Coming from Australia where the trees are almost completely evergreen, the spectacle of colour that November brings is a real entertainment. For me, the “show” begins with the coppery reds of the cherry (sakura) leaves. However amongst locals, given the traditional value of modesty (kenkyo), scant attention is given to this particular colour change. With the focus that the cherry receives for its blossoms in Spring, it would seem extravagant to praise it again in Autumn.
Japan has a culture that is historically saturated with an awareness of the seasons. Nature is highly aesthetically codified and words/images often have a symbolic seasonal connotation (kigo). As I study the aesthetic more deeply, it is simultaneously daunting and liberating to view my environment with “blue eyes.” As a foreigner residing in Japan, I am not bound by the weight of established cultural associations and am therefore free to enjoy the beauty of falling cherry leaves.
And so as the month progresses, the “colour show” continues with the understated russet hues of the japanese zelkova (keyaki) leaves. Zelkova trees are largely invisible throughout the year, typically occupying anonymous public spaces like median strips of major roads. Now for a brief moment, they take a bow before losing all their leaves. Then, one of my personal favourite colour changes of the month belongs to the gingko (icho) tree. The fan-shaped leaves of this ancient species, glow with deep golden hues and can often be spotted above the rooflines of traditional neighbourhood houses and temples. As the leaves fall to the ground, an exquisite carpet is formed.
The grand finale to this “Annual Leaf Show” most decidedly comes with the turning of the japanese maple (momiji). Akin to its Spring counterpart, the blossoms of the cherry (sakura), the scarlet red leaves of the japanese maple (momiji) are the quintessential image of the season. While guiding my mother, freshly arrived from Australia, at my neighbourhood temple Shinnyodo this afternoon, I once again realized some of the reasons this species takes centre stage right now.
Slender of trunk, its graceful branches either seem to float horizontally, cantilever fashion or drape on a cascading diagonal. The leaves themselves are delicate, almost cut out in origami patterns and glow translucent in the late afternoon sun.
Sometimes, even within a single leaf, we can see the passing of the season in the gradation of colour from green through yellow to red. Interestingly enough, it has never been the main specimen in traditional Japanese garden design. That role has always been occupied by the pine (matsu) or big leaf yew pine (maki). Rather it is relegated to a supporting role, but it undoubtedly upstages its fellow “performers” come late Autumn. For most Japanese, the gradual turning of the momiji leaves captures the ephemeral melancholic beauty of Autumn.
Savour the words of Haiku poet Basho’s disciple:
How I envy maple leaves
which turn beautiful and then