Staying in touch with the hometown is always a good thing when living on the other side of the world. My hometown* newspaper, the Warwick Valley Dispatch recently asked me to write a short article about Autumn and the Autumn festivals here in Japan. You can find out more about Warwick and the Dispatch at www.warwickinfo.net.
(Tokyo) In a city as massive as Tokyo, a person wouldn't expect to notice the change in the season all that much. When I taught English in the Imabari countryside the signs of Autumn's coming were hard to miss; the foliage slowly slid into warm reds and golds and the farmers busied themselves with the harvest. Even without these obvious hints, I woke a few days ago and knew without a doubt that it was Autumn.
Summer in Japan can be brutal. One hundred percent humidity feels literal; every breathe a lungful of water. Late August brings the threat of typhoons to a nation surrounded by ocean. So, when I slid open the big glass door onto my three foot by eight foot "backyard" (good-sized by Tokyo terms) and sucked down that first comfortably un-conditioned air in two months, the change was unmistakeable and very, very welcome.
Like Warwick, Japan has four seasons (five if you count Tsuyu - the rainy season which usually lasts from mid-June to mid-July; although this year I think it just ended the day before yesterday). Late September brings cooler days and an end to the dampness. The leaves haven't started to change color yet, but when they do, the mountains will be spectacular. Japanese culture is tightly tied into nature and its changes. Right now, city folk are planning trips to the mountains for momiji viewing. Momiji is a small-leafed maple that turns a brilliant red as the days get chillier. The leaf is ever-present; its shape cooked into souvenir cakes, advertised in travel posters plastered all over the train stations, even used as garnish on seasonal dishes.
Seasonal Harvests, Japanese Style
In Warwick, we are looking forward to apple-picking and pie-making, pumpkins and squash. There are some new tastes, but generally speaking the American diet tends to be pretty stable throughout the year. Here in Japan, even in the heart of the city, the neighborhood supermarket or greengrocer's feels like you are walking into a shop you've never been in before. The leafy greens of summer can be a little tough to find as they are replaced by kabocha (a small green pumpkin), eggplant, and sweet potatoes. The most famous of the autumn foods is the Matsutake mushroom. This mushroom is made into a cornucopia of dishes and soups, or served grilled on its own. Specially grown fruit and food is often given as gifts here, and the matsutake is especially cherished. Extravagantly over-wrapped packages of three or four mushrooms can go for as much as one hundred dollars.
Right now, the Nashi pear is in season. Its taste is similiar to the western-style pear (called yonashi) but it's a massive beast. Round and roughly the size of a softball, it's nearly a meal on its own. Around the end of October, the nashi will be replaced by apples, persimmons and other winter fruit.
For an island nation, there's very little that is more important than fish. Coming from an inland area, I had never known that fish came in and out of season. Like most high-tech nations, much of Japan's fishing has been taken over by large-scale operations. The further you get away from the big cities, however, the more likely you are to find fish caught by local villager fishermen and sold at obscenely early hours near the port. Autumn brings Sanma (pike saury) and Saba (mackerel) to supermarkets and sushi shops around the country.
Rice, Rice, Rice
Fish are good and fine, but in Japan nothing tops rice. Rice is more than just a food here; more than the foundation on which nearly all of the meals are created. Rice is culture, national identity, and pride. Back in 1994, at the start of my first stay in Japan, an unseasonably cold summer caused a national rice shortage. There was absolute panic. Morning talk shows featured debates on the merits and deficencies of imported foreign rice. Nearly every level of society was affected, from the sake makers to the restauranteurs to the individual households. Rice was the topic of conversation. I never could taste the difference myself, but then, my palate wasn't refined by a lifetime of practice.
In southern Japan the rice fields have turned from a muddy green to a golden brown. As the season progresses the autumn colors will spread northward, and farmers will begin harvesting the rice; cutting it and tying it into neat bundles left to dry in the sun. That's when the matsuri begin.
Everyone Loves a Matsuri
A matsuri is a festival, complete with parades, food vendor's stalls, and alot of sake. Not so different from Warwick's own Applefest, except that instead of apple pie, you can snack on octopus dumplings called takoyaki. They are surprisingly tasty and addictive. That, plus a lot of sake.
Nearly every village, town and city has a matsuri to celebrate the rice harvest, most centered around a local shrine or temple. They vary in size and date depending on the area. In Asakura-mura, a small village where I used to teach, the local kami (god) is carried around in a modestly ornate o-mikoshi (a portable shrine) to each of the village houses. The local families pay their respects and offer thanks for an abundant harvest. The gods themselves partake in the same rice as the farmers.
The slightly larger town of Kikuma has a horse matsuri, where eleven and twelve year old boys wearing traditional outfits race horses up a steep hill in a coming-of-age ceremony. Another has an archery contest. Some of these matsuri have been going on for over a thousand years.
At this time of year, the Japanese often say "chi ga sawagu"; the sound of the matsuri drums excite the blood.
Even here in Tokyo, where nearly every tree and blade of grass is boxed in by a wall and a long, long time has passed since any rice was planted, the neighborhoods still celebrate their various matsuri. Though agriculture has faded as a way of life, the people still feel a connection to land and seasons, and a need to give thanks for the harvest. Besides, everyone loves a matsuri.