When the East Wind Blows…

Kochi fukaba

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.

Statue of Sugawara-no-Michizane, poet and politician, lover of plums, c. 15th or 16th century PUBLIC DOMAIN


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.

Print (c. 1835) by Katsushika Hokusai depicting the legend of the ox pulling, or refusing to pull, the funeral cart of Sugawara-no-Michizane  PUBLIC DOMAIN


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).

The main hall at Dazaifu Tenmangu viewed through plum blossoms. The Tobi-ume (flying plum) is the tree with white flowers at the bottom right of the photo. (C) PIXTA


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.

Before the exam season begins in mid-January, throngs of students and their families visit Tenmangu shrines and hang ema votive tablets bearing handwritten prayers for success. Yushima Tenmangu, pictured, is one such famous shrine in Tokyo. THE JAPAN JOURNAL


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.

The ox statue at Yushima Tenmangu in Tokyo with its well-rubbed shiny forehead THE JAPAN JOURNAL

Alex Hendy, The Japan Journal



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