This is the second part of a recent haibun by Nobuyuki Yuasa (Sosui).
.. Plum is sometimes called “the elder brother of blossoms”. My dictionary says this is because plum (ume) blooms earlier than other trees. It may be so, but robai (Japanese allspice) bears its yellow flowers even earlier than does plum. Historically, plum became popular before cherry did. The Man’yoshu, the first anthology of Japanese poetry, dating from the fifth to eighth centuries, has about three times more poems on plum than on cherry. In this sense, we can say that plum is the elder brother of cherry. “The Cherry of the Left” at the Imperial Palace in Kyoto was once “The Plum of the Left”. We can still see this old tradition at the Daikakuji Temple, which was once the residence of Emperor Saga (786~842). The plum here bears pink flowers.
.. Plum was first introduced from China as a medicine called ubai (plums dried and smoked), but soon the custom of “plum viewing” spread among the courtiers. In Volume 5 of the Man’yoshu, we have the following record of “plum viewing” held at the residence of Otomo no Tabito (665~731) in Dazaifu. “It was in February – a fine day with a gentle wind. The plum blossoms were like white face powders in front of a looking glass…..” From this description, written perhaps under the influence of Chinese poetry, we know that they were viewing white plum blossoms. I believe that pink plum was introduced somewhat later, and was rather rare for that reason.
.. There is a shrine in Dazaifu commemorating Sugawara Michizane (845~903). He was a powerful political leader and reformer, but his rivals convinced Emperor Daigo (885~930) to send him to this far-away defence point in Kyushu. This was a great demotion, and before he left his residence in Kyoto he is said to have written a famous “forget-me-not” poem to a plum in his garden. It is believed that this tree flew overnight to Dazaifu, following its master. This is the origin of the Tobi-ume, or “Flying Plum-tree”, whose descendant, to this day, still grows at this shrine.
The ancient nobles
Who loved and prized plum blossoms —
To where have they gone?