Though it was frequently freezing cold, winter in Kyoto was relatively snowless this year. We usually get at least one good snow storm, but this year we were limited to a few snow flurries and a lovely dusting of the great “dai” symbol on the mountain slope overlooking the east side of the city.
Known as “daimonji”, it is one of the iconic images associated with Kyoto. The symbol is carved by carefully controlled bonfires set on August 16th of each year to celebrate the end of O-bon. A total of five such bonfires are set on different mountain sites encircling the city and the visual effect of this summer festival is magical. Daimonji is the most easily visible from several vantage points throughout the city and its iconic presence remains just as potent even in the throes of winter.
But winter has never been my favorite season, and I must confess delight in feeling the weather pass into spring. Earliest of the spring signs, I found these plum trees blossoming in the garden of Shokokuji temple last week. Starting in mid to late February, Kyoto is blessed with plum blossoms ranging from pale pink through deeper shades of rose and even red. The flowers shown at left are the pale pink variety and from a distance may appear much like cherry blossoms, but those won’t bloom until April.
In Japanese art, even the most stylized representations of plum and cherry blossoms can be easily distinguished by a dimple at the outer edge of the cherry blossom petal, whereas plum blossoms have fully rounded petals.
And though it may seem surprising, plum blossoms are considered more feminine. This association comes from the plum’s ability to bloom against the adversity of winter, a subtle acknowledgement of the social constraints that often make the lives of Japanese women difficult. Cherry blossoms, on the other hand, were associated with the samurai warriors, who adopted cherry blossoms as their symbol of the brief but glorious life of a soldier slain honorably in battle.
Of course, the Japanese love of cherry blossoms is legendary, but the beautiful plum blossom, loved for both its seasonality and representation of femininity, is also loved for its association with Hina Matsuri. Popularly known as Girl’s Day, Hina Matsuri is celebrated on March 3rd. Though in earlier times, the third day of the third month was a purification festival, the form of celebration changed during the Muromachi period (1333-1573 AD) and has continued since that time to involve an elaborate display of dolls. The styles of dolls have evolved over the centuries and many public displays of historical doll retrospectives will be on view this month. Among my personal favorites are the dairi bina (Emperor and Empress dolls), such as the pair shown below.
All in all, I expect March will be a glorious month gliding ever futher into spring.