossom) Festival in Norikura Highlands. The festival is held every May in the beautiful Ichinose Enchi area of Norikura to celebrate the coming of spring in the highlands. Every year, the event begins with a blessing ceremony performed by Shinto priests, followed by several performances or shows.
This was my first time going to the Sumomo Festival and the first thing I noticed was that unlike most events in Japan, it’s not super crowded! The festival grounds are set up in a wide-open grassy area spotted with plum trees and has a crystal clear (and ice cold!) stream running through it. There’s plenty of room to layout a big picnic blanket and lazily enjoy the festival shows, the food, and the scenery.
Everything kicks off at 10:00 A.M. but many people come early so they can secure a ticket for one of the main attractions – the free homemade soba noodles and “sansai” tempura. Sansai is the name for a variety of edible, wild plants picked from the mountains in the spring, for example kogomi (fiddleheads or young fern stalks), koshi abura buds, and fukinoto (young butterbur).
The sansai season is very short and the plants are prized for their unique, sometimes pleasantly bitter, flavors. Perhaps the most popular way to prepare them is frying them as tempura. At the festival booths, you can buy fresh sansai to cook with at home as well as other homemade foods made with sansai or other local vegetables such as sansai rice balls, oyaki dumplings (one of my favorites!), Japanese pickles, and obento-style lunch boxes. Other booths sell breads or baked goods from local bakeries, among other things.
The performances are fun to watch too. First of all, I should mention that after the Shinto priests finish their ceremony, they break into a barrel of local sake which is shared with all the festival comers (including you!). After that, the local Alpenhorn (+ one accordion) players played a few songs followed by a kid’s taiko drum performance that echos the drum beats through the whole park, and a traditional “sumomo dance” by kimono-clad dancers (everyone can participate in this dance).
Next came a kind of “live calligraphy” performance by Matsumoto’s Arigasaki High School Calligraphy Girls club in which the girls create a huge piece of calligraphy artwork using giant brushes and coordinating the performance to music. Last was a vocal and acoustic performance from a Norikura-born singer/songer writer who is now active in Tokyo.
The performances last until about noon but you can hang around in the area for afterwards or if you came by car, check out the Zengoro Falls just up the road from the Visitor Center. It’s located a little far from the center of Matsumoto but it’s easy to get to if you use the Norikura-bound buses departing from Shin-Shimashima station and get off at the “Kanko Center” (Norikura Visitor Center) bus stop. It’s probably a 10-15 minute walk from the Visitor Center. By the way, don’t forget sunscreen! The sun rays are extra strong because of the high elevation so you don’t want to go home bright red.