Cherry blossoms, or sakura (桜), are arguably the most easily identifiable cultural symbol of Japan and its many natural beauties. Around the globe, cultural enthusiasts of all walks embrace the beauty of sakura through tattoos, paintings, prints and perfumes. However, the Japanese appreciation for nature and its fleeting beauty does not end with the spring sakura. In fact, to many in Japan, momiji (紅葉), or maple leaves, are just as culturally significant and an unmistakable marker signaling the start of autumn in Japan.
When temperatures begin drop and “sweater weather” approaches, the once pale pink, and then lush green hillsides of Japan shift to reveal the bright yellows, oranges and reds of autumn. Kouyou (紅葉), or autumn colors signify the gradual shift from humid summers and chirping cicadas, and welcomesthe brisk temperatures of winter in Japan. During this time, momijigari (紅葉狩り) or fall leaf hunting is a favorite of Japan’s many residents. Rather than “hunting” as the name would suggest, momijigari is traditionally a time for brisk hikes, nature tours and trips to outdoor onsen (温泉), or natural hot springs.
Like its cousin hanami (花見), or cherry blossom viewing, friends and families alike enjoy time off picnicking under the vibrant trees of the season. While hanami encourages social drinking, and can also take place in a local park area, momijigari trips often take place in hillside areas untouched by the bustle of the city. Some might browse the growing selection of heated drinks at the nearby convenience store, or conbini (コンビニ), and stock-up on autumn-themed treats before embarking on a nature walk. Others might vacation to nearby towns known for the beauty and bounty of their fall leaves—many opting to stay overnight in a Japanese-style inn, or ryokan (旅館), complete with seasonal cuisine and scenic hot spring views.
From the packaging of conbini Kit-Kats, to traditional dinner spreads, autumn leaves are used both figuratively and artistically for decoration. Momiji-manju (もみじ饅頭), or maple leaf dumplings, are a specialty of Hiroshima prefecture (広島県), and an extremely popular vacation gift, or omiyage (お土産), to share with coworkers and loved ones. These autumn leaf-shaped sweet dumplings are sold in a variety of fillings—with the most traditional being anko (あんこ), or sweet red bean paste.
Eatable maple leaves also exist, though they are found much less frequently than dumplings or autumn leaf-shaped rice crackers. Minoo city (箕面市) in Osaka prefecture (大阪県) is particularly known its fall leaves—with the city going as far as to decorate sewer covers and other local memorabilia with momiji. A few vendors in Minoo are also known to serve Momiji tempura (もみじ天ぷら)—a seasonal, fried treat made using maple leaves that have been cleaned and preserved in salt for over a year. This preparation of autumn leaves is a rarity even in the eyes Japanese tourists, and are the perfect way to appreciate nature’s beauty—both inside, and out!
While the West continues its pumpkin spice craze, Autumn in Japan welcomes momiji leaves and the natural progression of nature. In much the same vein of pumpkin space, autumn leaves areeverywhere in Japan, with their only competition being Japanese squash, kabocha (かぼちゃ), and chestnuts, or kuri (栗). In short, autumn invites all to slow down and reconnect with the new, yet familiar changes of nature. In between the humid summers and frigid winters of Japan, there is no better opportunity to relax, reflect and indulge in seasonal treats.
Written by Austin Rettinhouse