It’s that time of year again: the cider is brewing, the pumpkins are picked, and the leaves have begun to change. Exactly one year ago today, I was living in Nagoya, Japan, and the coming of Autumn was no less apparent there than it is now, here in Philadelphia, PA. The air turned cool and crisp, scarves and coats of all shapes and colors began to appear all over the campus of Nanzan University, where I was studying at the time, and foods such as warm “kabocha,” or Japanese pumpkin, and flavorful “kuri gohan,” chestnut-flavored rice, became the delicacies of choice. I was especially a fan of the “kaki,” or persimmons, that were sold during this time of year…I had never tried a persimmon before, and it didn’t take long for me to fall in love.
Unfortunately, Autumn in Japan is underrated. The reason for this is, of course, because Spring is so overrated. Well, that’s not entirely true. Spring in Japan is as amazing as it is described to be – the blooming of the “sakura”(cherry) blossoms is, honestly, one of the more beautiful occurrences in nature. However, the “sakura” hype does sort of…overtake some of the more stunning and enjoyable aspects of Japan’s other seasons. My personal favorite time of year in Japan is Autumn, and with the coming of Autumn here in America, I felt inspired to describe to you the reasons why I love Autumn in Japan.
The word for Autumn in Japanese is “Aki,” or, written out in Kanji: 秋. The Kanji for “Aki” is made up of the radical for “2-branch tree” (“nogi”) on the left and the symbol for fire (“ka” or “hi”) on the right. I love this combination of symbols, because it’s a perfect description of what the forests outside of Nagoya look like when the leaves begin to change: “trees of fire.” I’ve lived in rural, forested areas all of my life, and I can attest to the fact that the Autumn leaves in Japan were more vibrant than any I have ever seen in America, or anywhere else in the world, for that matter.
This might have to do with the fact that “kouyou,” or the phenomenon of the changing of the leaves (which is a word, in the Japanese language, that works simultaneously as both a noun and a verb) is a cultural phenomenon, as much as a natural one. I had the pleasure of partaking in an “Ikebana” class during my time at Nanzan University, and “Ikebana,” which is the Japanese art of flower arranging, draws heavily (as one might expect) from the changing of the seasons. Throughout Japanese restaurants, hotels, and personal homes, “Ikebana” arrangements change as the seasons do. Autumn is an important time for “Ikebana,” as the coming of the “kouyou” is considered to be an especially peaceful and calming time, the colors of Autumn, as seen especially well on the famous red Japanese maples and the deep golden ginkos, producing a sense of tranquility.
The phenomenon of the “kouyou” creates an entirely different attitude than that of the “sakura”; the “sakura” are fleeting, and because of this, there is a flurry of activity during their short blooming period: people rush to see them, to have picnics beneath them, and to enjoy them for as long as they can. Spring brings a feeling of urgency, and a sort of rushed excitement; on the other hand, because the “kouyou” last for several months, growing perhaps even more vivid and beautiful with the passing of time, for the Japanese, Autumn is the season of slowing down and relaxing. And the “viewing” traditions vary for Autumn – while the Spring “sakura” require one generally agreed-upon celebration (picnics in parks), the “kouyou” can be experienced in a variety of ways, which allows for a sense of diversity, and personal choice. You can go “kouyou” viewing on a hike in the mountains, within a city park, or in your own backyard (if you’ve got the right kinds of trees, of course).
Japanese culture is so much a visual culture. The way the world looks affects the way the people act, and with Autumn, one can sense the metaphorical deep breath many Japanese are taking before the coming of Winter: they are readying themselves to slow down, bundle up against the cold (in the northern parts of the country, at least), and, I noticed, a peacefulness seemed to spread, almost tangibly, among the students at Nanzan. Last year, when Autumn started to arrive in Nagoya, my Japanese roommate began pulling out her “kotatsu,” which is a heated table that you sit under with legs folded beneath it, on the floor (many Japanese do not have central heating, and use these sorts of tables in winter) to stay toasty during cold weather. She explained to me that “getting out the ‘kotatsu’” was a personal tradition that she liked to do in Autumn. She told me that her favorite thing to do was to eat persimmons while sitting underneath the “kotatsu” – the perfect end to a chilly Autumn day. We had many a cup of steaming miso soup, followed by persimmons, underneath the “kotatsu.”
The best thing to do during Autumn in Japan, however, is visit the city of Kyoto. I have been to Kyoto twice now, during Autumn, and I would go back in a heartbeat. Kyoto is my favorite Japanese city: it is one of the only places where Japanese history can still be experienced, so clearly, as in the days of old – it is also one of the most unbelievably spiritual cities I have ever visited. The temples and shrines of Kyoto are some of the most stunning and inspiring places in the world. The smell of incense fills the air – though, even the more modern parts of the city are lovely, and different, than the other Japanese cities. Kyoto has an entirely different feel to it, different than Tokyo, Nagoya, or Osaka, some of the bigger/as equally, if not more, well-known cities.
I will paint you a picture now: imagine a clear, crisp Autumn day. The sun is shinning, and there is a slight breeze. You are on a path, surrounded by old, wise trees, ancient and huge, all-knowing and immovable. You walk, and there are others around you, cameras ready, smiling, but not hurrying – no, everyone is walking at a relaxed, easy pace. All around you the ancient trees are swaying, their leaves bright with a thousand different shades of red. And then you reach the edge of the path, and you see it: “Kinkakuji,” the Golden Pavilion. It is a Buddhist temple in the middle of a small lake: its top two levels are entirely covered in pure golden leaf, the reason for its regal name. The temple itself seems to blend in with its surroundings, with the oranges and the golds, the reds and the browns, and you feel as if you are floating within a golden haze – you feel as if you are in a dream.
But it is not a dream at all.
You are simply enjoying the beauty that is “Aki,” or rather, Autumn in Japan.