UMEMI (梅見)- Plum Blossom Viewing- and smelling!
By Avi Landau
In Japan, February 4th is RISHUN (立春), the first day of spring. So even in Japan’s mild-wintered Kanto region, in most years, radio and television weather-casters, along with the general public, can do nothing but complain about the inappropriately cold weather ( imagine how they must feel in those regions still deep in snow!).
This year, however, on spring`s first day, afternoon temperatures were actually quite warm, an unusual case of the weather properly befitting the occasion. And, as an extra treat, many of Tsukuba’s plum blossoms (ume no hana), Japan’s symbolic harbingers of spring, burst into bloom (perfectly on cue) on the very same day! These earliest blooming of Japan’s popular flowering trees are also its most fragrant, and yesterday’s warm breezes might have carried their thick, sweet, syrupy smell to noses throughout the area.
Since I knew that the glorious weather would not be here to stay ( some of the coldest days of the year probably still lay ahead), I decided to TAKE ADVANTAGE of the conditions and spend the afternoon after RISSHUN ( which was even more glorious than the 4th), at Tsukuba`s excellent botanical garden, admiring the UME blossoms AND basking in their scent.
My inspiration for doing this was a classical Japanese poem which is included in the Manyoshu, Japan`s oldest ( and many say greatest) anthology of poetry, and goes like this: 春さればまづ咲くやどの梅の花独り見つつや春日暮らさむ[筑前守山上大夫] - HARU SAREBA MAZU SAKU YADO NO UME NO HANA HITORI MITSUTSUYA HARUHI KURASAMU
which I paraphrase into English as:
When spring comes, the first to bloom is the plum, let me spend one spring day, gazing at it ( Yama no ue no Okura )
This is one of the MANY poems about plum blossoms included in the Manyoshu (there are 119 of them- only HAGI, bush clover was a more popular motif), which was compiled at a time, the 8th century, when the cherry blossom had not yet become as popular and prominent, as it would in later years.
The poem above was composed at the military outpost of DAZAIFU, on the Island of Kyushu, far from the Capital which was then the center of culture. The poet was inspired by a plum tree`s white blossoms ( the pink blossoms did not become popular till later years) which had come into bloom at the manor of the commander of the garrison, Otomo no Tabito.
At that time, plum trees were a symbol of civilization and high culture, especially that inspired by China, since this was the favorite tree of the classical CHINESE POETS, who were so admired by the Japanese nobility at that time.
(The plum was considered auspicious not only because it bloomed early in the year, but also because it lived many years and still bore blossoms at a great age.)
Because the UME was a tree not native to Japan and could still mostly be found around the capital, that particular plum tree reminded the poet, now far off in the provinces, of home and of the sophisticated life he had left behind. to put it another way, the blossoms reeked of civilization!
Over the subsequent centuries plum trees were bred into numerous varieties ( they were first brought to Japan more than 1300 years ago by returnees of missions to various Chinese dynastic courts), and the plum blossoms still rival Japan’s national flower, the cherry blossoms (sakura no hana) in terms of endearment in the hearts of the Japanese people.
In fact, in the early Showa Period, there was a heated debate over which of the two WOULD become the national flower. The plum’s strong points were not only that it was beautiful and highly fragrant and the first major blossom of the new year and thus symbol of spring’s coming, praised so often by Japan’s greatest classical poets. It was also a unique feature of the DAILY JAPANESE DIET in the form of UME BOSHI, or salted plums, as well as a popular ingredient for liquor and juice.
It was probably the fact that plum blossoms were already the national flower of China (which they still are in Taiwan), and had been introduced to Japan from there that the UME lost out. Of course, there is also the matter of the more delicate cherry blossoms being more representative of the quintessential Japanese notion, MUJO, the fleeting nature of all things.
Despite having been brought in from abroad, the first western scientists to encounter the plum trees, including Philip Von Sebold, mistook them as being native to Japan. This could also be because, though a popular motive of Chinese art, there is no special tradition of viewing their flowers nor is there the custom of regularly eating their fruit.
For the Japanese, there is another interesting significance to the plum blossom: its connection to the passing of entrance examinations! The other day, just as I was mentioning plum blossoms to a friend of mine who has been driven to distraction by her son’s upcoming exams, someone’s cellphone rang. It was hers. A considerate friend had sent her a photo of a plum tree in bloom as a way of saying, “I hope your son is gonna pass!”
How did the ume no hana come to have such a connection to studies and the passing of tests? Well, the answer is simple: the plum tree was a favorite of SUGAWARA NO MICHIZANE, the great Heian Period poet, scholar and calligrapher who was unjustly expelled from the capital, died in exile, and was later enshrined as the GOD TENJIN, the patron god of scholars, poets, calligraphers and students. According to legend, when Michizane was leaving the capital on the road to exile in distant Dazaifu, ( yes, the same outpost in Kyushu), it was only his plum tree that Michizane bade farewell with this, the most famous of all his poems.
KOCHI FUKABA NIOI OKOSE YO UME NO HANA
ARUJI NASHI TOTE HARU NA WASURESO
(If the East wind blows this way, send your fragrance to me, o plum blossoms,
even though I am no longer there).
Legend then says that the tree came flying all the way to Kyushu to give the forlorn aristocrat solace to the end of his days (which was not very far off).
(What ever happened to the plum tree which had bloomed years earlier in Otomo no Tabito`s garden years earlier? Who knows? I guess over the decades the place had gone to ruin!)
There are almost always plum trees, sometimes hundreds, at shrines dedicated to Michizane, or TENJIN, as he is called in deified form. In this season, millions of supplicants visit these shrines to pray for exam success, and appropriately the plum blossoms are opening, filling the sacred precincts with the fragrance of HOPE.
Luckily for those of us who live in Ibaraki, Mito, our prefectural capital is the home to one of the most famous places for enjoying plum blossoms, KAIRAKUEN. The ume festival there will begin toward the end of this month But the trees might be blooming already!)
Also, much nearer to home are the plums of Mt Tsukuba, which also might be opened already.
And still closer for many Tsukubans is the Botanical Garden, where I spent my day today with our prefectural tree- the PLUM (ume)!
For students of the Japanese language:
Do not forget that the expression HANAMI (花見), literally flower viewing, refers specifically to Cherry blossom viewing parties and should not be used for enjoying plum blossoms. For UME viewing you can use the expression UMEMI (梅見).
Enjoy- if the weather holds up! But don`t count on it.