Sunday, March 1, 2020

Welcome, Spring!

--Susan, Every other Sunday

In Japan, Spring officially begins on February 4--the day after Setsubun. Also known as Risshun (立春), Japan celebrates Setsubun as part of the Spring Festival.

The traditional observances includes a “bean-scattering” ritual designed to expel bad luck, which has taken place since the Muromachi Era (1336-1573).

The ritual involves scattering roasted soybeans--or throwing them at the oldest male in the family (who is usually wearing a demon mask)--while saying “鬼は外! 福は内!” (Demons out! Luck in!). Many temples also have special ceremonies involving the scattering or tossing of roasted soybeans.

After Setsubun, it's time to watch the trees for ume (Japanese plum/apricot) blossoms, the traditional harbingers of spring.

Early Ume in Tokyo, near a 17th century water wheel

Outside Japan, most people are less familiar with ume than with their more famous, later-blooming cousins, the sakura (cherry blossoms). Both trees are beloved in Japan, but the hardier, February-blooming ume have long been considered the earliest sign of spring's return.

Weeping ume (plum) - often mistaken for sakura (cherry blossoms)

During the Heian period (794-1195), a golden age of Japanese poetry and literature, the ume were actually more famous than the sakura, and the delicate blossoms featured in many classical poems about the return of spring.

Last week, with a friend in town from the United States, I decided to act on one of these ancient poems:

我が背子に見せむと思ひし梅の花それとも見えず雪の降れれば -

"I thought I would show my good friend the plum blossoms, now lost to sight amidst the falling snow."

Snowy-looking weeping ume at Tenryu-ji in Kyoto

With that in mind, we left the winter behind in Tokyo and headed two hours south by bullet train to Kyoto in search of spring.

To my delight, the former Imperial Capital did not disappoint. We found the ume in full bloom at Tenryuji (one of Kyoto's oldest and most famous Buddhist temples):

Ume at Tenryuji

As well as in Gion, the former geisha district:

Ume in Gion

We even found the promised springtime snow at Hieizan Enryakuji, a Buddhist temple in the mountains northwest of Kyoto.

Snow on the temple mountain

When the ume bloom, the sakura are seldom far behind--as is the warmth of spring. In Japan, the blossoms are not only heralds of the world's return to light and life, but a strong reminder that both beauty and life are fleeting, precious, and worthy of celebration.

The first sakura of 2020, blooming in Ueno Park, Tokyo

Welcome, spring! Let's celebrate!


  1. I hope spring remains and summer is not far behind.

  2. The early blooming plums started here (Oregon), too, in the past week to 10 days. Glorious Spring!

  3. I am watching the trees in Union Square. A couple are showing a faint green haze. I need spring. I am allergic to it, but it brings me joy as well as sneezing.

  4. Thank you for showing me the beauty of Spring (to come here), and explaining why my younger brothers used to bombard me with their (soy)bean shooters at every opportunity.