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Plum Blossoms: Children Revive a Poet's Millennium-Old Love

Sugawara no Michizane was an eminent poet of the Heian period. His love of plum blossoms has been passed down over a millennium to the children of Japan today.



Children performing the Beni Warabe. (© Kuriyama Kaoru)

Spring weather in Japan is often unpredictable, the season marked by fluctuating temperatures. One chilly Saturday morning, the strong northerly winds nearly stopped me from going outside. But I was still determined to visit a special event celebrating an ancient poet's love for plum blossoms. It was to be held in Yabo Tenmangu, a shrine in Kunitachi, a city on the western outskirts of Tokyo

This is one of many shrines dedicated to Sugawara no Michizane (845-903), a revered Heian Period aristocrat, scholar, and poet. As a result of political strife and defamation, he was demoted and exiled from Kyoto to Kyushu. He was later deified as a patron of academics.

From an early age, Michizane was gifted in learning and had an exceptional talent for waka (classic Japanese poetry) and kanshi (Chinese poetry). Many features of Japanese culture we treasure today, including classic literature and traditional dress, can be traced back to his time. 

Illustration of Sugawara no Michizane by Kikuchi Yosai (public domain via Wikimedia Commons).

A Turning Point in Japanese Cultural History

Up until the early Heian Period, Japan sent emissaries to Tang Dynasty China to learn and adopt their systems. But this tradition eventually phased out mainly due to the decline of the Tang Empire and the risks of perilous voyages across the sea. After this turning point in history, Japanese culture began to take on a more distinct, refined character of its own. Michizane would have had a big influence on this transition. 

The most famous shrines dedicated to Michizane are probably Dazaifu Tenmangu in the south of Fukuoka, where he was exiled, Kitano Tenmangu in Kyoto, which was built to pacify his spirit, and Hofu Tenmangu in present-day Yamaguchi Prefecture, which is said to be his last stop in Honshu before his exile. 

Those living in the Kanto region will be more familiar with Yushima Tenjin in central Tokyo or Kameido Tenjin, also in Tokyo. The shrines welcome many worshippers seeking to pay homage to Michizane and pray for academic success. 

Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine dedicated to Sugawara no Michizane in Dazaifu City, Fukuoka Prefecture, photographed on November 14, 2017. (© Sankei)

The Beni Warabe Dance

By contrast, Yabo Tenmangu is hidden in a quiet residential area of Tokyo surrounded by trees on the side of a small hill. In this special event, four young girls from elementary schools around Kunitachi performed Beni Warabe, a dance based on a poem written by Michizane when he was just five years old. 

In adoration of the plum blossoms, he wrote, "How beautiful are the red plum blossoms, I wish I could color my face with it." Although this poem goes back a millennium, the Beni Warabe performance was created fairly recently to revive the scholar's talent and spirit, and the style is unique to Yabo Tenmangu. 

I had seen Miko Kagura, a similar dance by shrine maidens, in festivals celebrating spring. But these young Beni Warabe performers left me with a different impression. There was more eye contact with the audience because their parents were among the crowd. It was heartwarming to see the mothers encouraging their daughters throughout the event. That is probably how the tradition gets handed down from generation to generation.

plum blossoms
Children performing the Beni Warabe (© Kaoru Kuriyama)

Tenmangu and Tenjin Shrines

Plum blossoms brave the cold weather of late winter. They start to appear much earlier and are in bloom for longer than cherry blossoms. There is a deep association between the plum trees and blossoms, Michizane, and Tenmangu and Tenjin Shrines. 

For instance, Plum blossoms appear on the shrines' crests in the shape of five round petals. There are plum tree gardens in many Tenmangu and Tenjin Shrines to remind us of Michizane's deep affection towards the flower. When he was exiled, he left behind a precious plum tree in his Kyoto residence. It features in one of his poems: "Even though you lose your master, don't forget [to bloom in] spring."  

Cows bowing in front of the main shrine of Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, Kamigyo-ku, Kyoto, on December 28, 2020. (© Sankei)

Sugawara no Michizane was born in the Year of the Ox, so you will see a statue of the animal in the precincts of a Tenmangu or Tenjin Shrine. Usually, the ox is lying low. The legend goes that when Michizane passed away, the ox pulling the cart on his final journey stopped and refused to move any further. That spot became his resting place at Dazaifu. 

If you are anywhere near any of the shrines mentioned above, it may be worth checking out their calendar, as many of their special events coincide with the plum blossom season. 

Illustration of an ox statue in the precincts of a shrine by the author. (© Kaoru Kuriyama)


Author: Kaoru Kuriyama

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