The Koubai (Red Plum Blossom) Festival at Ushi-Tenjin Kitano Shrine in Tokyo

Ushi-Tenjin Kitano Shrine sits near the Tokyo Dome, in central Tokyo’s Bunkyo ward. The shrine dates to the 12th century, and is dedicated to Sugiwara no Michizane (845–903), a famous Heian era scholar and court official. (After death, he was deified as the Shintō deity Tenjin.)

The entrance to Ushi-Tenjin Kitano Jinja

Although originally associated with natural disasters (purportedly caused by Sugiwara no Michizane’s onryo, or angry ghost), Tenjin also became associated with scholars and poetry, and today Tenjin shrines are popular places for people to go and pray for help with (and success in) exams and other academic pursuits.

Plum blossoms on the stairs to the shrine gate

Every February, Ushi-Tenjin Kitano Jinja (shrine) holds a koubai (red plum blossom) festival to celebrate the blooming ume (Japanese plum) trees that grow around the shrine. Last weekend, a friend and I hopped a train to Bunkyo to check out the festival, and the early blooms.

Blooming Ume

Ume aren’t as popular outside Japan as their more famous cherry-blossom cousins, but in Japan, the ume (which bloom 4-6 weeks before the sakura) are also beloved harbingers of spring–all the more so because the ume bloom well before spring arrives. It’s not all that uncommon for us to get freezing weather, and even snow, during and after ume blossom time, so the plum blossom festivals are a welcome chance to get out and see a hint of spring to come.

Promises, promises…spring is coming!

The “ushi” in “Ushi-Tenjin” means “cow,” and Ushi-Tenjin Kitano shrine has a pair of cow statues, as well as a cow-shaped stand where people can tie “bad luck” fortunes (in order to leave the bad luck behind, so Tenjin-sama can take it away and replace it with better fortune).

The white strips of paper are “bad” fortunes, left here to exchange bad luck for good.

The shrine itself is small–so small that it’s easy to miss, and only takes about a minute or two to see. However, it has quite a few beautiful weeping ume trees, which were in various stages of blooming this weekend when we visited.

Weeping ume trees near the worship hall

A volunteer was passing out cups of warm amazake (a drink made from fermented sakè lees) flavored with ume, which we drank while admiring the trees.

The trees near the worship hall from a different angle.

Although we only spent a little time at the shrine, the trees were beautiful, and it was fun to see this little shrine, which I probably wouldn’t have ever seen if not for the koubai festival.