By Avi Landau
When one uses the word HANAMI (花見, flower viewing) on its own, it is understood by native speakers of Japanese to refer ONLY to the viewing and enjoyment of blooming CHERRY BLOSSOMS- and not of any other flower. This clearly shows the high regard given to the fragile pink blossoms which have since the Heian Period symbolized the transient nature of all things, one of the cornerstone concepts of Japanese aesthetics and philosophy. Going to a meisho (名所, a famous place for viewing cherry blossoms) can reveal how the Japanese have turned the simple pleasure of enjoying flowers in bloom, into what seems like a religious pilgrimage. They come from near and far, as couples, families, or groups shuttled in on karaoke equipped tour buses. They bring lunch-boxes and of course cameras. The blossoms are observed intently (and I mean with great intention, as if posing in a kabuki play) from afar and then from way in up close. The atmosphere is at once, solemn and celebratory, reverent and ribald.
And while not as not as philosophically appealing*, the more prosaic, though equally beautiful – and more fragrant) plum (ume) blossoms, also bring in the crowds (though the late night drinking and revelry beneath the trees is reserved for the cherry).
This next couple of weeks you’ll have a chance to take in the 3,000 plum trees of the famed Kairakuen Garden in Mito in full bloom. Until the end of March, a temporary train station will be in use bringing you direct service to the garden’s entrance. Kairakuen offers the chance to see varieties of plum trees that you never knew existed. The tora-no-o, which looks like a tigers tail, the darkly pink kounshomu, the nearly translucent tsukikage, etc.
Closer to home you can drive, or take the bus to the Mt. Tsukuba Plum Garden – or just take a stroll through one of Tsukuba’s older neighborhoods to enjoy them.
The plum blossoms are the first of the major flowers to bloom each year. Their fragrance in the air is a sign that spring is coming. Their hardiness and resistance to cold and wind make them a very auspicious symbol. If you read ancient Japanese poetry, there are hundreds of references to the blossoms of the beautiful and practical plum tree.
It`s because they provide the medicinally important and tasty plums for umeboshi (salted plums) which have become a standard part of every boxed lunch, that the frugal and practical minded Tokugawa Nariaki, the founder of the Kairakuen Garden, planted so many of the trees. You can enjoy the fruit of his efforts by getting on the Joban line this week, heading north just one stop past Mito station, and enjoying the blossoms, the spectacle and maybe a little plum wine (ume shu, 梅酒). Entrance is FREE for Ibaraki residents!
I have written more about PLUM BLOSSOMS ( ume no hana) in Japanese culture and history.
Here is an out-take of one of my previous articles::
More on Plum Blossoms in Japanese Culture
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, 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).
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 in bloom, filling the sacred precincts with the fragrance of HOPE.
Luckily for those of us who live in Ibaraki, in this season- these invigorating sights and smells are never very far..
* While cherry (sakura) blossoms came to represent HANA (flowers) in Japan during the Heian Period (794 – 1185), knocking plum (ume) blossoms out of that position (which they had held during the Nara Period, 710-794), there were certain Japanese (in later generations) who favored UME as THE flower – of beauty AND philosophy. Above, I have already mentioned the scholars – but I left out another important group: the Zen priests! In fact, the founder of the Soto Sect, Dogen (1200-1253), who in his 20’s journeyed to Sung China to deepen his understanding of Buddhism, uses the plum blossoms on the branch of an ancient plum tree to illustrate (using a highly subjective translation into Japanese of his teacher RUJING‘S Chinese words) one of his many difficult teachings – that past, present and future are ONE ( in a similar way that St. Patrick used the clover to help people understand the trinity!). In fact, one of the chapters in Dogen’s great work SHOBOGENZO is entitled BAIKA – Plum Blossoms.
And there is another chapter named UDUMBARA in which Dogen compares plum blossoms emerging in the snow that he had seen in a dream to the legendary UDUMBARA, which according to Buddhist tradition blooms once in a thousand years – perhaps an expression of Dogen’s belief that his encounter with Rujing resulted in him receiving the properly transmitted Dharma.
In fact, there certain hymns in the Soto School of Zen which are called BAIKA (plum blossom songs) sung by BAIKAKO.
I only recently learned this, while trying to read the SHOBOGENZO – after finishing Jundo Cohen’s fascinating, stimulating (his enthusiasm for zazen is highly contagious!) and challenging (with concepts like Being-Time, and the notion, mentioned above, that past, present and future are one, among others) work: The Zen Master’s Dance – A Guide to Understanding Dogen and Who You Are in the Universe.
I plan to write and post a separate article on Plum Blossoms in Zen within the next few days.