Samurai Dave: The Roving Ronin Report

Rambling Narrative of Travels, Thoughts, and Embellishments

Japanese Plum Blossoms Herald the Coming of Spring

Japanese Plum Blossoms Herald the Coming of Spring
Before the Cherry Blossoms there were the Plum Blossoms

White Plum Blossoms signal the coming of Spring

“The Cherry may be the prettier of the two; but when once you have seen the red Plum-blossom in the snow at the dawn of a spring morning, you will no longer forget its beauty.”
Fujiwara no Kinto (996-1075)

With the coming of Spring, all of Japan becomes very vigilant and watchful. They’re not watching for any suspicious North Korean vessels in their waters, but for the first signs of the blooming of sakura – cherry blossoms. For over a thousand years, cherry blossoms have played a large role in the lives of the Japanese mainly as an excuse to party. Hanami is the name for these cherry blossom viewing parties which involves plopping a blue tarp down under some blooming cherry trees and preceding to get sloshed amidst the pink foliage.

However, long ago, it wasn’t the cherry blossom that held the hearts of Japanese in thrall. It was the diminutive and demure plum blossom (ume) which moved poets nimble hands and made emperors weep. Plum blossom hanami was one of many customs that came from China during Japan’s developing phase. The plum tree was not originally an indigenous plant in Japan but was brought over from China. It quickly took root, though, in the fertile soil and imagination of Japan.

Plum blossoms are seen in Japan as the heralds of Spring, the restrained forerunners to the bold cherry blossoms. They typically bloom from mid-February to mid-March before making way for the grandstanding cherry blossoms.

Plum Blossom Maidens at Mito’s Kairaku-en Garden

The cherry blossom was said to represent a woman’s beauty while the plum blossom was said to represent her purity.

Plum Blossoms near Mt. Mitake east of Tokyo

Plum blossoms were associated with literacy and intellectual pursuits. An old Chinese verse runs:

When literacy is loved
The plum blossoms will open
When learning is prohibited
The plum blossoms will close.

Plum tree blooming over the thousands of ema prayer boards left by worried students at Yushima Tenjin Shrine in Tokyo

One of the Plum blossoms greatest patrons was the noted scholar Sugawara-no-Michizane (845-903).  He was a scholar and Imperial advisor before his downfall. When he was exiled from Kyoto to a lonely island, legend says his favorite plum tree uprooted itself and flew to his place of exile to comfort him. Later, Michizane was deified as a Shinto god of learning and shrines were erected to honor him. Plum trees are often planted at his shrines which bloom over the thousands of prayer boards known as ema left by students seeking Michizane’s aid in passing their exams.

Patron of Plum Blossoms and Entrance Exams
The scholarly deity Sugawara-no-Michizane

Sugawara-no-Michizane (845-903) was Japan’s Man for all Season in the 9th century. After his death, he became the Most Unfriendliest Ghost. In life, Michizane was a gifted scholar, poet, and politician. He earned accolades and titles but also the animosity of his rivals. The powerful Fujiwara family who practically ran the country did not like the influence Michizane had over Emperor Uda. When Uda retired, as was the fashion, they poisoned the new Emperor’s ear against Michizane claiming he conspired to supplant him. The young easily-swayed Emperor gave heed and had Michizane exiled.

Michizane died only a few short years later, heartbrokened by his fall from grace. Sometime afterwards, a number of calamities struck the capital in Kyoto. Lighting struck the Imperial Palace, the Emperor’s sons died mysteriously while plague and drought stalked the land. It was believed by many that Michizane’s unhappy spirit had become a goryo – a vengeful spirit – and was now enacting his revenge for his wrongful exile. To appease his angry spirit, a shrine was built in his honor and his titles were restored to him. Later he was elevated to deity status as the god of calligraphy and learning known as Tenjin.

Since Plum blossoms were his favorite in life, they are always planted at his shrines. They come into bloom at the same time the ema prayer boards multiply at his shrines from students praying for his assistance with their entrance exams.

Plum blossoms are smaller in size and therefore do not cover their branches to the degree that cherry blossoms do. Plum blossoms, however, have a fragrant scent unlike their odorless successors the cherry blossoms. This scent has been popular theme for a number Haiku poems from famed poets.

Plum Blossoms at Kairaku-en Garden in Mito

Scent of plum blossoms
on the misty mountain path
a big rising sun
Matsuo Basho (1644-1694)

Great moon
wrapped in plum scent
all mine
Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828)

Far away the water flows
Past the plum-scented village.
Shohaku (1443-1527)

Plum Wind
Fragrance alone, I thought
Was the wind’s burden,
But petals too
Are circling the plum garden.
Okuma Kotomichi (1798-1868)

Kairaku-en Garden
A Benevolent Lord’s Gift to his People

Kairaku-en is an unique garden park, not just for it’s three thousand plum blossom trees and elegant manor house but for its history of being one of the few gardens of Old Japan which was open to the general public. The lords and samurai of Old Japan built lovely gardens for themselves and their associates but they were off-limits to the common folks.

The Mito province where Kairaku-en built was blessed with two great lords who cared about the welfare of commoners. Mito Mitsukuni (1628-1700), the secord lord of Mito, was greatly concerned about the administration of justice and the abuse of power. He used to travel about in secret to observe administrative authorities to make sure they did not oppress the people under them. Stories, books, and television shows have popularized his life and made him virtually a household name.

The ninth lord of Mito, Tokugawa Nariaki (1800-1860), was of the same vein as Mito. He constructed an enormous park encompassing over 130,000 square meters in which he had more than 3000 plum trees planted. In a sharp contrast of protocol, Nariaki threw the doors open wide for all to enjoy hence the name – “Kairaku-en” (“the garden for sharing pleasures with people”).

So while the cherry blossom has long dominated the scene and continues to do so, the plum blossom still holds it own with its own grace and charm. Without the plum blossom and the tradition of hanami (blossom viewing) brought over from China along with the tree itself, there may never have been any cherry blossom tradition and Japanese Spring would be a quieter and duller time than it is today.

Plum Blossoms in the heart of Tokyo

Plum blossoms:
My spring
Is an ecstacy

On the back of the mirror,
A spring unseen,
A flowering plum-tree.

Plum-blossoms everywhere,
I should go south,
I should go north.
Yosa Buson (1716-1784)

Harbingers of Climate Change?
Early blooming plum blossoms

Due to the unnaturally warm weather in Japan this year, plum blossoms bloomed in certain areas weeks earlier than usual. The photograph above was taken at a temple in eastern Tokyo in mid-January, nearly a month earlier than the normal season.

While a few people are still skeptical of climate change and global warming, for others the recent trend of unusual weather from snowless winters, icestorms, powerful hurricanes, and melting icecaps bodes ill for the future.

And though those few would have us do nothing considering it be a natural phenomenon, others like Al Gore feel that the last century’s immense pollution output has had a considerable impact on the environment and that action is required.

April 8, 2007 Posted by | global warming, hanami, japan, Kairaku-en, mito, plum blossom, spring, sugawara no michizane, tokyo, travel, ume, yushima tenjin | 6 Comments