I'm pleased to again have a guest from my friend Joan Bailey who writes at Japan Farmers Markets. Japan is one the places I have not yet traveled to, but when I go I hope to time my trip to either the sakura or the momiji season. This post describes why!
Fall is my favorite season. The cold winds feel like old friends as they whip up leaves in a swirl of gold,red and orange turn my cheeks pink and make me pull my hat down a bit further over my ears. The golden light, somewhere between the vision of the Dutch realists and the bright splash of Manet and Van Gogh, seems so perfect to me. I feel in autumn, more than any other time of year, that my days are lived in a painting.
In Tokyo, I roam in a somewhat similar but more urban masterpiece, but without the need for a hat. The cold winds are coming, but temperatures still loiter in the mid to high seventies. The shortening daylight comes in at a low angle casting a similar glow over the tightly packed houses and high-rise buildings. The trees along the nearby Tamagawajousui, in the parks and at our Tokyo farm are beginning to show tell-tale signs of color. The sakura (cherry) leaves, replacements for those beloved pink blossoms of spring, are the first to fade to yellow and then drop. Other will soon follow suit, including the maple.
Momiji's (Japanese maple) five to seven-fingered leaves come in a brilliant green that dims to yellow, but the star of autumn's show is the red maple – Iroha kaede a.k.a. Iroha momiji a.k.a. Acer palmatum. Unlike it's cousin, the red maple burns varying shades of red. Just as they do in spring, citizens of these fair isles gather on party sheets (otherwise known as tarps) under brilliantly colored leaves with friends and family for kouyou (leaf viewing). There in the warm glow of the trees, as they start toward their well-deserved rest over the winter months, the Japanese drink and feast before cold winds chase them indoors. Soon weather reports will include a map of Momiji's red path southward, the reverse of sakura's slow pink sweep northward in spring.
Early in Japanese history it was the aristocracy who first picnicked under the branches and fostered the development of more than 250 different varieties. It was, as Sumiko Enbutsu writes in A Flower Lover's Guide to Tokyo, the eighth shogun, Yoshimune (ruling from 1716 to 1745) who ordered momiji planted around the edges of the nation's capital. As a result, everyday people found themselves stopped short in their daily routines by brilliant color. Naturally, they gathered some snacks and drinks, called out to friends to do the same, and took a moment to admire this passing phenomenon. (It is worth noting that Yoshimune did the same for sakura, beginning a tradition of public plantings of these seasonal favorites that still continues today.)Such celebrations and attentiveness to leaves and flowers not associated with a particular holiday seemed, at first glance, almost absurd. There is no great historical event being marked nor a religious holy day being observed. Yet, with little prodding, groups of people stream into parks or gather on benches to share a snack, drink a little something, and chat the sunset away. Such things – the first blossom in spring or the first hint of red in fall – mean that even in the most urban of spaces like Tokyo nature and the turning of the seasons are never far from heart and mind.
Read more about seasonal displays and food at Joan's blog, Japan Farmers Markets.