It snowed today in Kumamoto. Not hard, mind you, and not enough to stick, but enough to make my visit to Kumamoto Castle with a friend a wee bit on the chilly side. But February is right around the corner, and with it come the first signs of spring – the arrival of my favorite bloom, the plum blossom.
Plum blossoms are what grace the manhole cover of Dazaifu, a pastoral town just south of Fukuoka.
The town is the resting place of Sugawara Michizane (last name first), a court official from the Heian Period. He was banished to Kyushu by jealous rivals but quickly faded away in what was then the hinterlands of the country. When he died, a shrine was built over his grave and he was later named as a god of learning.
Next to the shrine is a plum tree that yields glorious petals around the end of February. The tree is known as the “tobi-ume” or flying plum – it’s alleged to have missed Sugawara so much that upon his exile it uprooted itself from the Kyoto soil and flew to rejoin him in Dazaifu. There are numerous other plum trees on the shrine’s grounds and you can even partake of the town’s tasty umegaemochi, plum rice cakes.
I’ve long considered plum blossoms to be the unsung flower of Japan. It certainly pales in popularity to the cherry blossom but I love the bold pink and dark wine color of the plum’s petals. If you miss sakura season, this is an equally stunning time of year to be in Japan … if you don’t mind the occasionally cold snap! 🙂