12-25 March 2019
I’m either too early or too late.

The best time to see the wisteria in Tokyo is mid-April to mid-May. So there I was in Tokyo on my first trip to Japan in 2018. It’s the end of April, perfect timing, and I’m disappointed to discover the wisteria bloomed early that year and I missed it.

All our research tells us that late February to early March is the best time to see the plum blossoms. Well here we are mid-March 2019 thinking we must have it just about right, or even be a little late for what in my imagination will be a full-on hallelujah of pink and white petals, like you see in photos of hanami for the cherry blossoms.

Plum blossoms at Jonangu Shrine. Photo by Elisa at Cherry Blossoms and Persimmons

But alas the plum blossoms are late, most trees giving just the barest hint of their splendour.

From the northwest of Kyoto to the south we went stalking plum blossoms, and found that only a few trees, among hundreds, were ready to show off.

Most were not yet willing to display themselves beyond a first shy glimpse, although the bright kimonos of local tourists often made up for it.

The Japanese have a huge veneration for nature and regard it as sacred, giving meaning to it in a way not generally found in western societies. I think we tend to see Japan as being paved over, but in reality there are huge swaths of wilderness, and even in urban areas, perhaps especially in urban areas, nature is everywhere and highly revered. Most temples and shrines have extensive gardens open to the public, and the design of the gardens and choice of plants almost always has deeper spiritual meaning than is obvious at first glance. Ikebana, the art of flower arranging, is also steeped in spiritual meaning.

It’s a bit of a long haul to get to Jonangu from our Airbnb in the Gion neighbourhood; a metro ride, then a train, then a long walk through paved grey streets made longer by the fact that we walk in the wrong direction for a while. It’s in the south of the city and not much visited by tourists so we have this lovely shrine complex, and it’s five late-winter gardens, almost entirely to ourselves except for a couple of gardeners painstakingly removing every last bit of invasive plant life from a moss lawn,

and a couple of pretty doves.

Of course we’re hoping for a riot of plum blossoms and although that aspect of the visit is somewhat disappointing there’s still plenty to enjoy.

Jonangu is famous for it’s weeping plums and camellias, and the entire series of strolling gardens feels like taking a journey back to the time of the Heian aristocracy. It has the ageless sense of a place made for the enjoyment of the wealthy, much like the early estate gardens of the British aristocracy that are now open to the public – vast spaces dedicated to beautifully cultivated gardens for the enjoyment of the nobility.

As with all shrines in Japan we enter Jonangu through an imposing grey stone torii gate marking the transition from the ordinary to the sacred. Our first encounter is with a Shrine Maiden, or priestess in her striking red and white outfit.

At various times throughout the year the priestesses perform sacred Kagura dances – enacting purifications and blessing participants with flowers.

A small lake,

a koi stream,

and a stone lantern

present beauty enough, as do the blossoms, even if they are as yet only half-hearted in their appearance.

And then there are the camellias.

Jonangu has 150 plum trees, and 300 camellia trees. Plum blossoms lose their petals, but the entire camellia flower falls to the ground sprinkling the soft chartreuse moss with vermillion accents.

The samurai thought that the way the camellia flower falls resembles the way a human head falls when cut with a samurai sword, so they considered them unlucky, but no grisly story from the past can diminish their beauty.

Another day and another search for the elusive plum blossoms. This time we head to the northwest of Kyoto, to Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, a complex of buildings dating from the 1600s,

and a garden with 2000 plum trees!

So back in the late 800s there was this scholar, Sugawara no Michizane, who was an advisor to a couple of different emperors. At some point he fell out of favour with the ruling clan and was exiled to Kyushu where he died. I guess it didn’t pay to piss him off; after his death various calamities hit Kyoto and the imperial family – the plague, earthquakes, and thunderstorms, all of which were attributed to his angry spirit. Kitano Tenmangu Shrine was built to appease him, and he was deified as Tenjin, originally as the god of thunder, and later as the deity of scholarship. The current buildings date from 1607. In the serene gardens of the shrine, despite the lack of blooming plums, all is peaceful. Perhaps old Sugawara rests easy now.

A different kind of flower catches my eye. There are a few shrine maidens attending to their duties,

and several Japanese women wearing kimono. Apart from special occasions kimono are also quite often worn when sightseeing, and especially when visiting shrines. It is more likely to be older women but these days many young women, proud of their heritage, are also embracing the tradition.

And we do find some blossoms in a few favoured places.

Cherry blossoms grow in clusters, as opposed to plum blossoms, which grow directly from the stem.

Tradition has it that plum blossoms protect against evil, and that evil often comes from the northeast, hence they are often planted in the northeast of a garden. Normally blooming from as early as mid-February, while it is still winter, the plum or ume blossom is revered and celebrated as endurance through adversity, the resilience of life, and faith that life will regenerate. They bloom even when there can still be snow falling, bringing colour to a desolate landscape and a reminder that spring will come. Known for their ephemeral beauty, for the Japanese they also signify great strength, and bear witness to the impermanence of everything.

We may not have seen the blossoms in all their glory, but there was beauty enough at these two beautiful shrine gardens to appease us as well as Sugawara no Michizane.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2020.