Seasonal Association: Spring
When To Wear It: January – March
Japan is a long, mountainous country. Its geography means that it has radically different temperatures and weather during any particular season. Winter in Okinawa, Kyushu, Kansai, and Hokkaido are very, very, different. Seasonality rules for kimono motifs was established by the nobility of the imperial court, which was based in the Kyoto region. Therefore, the time frame for what is considered spring is set by the weather in Kyoto, even though there are still snowstorms happening in Hokkaido. Essentially, the traditional season and the climatic season at any given time can be very different from each other.
Before the Meiji Era, Japan used a different calendar (a luni-solar calendar). According to the modern solar calendar, the traditional four seasons are as follows.
Spring: February 4-May 4 (first, second, and third months)
Summer: May 5-August 6 (fourth, fifth, and sixth months)
Autumn: August 7-November 6 (seventh, eighth, and ninth months)
Winter: November 7-February 4 (tenth, eleventh, and twelfth months)
– Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons – Haruo Shirane
This traditional seasonality, which rules all seasonal kimono motifs, would place the blooming of ume firmly in the first month (spring) even though there is still very likely snow on the ground. Like the crocus in the west, ume is seen as a harbinger of spring.
Before the Nara Period (719-794), when you said the word “flower”, many people thought of the ume first. In fact, there were more poems written about the ume than the sakura during this period. Even today, when the flowers bloom, there are viewing parties and festivals to celebrate their arrival.
Besides being the first flower of spring, ume is also associated with academic success and passing entrance exams. The main reason for this is due to a man called Sugawara no Michizane (845-903), a famous politician, poet, scholar and student of Chinese literature in the Heian period. During his career, he rose high in the imperial bureaucracy, but was falsely accused of treason and was exiled to Kyushu. This act led to the story Tobi Ume Densetsu (The Legend of the Flying Plum Tree). It’s said that Michizane had a favorite plum tree in his garden in Kyoto. After his exile, the plum tree missed him so much that it uprooted itself and flew to Kyushu to be with him. After his death, Michizane was exonerated and enshrined as a Shinto deity of scholarship, Tenjin. Many of the temples dedicated to him, including Kyoto’s Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, adopted his favourite flower, the ume, as their symbol. Every February, students writing the annual high school and university entrance exams go to these shrines to pray for luck with their scholastic achievements. The exams themselves are also held around the time that the ume blooms, strengthening the connection between the ume and academic success.
– Kimono Design: An Introduction to its Patterns and Background – Keiko Nitanai
The kanji that make up shochikubai include matsu (pine) take (bamboo) and ume (plum blossom). The name comes from the Chinese reading of the characters instead of the Japanese reading (sho=pine, chiku=bamboo, and bai=plum blossom). This combination is known as the “Three Friends of Winter.” It’s a very auspicious combination, and although all the motifs are associated with winter (or the announcement of spring in the case of ume), it can be used year round.
Ume are shown as a flower with five petals that are perfectly round. It can be easy to confuse it with the other classic five-petaled flowers, the sakura (with a notch in each petal) or the kikyo (with pointed petals).
Neji ume are stylized blossoms and are shown with the petals twisting around the center of the flower.
Korin ume is a highly stylized version. In this design, the five petals are still visible, however they are not distinctive.
Note: When I acquire this motif in my collection I will add a photo of it.
Umebachi is five large circles (representing the petals) placed in a circle around a sixth, smaller circle.
Finally, Begin Japanology has done another great video on the ume.