Ume ichi-rin/ ichi-rin hodo no/ atatakasa
A plum tree! Just enough warmth for one blossom.
We are now at the beginning of Usui: “rain water” which is the second seasonal point after Risshun: “beginning of Spring”. Even though it remains cold on many days, it is also acknowledged that the warmer Spring air is finally starting to stir thereby awakening a new cycle of plant growth. The poetic phrase that describes micro-season 4 traditionally refers to the steadily melting snow from the mountains that returns to rivers and lakes and therefore starts to moisten the soil. Make no mistake there is still a very tangible lingering cold and the temperature range at the moment can be severe. A few days ago we had a minimum of -2 degrees celsius while the previous day had boasted a maximum of 20 degrees.
I visited the plum blossom grove bairin at the Kyoto botanical gardens yesterday for the second time this year. Again I was impressed with the dynamic shapes of the tree trunks and branches in contrast to the delicate and fragrant blossoms. There is often a very sculptural angularity to the branch structure that emphasizes the strength of the tree. It’s no wonder that artists across the centuries have enjoyed depicting it from the ancients in China through to the Edo period (1600-1868) Rimpa artist Ogata Korin and through to Hokusai and then Van Gogh.
Ume plum blossoms have been loved in both China and Japan and the tree was introduced to Japan in the 6th century with its fruit used for medicinal purposes. Of course plum blossom has also been included as a subject for poems in Japan since at least the 8th century Man’yōshū anthology.
“Wa-ga yado no/ume no tachi-e ya mietsuran/omoi no hoka ni/kimi ga kimaseru”
“In my garden the outstretched branch of the plum tree has a blossom. Are you looking for me or it?”
Actually, plum blossom ume is a deciduous tree belonging to the Rose family. As demonstrated by my stroll in the plum grove, there are various kinds. The first to bloom is usually the pinkish/red variety kobai that has been much celebrated as a subject for art. Particularly the contrast between the dark pink flowers and a light snow fall became enshrined as an iconic image of the plucky beauty of the blossom.
There are also many varieties of the white plum blossom hakubai. The color adds a certain delicacy to the form and the white five petalled variety is thought to be quintessential and is thus highly prized in the world of the Japanese tea ceremony.
More than anywhere else in Kyoto, plum blossom is associated with the famous shrine Kitano Tenmangu. The 9th century exiled court noble Sugawara no Michizane is enshrined here and one of his best known poems is:
“When the east wind blows, let it carry your fragrance, o’ plum blossoms. In your master’s absence, forget not the Spring”.
The longing for Spring that all people living in temperate zones experience has become much more visceral for me now that I have remained in Japan continuously for the past year. Given a fortuitous work schedule pre-pandemic, I had always traveled back to my summery native Australia at the beginning of February and so being in Kyoto in the third week of the emerging Spring is a brand new experience for me. I so completely understand the yearning for Winter to come to an end. In Kyoto at the moment, notwithstanding the “state of emergency” we are still currently in with the admonition to “stay home”, plum viewing umemi is popular at various places around the city including: Kitano Tenmangu shrine, the Kyoto Imperial Palace and Jonangu Shrine for the weeping plum blossom. People are joyfully welcoming Spring as they have been since ancient times and this year there is extra poignancy.
“Plum blossoms, whether light or dark, and in particular red plum blossoms fill me with happiness”.
Sei Shōnagon (11th century Imperial Court Poet)