Ume Blossoms Herald Spring At Depth Of Winter

Ume blossoms herald spring at depth of winterAs winter has progressed and gone past “risshun” (first day of spring on the lunar calendar), the cold should now be nothing more than “yokan” (a lingering cold).
But as usual, mid-February days are still bitterly cold.

Still, this is the time of the year when stirrings of life begin to emerge just as the temperature curve reaches its bottom.

When I was recently in Fukuoka Prefecture on business, I visited the fabled Dazaifu Tenmangu shrine and discovered that the ume trees had begun to put forth their blossoms.

Ume trees (Japanese apricot) come into blossom, braving the biting cold, without waiting for the warm weather of spring.

Ume trees are an appropriate symbol of the shrine, dedicated to Tenjin, the Shinto god of scholarship and the deification of Sugawara no Michizane (845-903), a scholar, poet and politician of the aristocratic Heian Period (794-1185).

Clusters of “ema” (votive wooden tablets) with prayers for the passage of university entrance exams written on them were seen hanging on display near ume trees.

In this column, I once wrote that praying to ume trees to pass an entrance exam and then celebrate the success in the exam with the standard phrase “The cherry trees have come into bloom” is unfair to ume.

Soon after that, I received a letter from a reader saying ume’s virtue is its self-effacement, which means not taking any credit.

In contrast to cherry blossoms, which are splendid and glamorous, ume blossoms can be best described with a Chinese character that is pronounced “rin” in Japanese and means “dignified” or “imposing.”

During the Nara Period (710-784), ume trees, which had come from China, were widely admired. Ume is the second most popular plant in "Manyoshu," the oldest existing collection of Japanese poetry, with the number of poems singing the praises of ume being second only to that of poems about "hagi" (Japanese bush clover).

One of them was composed by Otomo no Tabito (665-731) while he stayed in Dazaifu as governor-general. It goes:

"The flowers of the ume tree/ Scatter in my garden/ Like a shower of snow/ From the heavens"

This beautiful poem compares falling ume blossoms to snowfall in a way that subtly suggests the transience of life.

Some 170 years after Tabito's poem was composed, Sugawara no Michizane was demoted from a high-ranking position at the Kyoto imperial court to a minor official post at Dazaifu in a famous historic episode.

There is a legend about Tenmangu’s beloved “tobiume” (flying ume). After Michizane left Kyoto to take the post in Dazaifu, the ume tree, which missed him so much, flew from Kyoto to reunite with him.

During my visit at the shrine, a group of students on a field trip were reading a plaque telling the legend of this tree.

People living in the northern parts of the nation and areas along the Sea of Japan would be better advised to brace themselves for a new wave of cold weather which, belying the term “lingering cold,” could bring heavy snow to the regions.

Looking at the threatening weather chart, I pondered the fact that, unlike in the warm area redolent of ume, spring is still far away in northern Japan. I prayed that students taking entrance exams might soon be able to celebrate their own successes in the warmth of spring.