Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Ume (梅)

I set out from Ryoanji with no particular destination.  A dérive.  I left the main road and let the side streets and architecture guide me.  In Kyoto it is not long before you stumble onto a temple or shrine.  I crossed over the Tenjin River and suddenly Kitano Tenmangu appeared.  I had been to this shrine once before a few years earlier, but because I was approaching it from a different direction I didn't recognize it.

I was surprised to see the temple crowded with people.  Even more surprising were the hundreds of ume (plum) trees bursting with the first blossoms of the season.  I had seen a lone ume blossom a few days earlier on a farm in Katsura.  Despite the frigid January temperatures this flower had somehow forced itself into the world, a single white blossom on a tree black with winter rain and snow.

Kitano Tenmangu is famous for its ume.  It was the favorite tree of Sugawara Michizane, a Heian period (794–1185) scholar, poet and politician to whom the shrine is dedicated.  Ume Matsuri (Plum Blossom Festival) has been celebrated here every year on February 25th for more than 900 years.  Apparently, before sakura (cherry blossom) came into fashion, ume was the favored spring flower of the Japanese nobility.  This tree also holds a special place in Japanese folklore as a guardian against evil spirits.  It is traditionally planted in the north-east corner of a garden, the direction from which evil is believed to come.  And unlike the sakura, the ume tree bears fruit, which when pickled is a Japanese specialty.

In early February when the sky is a sharp gray these little pink and white flowers arrive punctuating the stark winter landscape.  While they don't have the same celebrity and industry built around them as the sakura, they are still beloved by the Japanese as a harbinger of spring.

In the U.S. a scruffy rodent called the groundhog is the messenger of spring.  Its appearance on February 2nd after a long winter slumber roughly marks the halfway point of winter.  In Japan it is the considerably more charming ume blossom that announces the coming season.

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