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Friday, March 03, 2006

Kita no Tenmangu Shrine


The winter has been exceptionally cold, and spring is still a few long weeks away. The first sign that spring is on its way in Japan is the annual blooming of the plum trees. This is preceded by a lovely perfume-like scent that signals the arrival of the first blossoms.

Plums and Lantern in KyotoNormally, the plum trees come out around February 10th in Osaka, and a few days later in Kyoto, which is farther inland. The other day, though, only a few of the buds were out at Kyoto's Kita no Tenmangu Shrine, or, as locals call it: Tenjin-san. The temple is known for its monthly flea market, which is held on the 25th of every month and features hundreds of stalls full of used kimono, statuary, games, food, you name it.

Tenjin-san is perhaps most famous as a shrine where students come to pray for good luck on their entrance exams.

The shrine is also adjacent to one of Kyoto's four Hanamachi, or geisha districts, known as Kami Shichi Ken. Every year in mid-February, the maiko from the teahouses in this area come to the shrine to celebrate the new buds on the plum trees.

Plum Blossom in KyotoWe purposely avoided the crowds of gawkers and leg-humpers that appear whenever a geisha or maiko is rumored to appear. Instead, on the Thursday after the entourage of maiko appeared, we headed to Tenjin-san surrounded by only a few groups of students and middle-aged couples. It was cold but calm and peaceful. Judging from their accents, most of the visitors were local.

A few trees were close to full bloom, but most were still just opening up. And on the next day, it snowed briefly in Kyoto! According to the Asahi newspaper, however, the "cherry front"--the line that marks where the cherries are in bloom--is moving north at a usual pace and will arrive in Kyoto on March 29th, which is the normal time frame.

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