Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

April 22, 2012

Flowers: Hanami in the Hirano Shrine

The Hirano Shrine (founded 794) in northern Kyoto has been a popular blossom-viewing site since the Edo-period, and is especially famous for its yozakura, sakura after dark enjoyed by lantern light. On top of that, on April 10 it celebrates a Sakura Matsuri, with a small procession consisting of a mikoshi, shrine priests and some young people dressed up as samurai and elegant Heian-period ladies. The nice thing is that in the rather narrow grounds of the shrine you stand shoulder to shoulder with the locals taking part in the procession.

[The torii of the Hirano Shrine among cherry blossoms]

It is rather more difficult to enjoy the blossoms: the park with 400 cherry trees of 50 varieties next to the shrine has been filled up with ugly wooden platforms and other contraptions, which are for rent to groups wanting to get drunk and eat strong-reeking stuff (like my nemesis, burnt squid). Although it also sports a hearty down-town atmosphere, it is too commercialized for any higher feelings among the blossoms.

[The sakura park next to the Hirano Shrine]

In the shrine enclosure itself there stands only one large cherry tree - planted in palace-style with a tachibana or evergreen orange tree in front of the main hall. And there are some cherries peaking out near the torii gate, an area which unfortunately doubles as a parking lot.

[Colorfully dressed participants in the procession of the Sakura Festival]

The Hirano Shrine did only become famous for its blossoms in the Edo-period, when it was incorporated into the culture of Nishijin and other townsmen's districts. Sakura themselves are anyway a relatively recent phenomenon, in the oldest Japanese poetry as the Manyoshu and Kokinshu you find the plum as the most popular early spring blossom rather than the ephemeral cherry. This was also according to Chinese custom.

[Priests and dignataries of the Hirano Shrine]

Saigyo was the first sakura poet, wallowing in blossoms, but interestingly Saigyo did not write about sakura when he sang about the Hirano Shrine. He followed custom (laid down in the utamakura "Hirano") to write a festive, celebratory verse about the pine trees of Hirano.

It goes something like this:
young and greenthe pine trees of Hiranoagain and again put forthon their branchescountless leaves 
[wakaba sasu | Hirano no matsu wa | sara ni mata | eda ni yachiyo no | kazu wo sofuran]
"May the reign of our emperor also flourish like this," is the implication at the end. So here, in the "level field" north of the capital enclosure, grew stately pine trees which were seen as symbolic for the long life and prosperity granted by the shrine deities to the imperial house. Blossoms and squid were still a long way off.
Access: Bus 205 or 50 from Kyoto Station to Kinugasako-mae. Bus 15 from Sanjo Keihan to the same stop. Within walking distance from Ninnaji, Kitano Tenmangu and Kinkakuji. Grounds free.