Spring is in the air.
My fellow Tokyo expat blogger Rurousha said of plum blossoms that they’re “the shy girls hiding in the library while the cherry blossom cheerleaders are prancing about on the football field”. No question, it’s the sakura that are the belle of the ball – they’re the ones folks plans their vacations around and countless Japanese stake out prime spots at six in the morning to get drunk while in view of. But there’s something special about the ume, too, no question about it.
I like ume for a variety of reasons, not least that you can view them without being trampled by hordes of people. They represent a true “Yuki-hana” (Natsume Yuujinchou fans will know what I mean) as they’re the harbingers of a new spring. They’re also the favorite flowers of one of my favorite Japanese historical figures, Sugawara no Michizane. He’s the Heian scholar and poet who was deified as Tenjin after his death (of a broken heart after being exiled from his beloved Kyoto, they say) and enshrined at various Tenjin Shrines all over Japan. He’s the Kami of choice for scholars, which makes his Shrines exceptionally popular among students hoping for academic success, and as he loved plums and cows those shrines almost invariably have both.
Tokyo has two Tenjin Jinja of primary importance (and many smaller ones), and I paid a visit to one of them today – Kameido Tenjinja. I visited here a few months back for their Chrysanthemum Festival and Shichi-Go-San, and they – along with many Tenjin Shrines – are currently holding their Ume Festival. This isn’t the Tenjin Shrine that keeps popping up in Noragami – that would be Yushima Tenjin, near Ueno, whose Ume Matsuri I attended last year. I plan to make at least a couple more ume visits next weekend, weather permitting, so I may try and get back to Yushima then. But I wanted to hit Kameido today, as they have one of the earliest Jiro Ramen locations and I wanted to give it a try (in case anyone is curious, this is what a bowl of Jiro looks like close up).
I would say the blossoms are probably just a hair short of peak, at Kameido anyway. It’s been fairly cold these last couple of weeks (not to mention the two largest snowfalls in Tokyo in 48 years). Late this coming week or next weekend should be perfect, weather permitting. It was beautifully sunny today, but still quite chilly with a stiff wind. Back in Chicago you’d never see trees in bloom this early, but Tokyo operates on quite a different calendar – there’s always something blooming here, and trees bearing fruit even in the dead of winter.