Japan's Maple Leaf Obsession Is A Mark Of Autumn
Image Credit: Library of Congress.

🍁 Autumn leaf hunting or momijigari was practiced by the aristocracy in the 7th century but had become a popular activity for all classes by the Edo period. 

🍁 Momijigari is about appreciating the transient natural beauty of the autumn foliage — the scarlet hued maple and the blazing yellow of the golden ginkgo. 

🍁 The maple leaf has also inspired two popular snacks that are enjoyed at all times of the year, but especially during momijigari walks. 


oharaki no / mori no kuzuha mo / fuku kaze ni / momiji mo aezu / chiri ya shinuran

In Oharaki / Among the groves, will the kudzu leaves, / When the wind does blow / Parting from the scarlet leaves / Scatter, too, I wonder?

Hanami — flower-watching — during the sakura/cherry blossom season defines spring in Japan. Momijigari defines autumn. 

All over Japan, the foliage of deciduous trees like the maple and the golden ginkgo changes colour over the fall months. Momijigari derives from the words 'momiji' meaning red/maple leaf, and 'gari', which means to hunt. This isn't a "hunt" in the usual sense of the term of course; think of it as looking for treasure, and having found it, taking a moment (or several hours) to savour it in its natural environment. 

From Osaka to Kyoto to Tokyo, Hokkaido and the mountains of Nagano, the trees begin to take on their autumnal hues at various times within the fall window, depending on their altitude. Predicting which part of the season is best for gaining the most beautiful visual and sensory momijigari experience is a duty discharged diligently by media outlets and cultural organisations. 

Some momijigari trails are located within city parks, others require a drive away from urban centres and hikes along well-maintained nature trails. Photography and posing in kimonos for shoots is the most common creative response to the fall leaves in contemporary times, but historically, people would write waka poetry or haiku, paint, conceptualise kabuki productions, or drink sake and host feasts, as they took in the fleeting beauty around them. The practice is believed to have started among the aristocracy in the 7th century, but by the Edo period, had become popular with the other classes as well.

With momijigari sometimes calling for long treks in temperatures that can range from 8-10 degrees, food is a welcome part of the experience. Among the popular to-go snacks are zarame senbei — crackers made of toasted rice and coated with sugar crystals; momiji tempura — young maple leaves that are aged in salt for a year, then coated in batter and deep fried; the leaf imparts its distinctive five-starred shape to the tempura, and the coating itself is sweet and dry; and momiji manju: a buckwheat and rice cake filled with red bean paste and shaped like a maple leaf, that’s a specialty of Itsukushima, in Hiroshima. 


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