The connection of plum blossoms and spring, historically, is well known.  As I have written before, however, the ume no hana spoken of in old Japanese hokku — conventionally translated as “plum blossoms,” were not really plum blossoms as we generally think of them, but rather the flowers of the Japanese apricot (Prunus mume).  In spite of that, when an English speaker reads Japanese spring hokku about plum blossoms, it is perfectly natural to envision the blossoms of Prunus domestica, which gives us our edible plums and prunes, or perhaps those of Prunus salicina, the “Satsuma” plum, which is native to China, but is grown both in Japan and in the West now.

As regular readers here know, I often “westernize” hokku in translation, though I note the fact to avoid confusion.  So of course it does not bother me in the least that we think of these other plums, rather than of the Japanese apricot, when we read old spring hokku.  Further, what applies to that tree applies also to the plums grown in the West, so for practical and aesthetic purposes it is really advantageous for us to think of “our” kinds of plums instead of what the original hokku technically signified.

Having gotten through all that dull introduction, we are ready to take a look at some spring plum hokku.  The significant thing about the plum in that context is that it is an early bloomer, flowering often when the weather still can be cold and unsettled, in that time of the yearly transition from winter weather to that of early spring.

We see that period of change in a hokku by Buson:

In every nook and corner
The cold lingers;
Plum blossoms.

In the original, “every nook and corner” is really a repetition of the same word — sumi, meaning “corner.”  When used twice (zumi the second time for euphony) as sumizumi, it literally is “corner-corner,” but the “every nook and corner” understanding of the term is what it signifies.

Regular readers here know that spring is a time of increasing Yang energy.  The cold Yin energy of winter is waning, but as Buson tells us here, when the plum begins to bloom, the cold still lingers in all the little shady spots and corners and hollows.  The word I translate here as “lingers” is nokoru in the original, which means “to remain, to be left over or left behind.”

Mirabelle plum (Prunus x domestica var. syriac...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The blooming of the plum tree of course has a direct relationship to the amount of warmth and light present.  The warmer the air, the more blossoms will pop open.  That is why Ransetsu wrote what I call his “thermometer” hokku:

A plum blossom —
One blossom’s worth
Of warmth.

What I translate as “blossom’s worth” — the word hodo — means “an extent or degree or measure” of something.  So we could be playful, and translate it as

A plum blossom —
One blossom degree
Of warmth.

The concept behind this hokku is the notion that the more plum blossoms open, the higher the temperature of the air and the farther along the advancement of spring.  It shows a unity between the blossoms and the growing warmth, in contrast to our “rational” way of thinking in terms of action (the warming of the air) and consequence (a plum blossom opens), cause and effect.




Here are a few spring hokku by Bashō.

I have divided all but the last into three parts:  First, the romanized Japanese and a rather literal translation; second, a “formal” translation of the original; third, a rewritten “American” version.

(M)ume ga ka ni  notto hi no deru  yamaji kana 
Ume fragrance at   suddenly sun appears   mountain path

At the ume fragrance,
Suddenly the sun rises;
The mountain path.

Fragrant plum blossoms
And a sudden sunrise;
The mountain path. 

The point of the verse is that as the writer smells the fragrant ume blossoms, the sun suddenly rises.  There is a perceived connection between the strong scent and the sudden appearance of the brilliant sun

The ume (Prunus mume) is not actually what we know as a plum in the West.  Instead it is a tree rather halfway between a plum and an apricot , but “Japanese apricot” generally does not fit very well into hokku where ume is used.  The term for an actual plum in Japan is sumomo.

(M)ume ga ka ni   mukashi no ichi-ji   aware nari
Ume fragrance at   past ‘s one character  is sad

In the scent of ume,
The single character “past”
is sad.

At the scent of plum blossoms,
The single word “past” —
How sad! 

The point of the verse is the writer’s smelling the scent of plums while looking at (or writing) the single Chinese character read in Japanese as mukashi — “the past.”  The combination fills him with a sad, nostalgic feeling (aware, pronounced ah-wah-ray) because he knows that all things are impermanent and nothing lasts, least of all the fragrance of the early spring blossoms.

The verse was written as an “occasion” verse for  Bashō’s student Baigan, on the anniversary of the death of the student’s son, which had happened a year earlier.  We can see how indirectly hokku deals with such matters.

(M)ume ga ka ni   oi modosaruru   samusa kana
Ume fragrance at  routed has returned cold kana

At the scent of ume
The routed has returned —
The cold!

In the scent of plum,
What left has returned —
The cold!

Not  a good hokku.  The rather minimal point is that spring has warmed enough to bring out the fragrant ume blossoms, but at the time the writer is smelling the fragrance, a cold spell has occurred.  So the cold he thought had been routed by the warmth of spring has returned.  It shows how changeable early spring weather is.

From bad to worse:

Ume ga ka ya   Shirara Ochikubo   Kyōtarō
Plum fragrance  Shirara Ochikubo   Kyōtarō

The scent of plum blossoms;
Shirara, Ochikubo,

It is little more than an allusion to a line from a Japanese book called the Jōruri-hime Monogatari, in which the question is asked which books a certain Lady Jōruri read, whether that titled Shirara, or Ochikubo, or Kyōtarō, etc.  The reader is supposed to be reminded of a pretty, elegant young woman reading a book of stories as spring begins.  Of course this kind of verse does not survive time and travel to a different culture, and it depends entirely on the reader knowing the literary allusion Bashō is making.  I have included it here only to show how unlike modern hokku some of Bashō’s verses were, and how “literary” in contrast to what we consider the best hokku.  For the western student of modern hokku, which deliberately avoids dependance on such literary allusions, these old “see how well-read I am” verses are quite useless other than as examples of what not to do.



Plum blossoms;
They scatter on an empty sack
Of charcoal.                  

Blossoming plum, by Chinese artist Wang Mian. ...

That is a rewriting of a hokku by Yayū. It is of course a spring hokku.

There are, as I have mentioned many times, two kinds of harmony in hokku: harmony of similarity and harmony of contrast. This verse has the latter. It shows us the pinkish-white blossoms of the plum drifting down through air and falling on an empty charcoal sack, which is black with dust from the charcoal and filthy-looking. The whole point of the verse is in the visual contrast and the feeling of “high” beauty in the plum blossoms contrasting with “low” in the empty charcoal sack.

This mixture of conventionally poetic subjects with “earthy” subjects is characteristic of hokku, quite different than the earlier and longer waka (essentially a hokku plus two extra lines in form), which used only poetic and “elegant” subjects.

This reminds us of three main aesthetic characteristics of the hokku — poverty, simplicity, and transience. All are seen in this verse.