Baikasai

Baikasai 01.jpg

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Baikasai (Plum Blossom Festival), 
Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, Kyoto

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At the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine in Kyoto charming geisha women and maiko girls (geiko in Kyoto dialect) perform an open air tea ceremony (nodate) and serve powdered green tea (macha) to visitors under plum trees (ume) in full bloom on 25 February. Baikasai (Plum Blossom Festival) commemorates the death anniversary of Sugawara Michizane (845-903) enshrined as the god of scholarship and literature.

In his childhood Sugawara Michizane surprised with his genius in composing poetry. Emperor Uda loved his wisdom and promoted him to full professor of literature (monjo hakase). In 899 Emperor Daigo made him minister of the right (udaijin), which was the second most important ministerial position. Unfortunately, the Emperorfs confidence in him became a threat to the Fujiwara clan and as a result of political manoeuvres Michizane was abruptly exiled to Kyushu. The former Emperor Uda received a farewell poem from Michizane but he was not allowed to enter the Palace. He could do nothing but sitting and protesting in front of it. Michizane died in Kyushu at the age of 59.

People respected Michizane and his exile and following death had an impact on everyone, even a humblest man. Commoners were uncomfortable with the cold-shoulder of Michizane. After his death a number of natural disasters such as lightning, earthquake, flood, fire, drought, etc. occurred one after another. It was believed that Michizanefs vengeful spirit caused all. People were scared of Michizanefs curse (tatari) and tried to appease his anger and beg forgiveness by enshrining him as the god of scholarship and literature (tenma tenjin). Also the Emperor cleared the unjust sentence and posthumously appointed him minister of the right.

Today the Japanese regard Sugawara Michizane as the patron of learning calling him Tenjin-san. Across the country there are more than 10,000 shrines dedicated to Sugawara Michizane. Parents and students visit them for wishing the success of entrance exam and education. In Michizanefs farewell poem a plum tree was used as a metaphor to imply his loyalty to Emperor Uda. Ever after a plum became a symbolic flower of him.

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In Japan the plum (ume) is associated with the start of spring, because its blossoms are some of the first ones. There are plum festivals (ume matsuri) in public parks, shrines and temples. Most plum blossoms range in colour from white to dark pink and some trees have weeping branches (shidareume).

A pickled plum (umeboshi) is usually enjoyed with cooked rice, and a sweet alchoholic beverage made of plums (umeshu) is very popular. 

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