nioi okose yo
ume no hana
aruji nashi tote
haru na wasure so
When the east wind blows,
let it send the scent
of plum blossoms!
Although your master is gone,
do not forget spring.
This well-known waka was penned by poet and politician Sugawara-no-Michizane (845–903) on the occasion of his ruinously unfair “demotion” from the court in Kyoto to rural Dazaifu on the island of Kyushu. The leading literary scholar and top government advisor had been falsely implicated in a plot against the imperial throne. Tragically, our hero would die in Dazaifu, in present-day Fukuoka, just two years after his banishment.
On his death, according to legend, Michizane’s corpse was transported aboard an ox-drawn cart to be buried. En route, however, the ox pulling the cart suddenly lay down hooves and refused to budge. Michizane’s loyal aide and entourage surmised that the ox was making a point, and they decided to bury the great scholar there on the spot, later constructing a shrine to consecrate the location of the grave.
Poetically, at some point in this narrative, Michizane’s beloved plum tree in Kyoto “flew” to its master in Dazaifu, carried perhaps on the “east wind” of the famous waka. The tree stands in front of the shrine’s main hall to this day, a magnificent specimen known as the Tobi-ume (flying plum).
Meanwhile, back in Kyoto, a series of mishaps befell those responsible for Michizane’s demise. Earthquakes shook the capital; lightning struck the imperial palace; the Emperor’s progeny died one after another; there were floods; there was plague…. The endless sequence of terrible events led the court to conclude that the spirit of Michizane was reaping his revenge.
To placate the angry spirit, the Emperor restored Michizane’s former titles while the Fujiwara clan rebuilt his shrine in Dazaifu. In Kyoto, too, a new shrine was established in Michizane’s honor, the splendid Kitano Tenmangu. Here, Michizane was enshrined as Tenjin-sama, first as a god of “sky and thunder” and, once appeased, as the benign god of “scholarship”—a rare transformation in the spirit world.
Tenmangu shrines dedicated to Tenjin-sama soon came to be established around the country, often at the same time as new schools, and today these shrines are said to number as many as 12,000.
Tenmangu shrines are typically distinguished by their many old plum trees and the presence of at least one statue of a reclining ox. They are also characterized by courtyards where ema votive tablets hang thick with the prayers of students and their families looking for an edge as the exams come round.
Alex Hendy, The Japan Journal