Chasing After Leaves: Momiji Season in Japan

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When one thinks of Fall, the first thing that probably comes to mind are the leaves that change from green to red each year. But, can we easily think about anything else? I know that I couldn’t easily think of anything other than Thanksgiving and Pumpkin Spice lattes from Starbucks. Ironically, those two examples are probably the most American answers you are going to hear about Fall, which sheds some light onto how much I know about autumn. Now, I can’t really say that I’ve fully grasped the subtle beauty behind the changing seasons since I have arrived in Japan, but I can say that I have changed. In a country that is as technologically advanced as Japan, I have finally taken my first few steps toward understanding Fall by chasing the changing leaves during Momiji season.

Seasonal Specialties

Unlike the United States, Japan is a country that places a great emphasis on seasonality. Even though I live in heart of Tokyo, I could clearly see the seasons change from Summer to Fall. Not only did the days get cooler, but all the restaurants and stores around my dorm started to sell seasonal foods only found during Fall. Three of the most common were 焼き芋 (grilled sweet potato), くり(chestnuts), and 秋刀魚 (saury), which filled almost the entire seasonal food section at my local grocery store.

Every week, I would stop by my local Santoku to buy a few groceries and I would visit the autumn section of the store to see what they were selling. To be honest, I’m not a fan of 秋刀魚 (saury) because it has a strong fishy smell when you cook it, but to my surprise almost everyday they would be sold out. I guess Japanese people really like it because it’s easy to cook and it’s reasonably priced compared to some nonseasonal fish. On the other hand, I absolutely love the Fall flavors of some of the most popular candies! Around this time, the Japanese Chocolate company Meiji produces two limited edition Fall flavors: butter chestnut and sweet potato. Both of which are amazing, and I would highly recommend them to anyone visiting Japan between September and November.

Hunting for Fall Leaves

Although, the stores were quick to change their products to seasonal specialties, the leaves in the Tokyo Area didn’t change that quickly and the city was left green for most of November. This was quite strange because in early November back in Maryland, the trees were basically bare from what my mom described. This made me wonder, “where have all the Fall leaves gone?” Well, to my surprise they were only an hour away on Mt. Takao and they were quickly approaching Tokyo, so I made it my mission to see these beautiful leaves before they disappeared for the year.

What is 紅葉狩り (Momijigari)?

Before going to Mt. Takao, I didn’t have the slightest clue as to what Momijigari was or how popular it is with Japanese people. I first learned this word in one of my Japanese culture classes because the theme for the week was traveling during Autumn. From what my 先生 (sensei) explained, two of the most popular Autumn locations to visit in the Tokyo Area are: Nikko and Mt. Takao because they are renowned for their beauty as cultural/natural heritage sites. She also mentioned Momijigari, or the act of hunting for autumn leaves and viewing them. This part of the lesson really peaked my interest because it sounded like a treasure hunt and as an adventure enthusiast, I couldn’t pass this opportunity up.

Mt.Takao (高尾山)

On the second to last week of November, I finally embarked on my journey to Mt. Takao. To get to Mt. Takao from where I currently live is a little tedious because you have to change from JR to the Local Keio Line, but once you get on the right train it’s easy. After an hour and a half train ride, I arrived at Mt. Takao at 9:30 in the morning with a couple of my friends from school. To our surprise, even though we came extremely early on a Sunday morning, the place was packed with people waiting to climb the mountain to see the Fall leaves.

From the base of Mt. Takao to the peak takes about 2 hours, but I wouldn’t recommend rushing up the mountain because along the way you might miss out on some amazing sights and foods.  Along the entire trail there are beautiful trees and shrines that look amazing in the Fall. Also, at the halfway point along the trail there is a small area that sells all kinds of foods. The most mouthwatering food was probably the freshly roasted chestnuts which I bought for only 500 Yen. This is a seasonal specialty, like many of the other foods being sold on the mountain during this season, so enjoy them while you can. Now, I found it astonishing to see how much effort the Japanese put into bring all these seasonal sights, sounds, and tastes together because this is hardly done in the United States. Also comparatively, in the United States we have access to so many types of produce year-round that seasonal specialties tend to lack the impact of being a time sensitive specialty.

The Heart of Autumn

After arriving at the peak of the mountain, I felt like I started to understand why Japanese people place so much emphasis on seasonality. For one, with the changing of the seasons comes the seasonal bounty of certain foods, like chestnuts and pumpkin. In addition to that, the seasons are kind of a metaphor for the shortness of time because as fast as they come, they also quickly disappear. This is probably what brings so many people together during this season in Japan because it’s a great way to admire nature and spend time with the one’s you love. Also, the Fall leaves are just beautiful, so who can blame anyone for wanting to see them.