From the end of February to the middle of March, the first of the flowering trees start blooming. Last year, I mistakenly believed these to be cherry blossoms. Those come a little bit later, from the end of March until the beginning of April. First are the plum trees.
I’ve been keeping an eye on the one at work, watching it bloom and getting a whiff of the flowers when I’m outside at recess. Plum trees smell lovely. All of the shops sell fancy sakura scented goods, like hand cream and so on, but what they should package is the plum blossom smell: sweet and a little bit spicy. Yum!
My first stop yesterday was 亀戸天神, Kameido Tenjin Shrine. I’ve been there before (a few times). Kameido, like all Tenjin Shrines, enshrines the spirit of a historical scholar, 菅原道真, Sugawara no Michizane. (His name as a 神様, a kami (loosely, a “god”), is 天満天神, Tenma Tenjin.)
Originally enshrines to appease his vengeful ghost, Sugawara no Michizane was a Heian Period scholar and poet. Tenjin Shrines popular places to pray for good luck during the new school year, for passing entrance exams, etc. He is a patron spirit of arts, especially poetry.
Sugawara no Michizane also really, really loved plum blossoms, and you can find plum trees at all of his shrines.
Although Kameido Tenjin is more famous for their wisteria (which bloom in May), there are plum blossoms aplenty to be seen and admired. When my friend, and fellow shrinehopper, Anna, brought her shrine book in to be signed, they stamped it with a special “梅まつり” stamp.
I happened to catch a glimpse of a stranger’s shrine book while I was out admiring the flowers, and I saw that they have a special purple stamp for the Wisteria Festival in late spring.
Gotta catch ’em all?
My next stop was 湯島天神, Yushima Tenjin Shrine, not far from Ueno Park. I’ve been to Yushima Tenjin Shrine many times before, because I used to live over there. Often, I would stumble upon it by accident while out biking. That was always a good sign, because it meant I could find my way home.
However, I didn’t have my shrine book yet, so I brought that along to be signed.
I never cared much for handwriting before I started collecting shrine signatures. I love the delicacy of this one; a contrast to the dark, heavy (and still beautiful) signature on the opposite page, which unfortunately bled through the paper in places. Those two signatures are a study in contrasts.
Yushima Tenjin is usually a place of quiet and serenity. It’s a little out of the way from Ueno Park, and not quite famous enough to appear on every tourist’s itinerary. Yesterday, it was just bustling with people come to admire the plum blossoms that cover the grounds.
There were still opportunities for some beautiful flower photos.
I haven’t quite figured out who gets lions and who gets foxes for guardians, except that Inari Shrines always have kitsune. Sugawara no Michizane, like fellow deified scholar Ono no Takamura (enshrined in 小野照崎神社, Onoterusaki Shrine, near my old apartment), has lion guardians at his shrine.
Don’t let the old timey flower petals and carved stone lions fool you: on either side of this pedestal was a stall selling delicious fried festival food.
There is a saying in Japanese, “花より団子,” hana yori dango, which means, roughly, “food over flowers.” It’s for someone who goes to お花見, ohanami, flower viewing, for the tasty treats instead of the flowers. That was me, until about this time last year.
Now I’m all about the flowers.
Plum blossoms are so important to Tenjin Shrines that the 御朱印長, shrine book, at Yushima Tenjin is decorated with them. ([ctrl]+[f] “湯島天神” to find the right one.)
This afternoon, I’m heading out for another #shrinehoppers お花見 (flower viewing) adventure, this time to 牛天神, Ushi Tenjin. This shrine is entirely new to me, so I’m looking forward to visiting!
*Shinto Shrines: A Guide to the Sacred Sites of Japan’s Ancient Religion, by Joseph Cali and John Dougill