On a cool February day in Kyoto, geisha serve tea and sweet cakes in an outdoor ceremony beneath plum blossom. This annual Plum Blossom Festival heralds the start of spring and honours a 9th century scholar and poet, Michizane Sugawara, a court official who greatly loved the blossom. The festival takes place at the Kitano Tenman-gu Shrine, the best place in Kyoto to view the plum blossom: about 1500 plum trees bloom exquisitely throughout the grounds.

First, a special ceremony is held to console the spirit of the poet-scholar, and because he is also revered as a patron of learning, many young Kyoto students come to pray for good luck in their school or university exams. Tea is then served to members of the public by apprentice geisha (maiko) in their beautiful kimonos and whitened faces. Visitors must remove their shoes before being seated and handed a bowl of hot whipped green tea; afterwards they wander around the shrine’s market where they can buy beautiful silk kimonos at bargain prices.

Two maiko in kimono at plum blossom festival

Two maiko in kimono at plum blossom festival (photos by kamomebird)

The fragrant plum blossom has long been a favourite subject in Japanese art and poetry: as the first tree to blossom at the end of winter, its flowers poking through the snow, plum blossom is a natural symbol of renewal and evokes the coming of spring. The great haiku poets of Japan, who were inspired by the everyday wonders of nature, wrote many haiku on this theme, such as the following two examples:

Plum blossoms:
my spring
is an ecstasy
(Issa, 1762-1826)

The plum blossoms falling,
mother of pearl
is spilt on the table
(Buson, 1715-83)

There is further symbolism: in Japanese tradition, cherry blossom was said to represent a woman’s beauty, while plum blossom represented her purity.

Being a key emblem of purity, renewal and hope, plum blossom is frequently depicted on Japanese kimonos.