Chasing after Autumn Leaves: Momijigari and Discovering the Japanese Appreciation for Nature

By: Benjamin Liu

December 13, 2017

These past five days, I had the opportunity to take a short trip to the Chubu and Kansai regions of central Japan. I visited both Nagoya, Japan’s third-largest city, and Kyoto, the ancient Japanese capital. I had not been to Nagoya before, so it was definitely exciting to explore a new city. I was glad that I had the chance to understand another part of Japan better. However, despite all the fun that I had in Nagoya, the most meaningful part of my trip was when I went to Kyoto to see the autumn leaves.

Appreciation towards the changing seasons and nature is of great importance in Japan. One can see this clearly reflected in various aspects of Japanese culture. For example, some of the fundamental principles of Japanese cuisine include the use of seasonal ingredients. These seasonal ingredients thus create seasonal dishes that change year-round. Another principle of Japanese cuisine is keeping the ingredients in as “natural” of a state as possible. Although “natural” may be interpreted in a variety of ways, this can be clearly seen in the overall image of Japanese cuisine as light, as well as in famous Japanese dishes such as sushi, udon, or soba. 

One can also view the various seasonal themed products and foods as an extension of this appreciation, whether it is related to traditional seasons such as the cherry blossom season, or “seasons” imported from the West, such as the Christmas season. These items may range from cherry blossom flavored soda to Christmas-themed Pokemon merchandise. When it comes to Japan and the seasons, the possibilities are endless. Applying this appreciation of things in their natural state to modern society, one can even see it reflected in Japanese minimalism design as a kind of striving for the barest natural state in an urban realm.

However, at the heart of all of this activity lies the changes in nature and the natural landscape that come with the turning of the seasons themselves, whether it is the wisteria season in late spring, the iris season in mid-summer, or the azalea season in early summer. These natural changes are the root of Japan’s appreciation for nature. Among these various seasons, it can be said that the autumn leaf season and the cherry blossom season stand as pillars of Japanese nature appreciation. 

In Japanese, autumn leaves are called kōyō (紅葉, crimson leaves), and the act of going to see and appreciate them is called momijigari (紅葉狩り, crimson leaf hunting). While nowadays, with the information we can find on the internet we might not be taking part in the physical hunting and discovery of autumn leaf spots, there is still definitely both a hunt and a chase to catch the autumn leaves at the peak of their splendor or to see them at famous scenic spots. This time, I definitely felt myself chasing after them. However, by the time I reached Kyoto, the trees were already well past their peak, with most of their leaves fallen.

While I was a bit sad that I did not get to see the grandeur of the crimson leaves at their peak in the ancient capital, seeing the tree in trees in their mostly barren state, with a sea of fallen leaves—unwithered, withering, and withered—made me understand the Japanese aesthetic principles of mono-no-aware (物の哀れ, the pathos of things) and wabi-sabi (侘・寂, rustic simplicity and withered beauty). These two principles are rooted in Japan’s Buddhist history, and, while hard to translate, connote a sense of an understanding of the transience, imperfection, and impermanence of things and the feeling of sadness or melancholy that comes along with that realization. However, rather than being a depressing sadness or melancholy, it is one that inspires. These two principles heighten one’s appreciation of things precisely because of their impermanence and also lead one to appreciation imperfection as a natural part of reality. Walking among the Japanese maple trees, I truly felt these emotions. It really allowed me to more deeply appreciate what nature has to offer and inspired me to continue chasing after the seasons that are to come.

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Chasing after Autumn Leaves: Momijigari and Discovering the Japanese Appreciation for Nature