Botan (牡丹) Peony

001Name: Botan (牡丹) Peony

Seasonal Association: Spring or Summer

When To Wear It: October-April

Auspicious: yes


Peonies were originally introduced to Japan from China during the Nara period, however it didn’t enter the poetic canon of flowers until the Edo period. Botan are also known as the king of flowers, and they are considered an appropriate floral offering for the Buddha. Classically, botan is associated with summer (especially early summer) as that is when the flowers bloom naturally. However, during the Edo period, cultivators created different breeds of peonies that bloom in winter, spring, and autumn as well.


Botan can often be confused with the tsubakiBotan blossoms are much larger and fuller than tsubaki blossoms, and they usually have more petals than tsubaki. These petals are often depicted in multiple layers and they have ragged edges while tsubaki petals are usually depicted as smooth and in a single layer. Finally, botan leaves are depicted with three distinct lobes while tsubaki leaves do not have lobes.

While these are general rules to distinguish between botan and tsubaki, highly stylized versions or unusual artistic interpretations can muddle this distinction.




More botan


How many botan do we need?!

Ahhhhh! They're everywhere! (no seriously. They're a very popular motif! They're everywhere!)

Ahhhhh! They’re everywhere! (no seriously. They’re a very popular motif! They’re everywhere!)

The picture below IS NOT a botan, but a tsubaki (camelia).  You can see the differences between the two flowers clearly, especially with the number of petals and the smoothness of the petal edges.

A close up of more realistically depicted tsubaki.

A close up of more realistically depicted tsubaki.

Tsubaki (椿) Camellia

IMG_0034 IMG_0043 Name: Tsubaki (椿) Camellia

Seasonal Association: Spring

When To Wear It: December-March

Auspicious: no






The kanji for tsubaki combines the radicals for tree (木) and spring (春) which perfectly describe this motif. Tsubaki is a tree that can grow at high altitudes, and it is very common to see the red and white tsubaki blooms when there is still snow on the ground (yuki-tsubaki). Tsubaki is also commonly called the rose of winter.

Tsubaki was an unpopular and inauspicious flower for samurai and their families. Tsubaki blossoms drop to the ground as a complete flower instead of petal by petal. To the samurai, this represented the death of the warrior in one stroke.

The popularity of the tsubaki reached a height during the Edo era. Shogun Tokugawa Hidetada incorporated tsubaki in his flower garden. After provincial representatives viewed the garden, a tsubaki boom happened across Japan for all social classes. In fact, a 100 Tsubaki Catalogue was produced, allowing for selective breeding.


Tsubaki and botan (peony) can often be confused. The classic feature of tsubaki is the tightly packed clump of stamena at the center of the flower. Tsubaki have between five to nine petals, and they are usually shown as a single layer of petals. In stylized versions, the petals will meld into one large undulating ring around the center. Botan are usually fuller than tsubaki and have multiple layers of petals. The petals are usually more ragged on the edges than tsubaki petals.  Tsubaki that are depicted with their branches can be called edatsubaki (camellia branches) or tsubaki no orieda (camellia on bent branches).

While these are general rules to distinguish between tsubaki and botan, highly stylized versions or unusual artistic interpretations can muddle this distinction.

A tsubaki tree depicted on a kimono.

A tsubaki tree depicted on a kimono.

A close up of more realistically depicted tsubaki.

A close up of more realistically depicted tsubaki.

More stylized tsubaki. The petals are not clearly distinguishable but are depicted as an undulating ring.

Ume (梅) Plum

DSC_0155 DSC_0152Name: Ume (梅) Japanese Plum Blossom (A.K.A Japanese Wild Apricot)

Seasonal Association: Spring

When To Wear It: January – March

Auspicious: yes


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

Shochikubai on a hanhaba obi.

Shochikubai on a hanhaba obi.


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).

This is an ume with a double layer of petals.

This is an ume with a double layer of petals.




This obi has ume blossoms as well as buds in it’s design.
















Neji ume are stylized blossoms and are shown with the petals twisting around the center of the flower.

The small orange blossom with five petals is a nejiume. The larger blue flower is a nejikiku (twisted chrysanthemum).

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.