A Study in Sakura

By special guest blogger: Oliver Trapnell

As the weather continues to warm, Japan will soon begin experiencing its renowned sakura (cherry blossom) season, leading many people to venture outdoors and have a hanami (flower viewing) party. Although the sakura are widely considered Japan’s most famous flower, Japan has a variety of alluring flora equally as beautiful as the celebrated pink petals including the ume (plum); kiku (chrysanthemum); tsubaki (camellia) and momo (peach). Many of these flowers play an important role in Japanese art, culture, fashion and literature including, most famously, the Imperial Seal of Japan.


Plum blossoms are one of the first to emerge in Japan each year. Not knowing much about Japanese flowers, I observed that plum blossoms are quite varied, with blossoms in white, pale and dark pink, and red. Unlike their cherry relatives, they have a potent, ambrosial smell and bloom in the coldest part of the winter months. On a visit to Yushima Tenman-gu shrine (3-30-1 Yushima, Bunkyo-ku) in early March, I was lucky enough to see the full scale of plum blossoms.


Plum Blossoms in the shadow of Yushima Tenman-gu Shrine

As soon as I entered the shrine, I was engulfed by a sea of white petals and a faint scent filled the atmosphere. In celebration of the season, the shrine was selling a host of plum-related memorabilia including locally crafted umeshu (plum wine), plum-filled sweet buns and even key chains.

Thanks to its proximity to the Hongo campus of the University of Tokyo, the shrine is popular with students who pray to the spirit of Sugawara Michizane (a 9th century scholar deified as Tenjin, the god of learning) for academic success or entry into their desired university. Michizane’s favorite flower was the plum. Many students write prayers on ema (wooden votive plaques) and hang them at the shrine in the hope that Tenjin will answer their prayer.

Ema at Yushima Tenman-gu Shrine

In modern Japan, sakura tend to attract the most attention however this was not always the case. The origins of hanami trace back to 8th century Nara where plum blossoms were passionately celebrated. Despite this, towards the turn of the first millennium, the popularity of plum blossoms declined and were instead replaced by sakuraHanami  then became synonymous with sakura, being popularised in poetry and in literary work such as ‘The Tale of Genji’.

In art, sakura are a centrepiece of many works. For some excellent examples, check out the Yamatane Museum of Art (3-12-36 Hiro-o, Shibuya-ku). Its current exhibit, entitled ‘Sakura, Sakura, Sakura 2018 – Flower Viewing at the Museum!’ (March 10-May 6, 2018; ¥1,000 admission), includes approximately 60 pieces by various artists featuring sakura. Although every piece is thought-provoking in its own right, I have an affinity to a few particular pieces. One show-stopping piece was the five metre long silk scroll, painted by Kanō Tsunenobu in the 17th or 18th century, depicting ‘The Battle of the Flowers Between the Emperor Xuanzong and Yang Guifei Teams’ . 

With the sakura season on the horizon there will be no shortage of tourists and locals aiming to enjoy the warming sunshine and capture the perfect photograph. As for me…I’ll be reading a certain ‘Sherlock Holmes’ novel under the boughs of flourishing pink.

© 2018 Jigsaw-japan.com and Oliver Trapnell
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