Human Flower Project

Plum Blossoms of Kitano Tenmangu

Japan gets a jump on spring, as blossoms of ume open on bare branches.


Prunus mume, plum blossoms, Japan’s harbinger of spring

We remember the first blooming plants of the year in March: crocus, then a bit later the daffodils, quince and forsythia. Our birthday falls in late February, dank and colorless, when the best you could hope for was a mild wind.

Some year, not this one, we are determined to celebrate our birthday in Japan, where late February is a time to relish instead of just endure.  White, pink, red (sometimes, yellow) the plum trees bloom now, their five-petalled flowers opening in happy defiance along bare black branches.

In Kyoto last fall for the first time, we insisted on visiting Kitano Tenmangu, a Shinto shrine in the northern part of the city. Our Goodwill Guides, Minori Goto and Moe Honjo, were a little perplexed at this choice – a time-consuming trip, meaning we’d have to forego the city’s greater glories. But we were fascinated by a Shinto shrine dedicated to a scholar: Sugawara no Michizane (845-903).

imageTenugui with plum blossoms from Eirakuya, Kyoto’s
380 year old textile shop

Photo: Human Flower Project

We’d read that Michizane was a learned man, expert in classical Chinese culture. Especially favored by the Emperor, he rose in the ranks of the Court but after his imperial protector died, rivals defamed him. Demoted, he was sent off to a minor post at Dazaifu, leaving behind his beloved orchard of ume trees.

When east winds blow

send me your sweet scent,

my blooming plum.

Though your master’s gone

Do not forget the spring!

Nor did Kyoto forget Michizane. After he left in disfavor and died in a distant city, the capital was rocked by an earthquake and several imperial officials were struck by lightning. Awed by what they took to be Michizane’s vengeful spirit, the Shinto elders made him a god and built Tenmangu shrines to honor him.

Kitano Tenmangu in Kyoto is the greatest of these. And on February 25, it hosts a Plum Blossom Festival, among 1500 ume trees planted in Michizane’s honor.


Enjoying the ume in bloom at Kitano Tenmangu shrine, Kyoto

Photo: Rick Elizaga/Son of Soy

According to Sumiko Enbutsu’s “A Flower Lover’s Guide to Tokyo” the plum tree’s “flowering season happens to coincide with school and college entrance exams.” Minori told us that she had in fact made a pilgrimage to Kitano Tenmangu before her own exams.

Does any thinking person come to an end of his or her “student days”?

We’ll hope to be in Kyoto some future February, eager to learn more of this culture which, like the ume itself, rightly revels in precocity.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 02/23 at 10:39 PM


We are looking for spring but are not finding it here in NYC. 

Anyway, have you heard of ume wine?  We drank some, a gift from a friend, when we lived in Berkeley.  Like sake, it is an acquired taste, I think.

Posted by Georgia on 02/24 at 09:34 PM


If not ume blossoms, then what is/are the first signs of spring in NYC? Bare shoulders, maybe. Let us know!!

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 02/24 at 10:58 PM

The blossoms in the first photo are so pretty under that snow!

I’ll have to remember this temple for the next time I visit Kyoto.  smile

Posted by Maktaaq on 02/27 at 01:07 AM

Great to hear from you, Oana!

Thanks for checking in.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 02/27 at 01:17 PM
Commenting is not available in this channel entry.