What Autumn Means to Japan

What Autumn Means to Japan

Peter Leonard

It's become something of a long-standing joke about how Japan boasts having four seasons. And yet, while there is a lot naivety around that claim, there is no doubting how ‘in touch’ the Japanese are to the changing of the seasons. Even more than we’re familiar with, from season to season you will see a change in fashion, of the foods people eat, even the furniture around the house. Here, then, are some of the ways in which Autumn - or as the Japanese call it, ‘Aki’ (秋) - plays a role in the life of a Japanese person.

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You probably already know how culturally significant the blooming of the famous cherry blossoms is in the spring. Well, the Japanese view autumn leaves in a similar fashion: the flushing of the canopies to the colours of a sunset pulls in the crowds to pack out every park up and down the land. This natural event is known as ‘Kouyou’ (紅葉) and, like the blooming of sakura, the changing colours of the leaves even earns its own little segment in the national weather reports in October and November.

An autumn version of “hanami” (sitting under the trees with a picnic and taking in the floral view) is not as common, which is a shame, as the autumn season yields the harvest of the summer crops and the shelves heave with fresh fruit and vegetables. Not for nothing do the Japanese talk a lot about “Shokuyoku no Aki” (食欲の秋), which means “Autumn’s appetite”. Classic staples of the Japanese autumnal diet include "Kaki" (柿), which are persimmons; “Sanma” (秋刀魚), the Pacific Saury (notice how the name also includes the kanji for autumn); and this writer’s personal favourite, “Takikomi Gohan” (炊き込みご飯), a rice dish mixed with various mushrooms and small chunks of vegetables.

persimmons

It’s not just stomachs that get filled in autumn, but minds too: after the long and sweltering summer, the cooler, calmer weather also brings a desire to focus on the more academic pursuits in life: the phrase “Dokusho no aki” (読書の秋) means “Autumn’s reading”, and indeed, you will see the handheld fans and sunglasses of summer replaced with books and reading glasses when autumn rolls around.

Now it wouldn’t surprise you if I told you that autumn brings about a change of clothes that people wear: colder weather needs thicker sweaters wherever you are! But even the furniture around the house changes: unlike western-style households where the furnishings and ornaments are pretty much permanent all year around, in Japan people will roll up the rugs and stash away the cushions during summer then bring them back out when autumn arrives. A classic example of this is the “kotatsu” (コタツ), which in the hotter months is used as a sort of low coffee table, but in autumn and winter the top is draped with a thick blanket and the underneath is heated with a radiator. Japanese houses are typically poorly insulated and can get bitterly cold, so crawling under a nice warm kotatsu with a book or some autumnal treats is a blissful experience.

kotatsu

Photo: Ian Lewis on Flickr
Autumn in Japan is the season that can be easiest to overlook, but in this writer’s opinion it is when Japan is at its best. Great food, great natural sights and comfortable weather make what would already be a great experience for the visitor to Japan just that little bit richer.