Early spring in Japan is the season of Plums, where plum flowers can be seen blossoming everywhere around the end of February. Many people flock to plum viewing areas to enjoy the best views, picnics and celebrations. Let’s have a look at this unique Baika-sai Matsuri festival dedicated to plums held in Kitano Tenmangu shrine in Kyoto on February 25th.
Plum trees were introduced to Japan from China in around the late 8th century. They were believed to ward off danger and were planted in many areas in Japan. Plum flowers herald spring and provide a perfect occasion for a picnic indicating that the cherry blossom season is not that far away. Plum flowers are delicate and fragrant and there are many plum viewing spots in Japan, but one of the most famous spots is at the Kitano Tenmangu shrine in Kyoto which has approximately 2000 plum trees. From the second week of February until the end of March, the plum garden of the shrine is open for public viewing, The admission fee is around 600 yen which includes tea and a delicacy.
On February 25th, the Plum Blossom Festival (Baika-sai) is conducted at Kitano Tenmangu shrine marking the death of Sugawara no Michizane, a Heian period scholar and deity of the shrine. He was an expert in calligraphy and learning and is famously known as ‘Tenjin-sama’. After his death, he was enshrined at Kitano Tenmangu shrine and from there, plum festival has always been conducted to mark his love for plums (ume).
Apart from the floral atmosphere, there is a flea market there too, to add to the excitement. On the day, there is an outdoor tea ceremony performed by ‘geiko’ and ‘maiko’ from the nearby Kamishichiken district. Geiko and Maiko are the geisha and her apprentice respectively who act as hostesses for the tea ceremony. You will be served green tea and a sweet to enjoy the ceremony and of course the plum season. The admission fee for this tea ceremony is slightly higher than on a standard day. The shrine’s treasury is also open for you to pay a visit. The ‘Baika-sai’ literally translates into ‘blossoming plum’ in Japanese.
Baika-sai indicates the arrival of spring in the Kyoto area and the tea ceremony here is one of the most historic and famous ceremonies in the region. So, as a pre-celebration to the coming sakura season, don’t forget to enjoy the beautiful blossoming of the plums first along with some delicious tea in Kyoto.
This large outdoor tea ceremony hosted by the geiko and maiko, runs from 10:00-15:00 on 25th February and costs 1,500 yen, which includes whipped matcha green tea and a sweet.