When Asian plums are in bloom in late February at Dazaifu Shinto Shrine, it’s a sign of early spring.
Dazaifu Shinto Shrine (Tenman-gu) is located about 20 minutes train ride to the south of Fukuka city. Dazaifu is very famous for the enshrined God of learning. It’s also famous for the Asian plum trees.
Dazaifu’s famous sweets are toasted rice cakes called Ume-ga-e-mochi. ”Ume” means Asian plum trees. “e” means branches. ”mochi” means rice cakes. So, it’s “Asian-plum-tree-branch rice cakes”.
Late February -
Long time ago, I went to Dazaifu Shrine to see the plum trees in bloom in late February. They were absolutely beautiful. After I moved to the U.S., I dreamed , over the decades, of seeing them again. Finally my dream came true this year. I had a chance to go back to Japan late February last year (2011), so I grabbed the opportunity and went to Dazaifu to see the plum blossoms.
(Source: Google Map)
Dazaifu is located to the south of Fukuoka city, in the inland area. It’s built over the grave of Sugawara-no-michizane, who was an excellent scholar, a politician, and a poet in the 9th century (Sugawara is the family name; Michizane is the first name). He was banished from the high position in the central government in Kyoto to Dazaifu on false charge, and died in exile in Dazaifu. Dazaifu Shrine (tenman-gu) was built over his grave and later enshrined him as God of learning.
Futsukaichi Hot Spring, famous for the poems written by the ancient famous poets who visited the hot spring in the 8th century, is a next-door neighbor of Dazaifu.
When plum trees start blooming, the media in Japan reports, “the plum trees in such and such place are 30% in bloom” “50% in bloom”, etc.
They looked like only about 20% in bloom this year – they are late this year for some reason. Usually they are at least 30% in bloom in late February.
I still enjoyed them. There are so many plum trees at Dazaifu Shrine. Every year many people visit Dazaifu to enjoy plum blossoms.
Sugawara-no-Michizane was very fond of plum trees and wrote many poems about them. So, it makes sense that Dazaifu has many plum trees.
Cherry blossoms are great, but plum blossoms are great, too. So are peach blossoms. They are all very oriental. White plum blossoms and red plum blossoms – both are wonderful.
This tree looks like only 1% in bloom.
The main shrine
Tobi-Ume stands right next to the main shrine. ”Tobi” means flying. “Ume” means a plum tree. So, it’s a “flying plum tree”. The legend is that this plum tree was in Michizane’s home garden in Kyoto, but missed Michizane so much when he banished into exile that it flew here all the way from Kyoto to be reunited with him. This is why it is named the “Flying Plum Tree”. It is believed to be over 1,000 years old. What actually happened, however, might have been somebody did multiplication of the tree and brought a part of it and transplanted it here.
The Flying Plum Tree normally blooms in early February, ahead of all the other plum trees on the grounds of Dazaifu Shrine (the other trees typically start blooming in late February). In some years, the Flying Plum Tree starts blooming in late January . Even the Flying Plum Tree is late this year – it’s late February already, and it is still far from full bloom.
The wooden sign next to the Flying Plum Tree (Tobi-ume) tree spells “Tobu-Ume” in Chinese characters and explains about the poem Michizane wrote about this particular plum tree.
Dazaifu is a very popular shrine for those who want to pray for passing entrance exams. Students and their parents go pray here for good luck on exams (in Japan, most high schools and colleges, and some private junior high school require taking entrance exams). As many entrance exams are held in January – March, Dazaifu is crowded with prayers during these months. The day I was here (late February) was probably no exception.
Before you pray at the main shrine, you are supposed to purify yourself by washing your hands with the water here.
People praying at the main shrine -
I myself came here long time ago to pray for good luck on my passing exams.
After praying, you may want to buy a lucky charm and/or a written oracle from one of these shops on the precincts.
A lucky charm is called “omamori” – it’s supposed to have power to bring you good luck and ward you off evil. The shop in the back on the right is apparently a shop that sells lucky charms as it has a big sign “omamori”.
A written oracle is called “omikuji” – a fortune teller, written in a piece of paper.
Place to tie written oracles here.
After you read the written oracle you purchased, you tie it to a place like this designated by the shrine.
If you buy a votive tablet with a picture of a horse on it, you can hang it here. These tablets are called “Ema”. ”E” means a picture. “ma” means a horse. This is the place designated by the shrine for hanging votive tablets.
The horse on the tablet is supposed to be divine. What you are doing by buying and hanging a votive tablet here is you are donating a votive tablet to the shrine to show your appreciation to the shrine. Long time ago, people used to donate real horses to the shrines to show their appreciation (wow!).
This wooden panel hanging from the tree branch says “Donating this plum tree to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary, by Mr. and Mrs. so and so”. What a neat idea to donate a plum tree for one’s anniversary.
Japan’s national flowers are cherry blossoms. You can safely say that flowers most admired by the Japanese are cherry blossom, but that was not the case in the ancient time. In Nara period (8th century), the most admired flowers were Asian plum blossoms. Asian plum trees were introduced to Japan from China (Tang Dynasty then – plum trees were highly admired in China), and the plum trees were mainly for medicinal use. But they became the favorite of poets, writers, and artists because they are fragrant and have classy appearance.
Stone dogs (koma-inu) – You see stone dogs on the grounds of every shrine. ”inu” means a dog. Stone dogs are supposed to protect the God and ward off evil.
By the way, I read that stone dogs’s origin goes back to the Sphinx of the ancient Egypt!
There is the Iris Pond near the main shrine. The irises are quietly and patiently waiting for their turn. Many people visit here early summer to see them in bloom.
OK. Getting a little tired from walking. We’ll take a break at one of the rest houses near the Iris Pond.
Chinese and Korean are added! They had only Japanese before. Where is English? All of the Chinese, Korean, and Japanese signs mean “welcome”.
We picked one of them. Once inside the rest house, everything is only in Japanese. I am sure it’s the same for all the other rest houses.
How will non-Japanese tourists be able to figure out what to order?
Oh well, it’s still a huge improvement that at least welcome greeting is now in several languages. In the past, everything was only in Japanese. It makes sense they added a Korean greeting, as recently there are many Korean tourists to Dazaifu shrine (thank you!) – because they can come here just in one hour by air and in three hours by express ferry from Busan to Hakata port. If Kyushu wants more tourism from other countries, shouldn’t they add more English translation in sightseeing places?
Got a table next to the windows overlooking the Iris Pond
Camelia in a vase on every table
You will see a lot of camellia decoration in the Futsukaichi Hot Spring which is Dazaifu’s next-door neighbor. That’s probably because the origin of the hot spring is the legend which involves a camellia tree. If you are interested, please read my blog, Ancient Poets’ Hot Spring!
We ordered udon noodles, sake, oden, and of course, Dazaifu’s speciality, Plum-tree-branch-rice cake (ume-ga-e-mochi). You have to have Plum-tree-branch-rice cakes when you come to Dazaifu.
Fresh-made, toasted, warm rice cakes taste great on a little chilly February day. Winter here is so mild. Even in February, the temperature is often above 10C (50F). People here complain it’s freezing cold when it’s only about 10C, which feels rather warm to me who have lived in a much cloder place for a long time. When the temperature is expected to dip below 10C, the weather reporters on TV go crazy, “it will be frigid! It will be below 10C today! Be sure to bundle up!”
We extended our walk a little farther to a small road outside the grounds of the shrine. There was a plum tree in full bloom by the road.
Way ahead of any plum trees on the grounds of the shrine – don’t know why.
A scenery like this makes me feel nostalgic for my childhood.
A Chinese man I know once told me that looking at peach blossoms makes him feel very nostalgic for his childhood in his home country (he now lives in the U.S.). I have a childhood memory of admiring peach blossoms, too. Both plum blossoms and peach blossoms are very oriental. There are plum trees and peach trees in the U.S., but it’s different – probably because the landscape and the climate are different.
Kyushu National Museum is right next to Dazaif Shrine. A very big museum. Opened in 2005.
When we went there on another day, they were running a computer graphic show about Fukuoka 10,000 years ago. Fukuoka city faces Hakata Bay now, but 10,000 years ago, the bay did not exist; it was land. People used to hunt animals such as deer with stone spear heads where Hakata Bay is now. It was a very well-made show. This museum is very high quality and interesting – I highly recommend you go there.
Back to the shrine.
There are a few ponds in Dazaifu Shrine, and over one of them are three bridges; they symbolize the past, the current, and the future respectively.
The red color used for the bridges, the gate, etc. is a very Chinese color, I think.
Dazaifu Shrine is also known for many camphor trees. You see them everywhere on the grounds.
Santoka, my father’s favoriate poet, once came to visit Dazaifu (probably in 1920s or 1930s). The poet stood by one (or more) of the camphor trees and wrote poems about it. Maybe a poem about this tree, too? Who knows. Santoka made waking trips for several years in Kyushu and Shikoku Islands and wrote poems. He is not a super famous poet.
The front approach to Dazaifu Shrine. There are green and pink flags which say “Festival”. Looks like there will soon be a festival at Dazaifu Shrine.
How many times did I walk through here. My father loves Dazaifu Shrine, so I have come here with my father many times. I never get tired of this place, though.
This store stands out in the crowd.
It’s a store of hand-made purses. In the grids are purses on display. Striking red colors. Nice display. Very inviting.
The name of the store is Sakura Biyori – a very elegant name. This is hard to translate – Cherry Blossom Weather hand-made purse shop – does not sound so good in English, does it…. Sakura means cherry blossoms. Biyori means weather (condition).
Cafe Kazamidori (Weathercock) – a retro cafe locally famous for its big antique music box on display inside. If you ask them, they will play it for you. Waitresses serve you in retro clothes of early 20th century, if I remember correctly. This building was an inn in the 19th century. The old-fashioned interior and exterior remind you of 1920s. Some Japanese cafes and restaurants use old houses and antique music boxes to generate a retro atmosphere.
There is an interesting cafe, Ishin-no-An (Retreat for Fighters for Meiji Restoration). ”An” means a retreat. “Ishin” means Meiji Restoration (political reform) of 1868.
This place was an inn in the 19th century, and the name of the inn was Matsuya (Pine Inn – “matsu” means pine, “ya” means inn). The samurai who fought for the political reform got together in Dazaifu to discuss and work on schemes to overturn the Shogunate government. Many of them stayed in three inns along the front approach to the shrine. Pine Inn was one of them.
The political reform of 1868 was very critical in the Japanese modern history. Japan closed the country from early 17th century to mid-19th century, and as a result it became far behind Europe and America. In the early 19th century, the Europeans and Americans started coming to Japan and put pressure on Japan to open the country. Many Japanese realized they were far behind Europe and America and thought they would need an immediate and rapid political reform to avoid falling to a prey to the West. Many of those who supported and fought for the reform were of samurai class.
Takamori Saigo, who was one of the big heroes in the political reform, stayed upstairs of Pine Inn, when he was on a trip back to his home country, Satsuma (currently Kagoshima), from Kyoto to escape the danger in Kyoto which was in a political turmoil.
The tag on the door says OPEN.
Inside the cafe.
The walls are decorated with old photos, clippings of old newspaper articles, calligraphy by famous people, etc. – most of them are related to the political reform of 1868.
You can see from inside that women are making rice cakes in the small kitchen just ouside the room. All the stores on the front aproach are designed like this; women in a small kitchen make rice cakes and you can buy fresh-made, toasted warm rice cakes through the window from outside. Judging from the name, you may think Plum-Tree-Branch Rice Cakes may smell like plum blossom or they may have plum pulp inside them. Not the case. They are just normal rice cakes with sweet bean paste inside, and have a picture of a plum flower branded in the center on both sides. That’s all.
Ordered a set of Plum-Tree-Branch Rice Cakes (on the left above) and coffee. They served coffee in fine china (I found out later it was Wedgwood !!). Many cafes, not particularly fancy and expensive ones, in Japan do this. Unthinkable in the U.S. If you do it in the U.S., fine china coffee cups will probably be stolen in one day…or in one hour… By the way, toasted rice cakes go better with coffee than you would think.
This cafe has a beautiful and large Japanese garden (large by the Japanese standard) in the back. You can opt to sit out here if you want.
These photos were taken in autumn, not in February.
It’s kind of neat to eat Asian rice cakes sitting in an English-style white patio chair – a fusion style popular in Japan – Japanese love to combine Japanese stuff with European things (particularly French and English, I think). Placing European-style patio furniture in a Japanese garden is another fusion Japanese will love to implement, I presume.
There was a unusual-looking potted persimmon tree near the patio table we sat. It was a Chinese persimmon tree (Japanese persimmons are round and much bigger).
The big trees in fall colors in this photo are persimmons.
A man buying fresh-made rice cakes through the window. The sign above him says “Matsu-ya (Pine Inn)”. They still use the name of the inn, though it’s not an inn any longer.
One of my cousins used to work part-time, when she was a student, in one of these stores here, selling rice cakes.
It is fun to eat fresh-made, toasted warm Plum-Tree-Branch rice cakes after seeing the Asian plum blossom. If you have an opportunity to come to Kyushu, I highly recommend you extend your trip to Dazaifu. If you are lucky enough to come to Kyoshu in late February, be sure to go see the Asian plum blossom and have some Plum-Tree-Brach-rice cakes.
I also highly recommend you visit Futsukaichi Hot Spring as well. It’s a very old, good-quality, and famous hot spring. There are two inexpensive and casual public bathhouses there – perfect if you want to make just a day trip around this area (and if you are brave enough to become completely naked – so will everybody else be). If you are interested in visiting the hot spring, check out Ancient Poets’ Futsukaichi Hot Spring! (sorry for the PR again)
Finally, if you are not familiar with the history of Dazaifu -
Japan was united for the first time in the 4th century by the Yamato imperial court. Then the Yamato court advanced to Korean Peninsular, and it’s believed they established the government called Imna and ruled the southern part of the Korean Peninsular for 300 years (the rest of Korean Peninsular was divided into three Korean kingdoms).
Imana was later overthrown by one of the Korean kingdoms in Korean Peninsular, followed by a big defeat by the federation navy of Koreans and Chinese in the Battle of Baekgang in AD663. The defeat prompted Japan to withdraw from Korean Peninsular. Japan started gearing up on national defense as they feared the Korean kingdoms and China (Tang dynasty) might try to invade Japan. Dazaifu was chosen for an important strategic point for national defense because of its location close to Korea but inwards somewhat from the shorelines.
But what actually happened was the Korean kingdoms started sending diplomatic missions here frequently, so Dazaifu became a place busy to host and entertain them. Trading business flourished between Korean Peninsular and northern Kyushu. So, Dazaifu became a very important place in the 7th century in the national defense, politics, and business. Dazaifu governed the whole Kyushu and was called “Nishi-no-Miyako” and “To-no-Miyako” (the Capital of the West (vs. Kyoto), Another Capital (far away from the Capital in Kyoto)). Many Koreans and Chinese moved in this area and became naturalized citizens of Japanese (I don’t know if “citizens” is the right word …). Anyway, I think I can say this means a lot of Japanese have mixed blood with Koreans and Chinese – maybe that’s why some of my family and relatives look very or somewhat Korean (their facial features)! No surprise, I guess, when the two countries are so close to each other. But if I say to my family and relatives that you look Korean, believe it or not, some of them will probably not like it. They will want to look Japanese, nothing else. (If you are a non-Asian, to your eyes Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese all must look the same, right?) OK, this topic is getting a little sensitive. I stop here.
In the 8th century, a lot of poems were written in Dazaifu by the central government officials who were excellent poets and were on multi-year assignment in Dazaifu. The most famous ones are Otomo-no-Tabito and Yamano-Ue-no-Okura. I wrote about Otomo’s poem he wrote about the hot spring, which is Dazaifu’s next-door neighbor, in my blog, Ancient Poets’ Hot Spring.
Dazaifu became less important in the 9th century. Sugawara-no-Michizane, who is enshrined in Dazaifu Shrine, was sent to Dazaifu into exile from Kyoto on false charges in late 9th century. Michizane was very unhappy in Dazaifu (who would not be in exile). Probably Dazaifu had declined already when Michizane arrived there. Earlier, in the 8th century, Dazaifu was probably a more worthy and desirable place; it does not seem the poets/government officials like Otomo-no-Tabito, were unhappy about their assignment to Dazaifu.
When Michizane died (AD903), the oxcart was carrying his body towards the direction of Kyoto. Then the ox stopped all of sudden and would not move. People figured that the spirit of Michizane must want to be buried there, and built his grave there. That’s where Dazaifu Shrine is.
For a while, Michizane was feared as a vengeful ghost. After his death, Kyoto suffered from one natural disaster after another; people thought the spirit of Michizane was taking his revenge on people in Kyoto for the false charges they sent him into exile for. It was not until about 100 years later that they started worshiping him as God of learning.
Since then, Dazaifu became prosperous again thanks to the shrine, as many people from all over Japan started coming to Dazaifu to worship God of learning and spent money on lodging, dining, etc.
What many people surprisingly do not know about Dazaifu is that, in the mid-19th century, Dazaifu was a place for get-together of the samurai who fought for the Meiji Restoration of 1868 (political reform). Five radical aristocrats were sent to Dazaifu into 3-year exile from Kyoto in the political turmoil, and many samurai heroes, many of whom later became the very important figures in the new government, came to Dazaifu to visit and work on schemes with the five aristocrats in exile. I myself did not know about it, either, until recently when I watched the historical drama by Japan’s national TV, NHK, about this era (I can watch Japanese TV shows in my home in the U.S.). It’s embarrassing, but nobody taught me it when I grew up. I think, often, local people are surprisingly ignorant of the history of the area they live or they are from.
Dazaifu is now famous more for the shrine which enshrines the God of learning, than for the history that it once was another capital in the western Japan as against Kyoto. There once was a big government office near Dazaifu Shrine, but there remain only the foundation stones. The building is long gone – probably due to fire. If there are only stones left, it’s not easy to be remembered as an ancient capital. Average people like me need visual stuff. If there were remains of whole buildings like ancient Greece and Rome, we would be able to more easily remember Dazaifu as an ancient capital. But unfortunately, Japan is a country of earthquakes - Kyushu does not get hit as many earthquakes as other parts of Japan, but still it gets hit – buildings had to be made from wood, never from stones. Wooden buildings are very volnerable to fire. Many of the ancient buildings were lost in earthquakes and fire. Life is not easy when the country lies right above the circum-Pacific volcanic belt (Pacific Ring of Fire) …
OK, I wrote a lot …if you read all of this, thank you very much for your patience!