“Fall is the Season for Eating” is the theme for this month’s Japan Blog Matsuri, hosted by Surviving in Japan. Well, if you watch television in Japan you will know that every season (and there are a staggering FOUR in Japan! ) is really the season for eating, for not a day in a week in a month in a year goes by without celebrities in your living room stuffing food into their mouths and declaring its staggering deliciousness.
So what makes fall so special in the food department? If you were to ask a Japanese person, they might wax lyrical about persimmon, kurigohan, yakinasu, and sanma as examples of autumnal food. And although each of those is well worth eating, they don’t instill in me a feeling that fall has arrived. I didn’t grow up in Japan and
when I eat those foods, much as I enjoy them, I don’t feel that summer has gone and fall is here. They don’t signal a change in the seasons to me. They represent fall to the Japanese in a way that simply doesn’t resonate with me. And, despite my earlier flippancy regarding the seasons, I think this is important. We mock the Japanese when they ask us if we have seasons, and well we may for it seems a ludicrous question. But just maybe the question is not asked in the simple way that we take it. If I were to ask a Japanese person if they have Christmas in Japan they would say, ‘Yes, of course’, but their Christmas is nothing like the Christmas I know and love and if I were asked by a British friend if they have Christmas in Japan I would answer, ‘Yes, they have it, but it’s not really Christmas. It’s not the same.’ On a charitable day I will allow myself to believe that’s what some Japanese may mean when they ask if we have seasons: Are your seasons like ours? For them, fall is kurigohan and yakinasu and sanma. For me, even living in Japan, it is not. Of course we have seasons, but they are imbued with different nuances.
So what, for me, a foreigner in Japan, is fall? It is the approach of winter. I enjoy the akiaji beer which appears towards the end of summer, but the days are still hot and I am still sweating as I drink it. The label says autumn, the thirst does not. My Japanese autumnal stirrings are caused by other things. I choose cans of hot coffee from vending machines instead of cold ones and when I pop into the convenience store and notice with desire again the small, glass heated cabinet containing nikuman, pizzaman and butaman, I feel that I have aged one more summer. Perhaps it was there on the counter next to the cash register all summer long but, if it was, the heat of June, July, August and September rendered it invisible to my eyes. Likewise with oden. I might not succumb to buying it until the real winter chills arrive, but it is there and in my sights from October and it reminds me that the days of morning dances in the shower as the water heats up are on their way.
So come the tail end of fall come foods I haven’t thought about for months. The cloudy summer skies give way to brilliant winter blues reminding me I am far from the UK, the mikan on the tree in my garden begin their change from green to orange, the kotatsu quilt makes a welcome return to the table, the sake changes from cold to hot . I enjoyed the summer while it lasted, but as I sit snugly cocooned under the blanketed table for the first time in months, munching on warm ginkgo nuts I realize the seasons have changed, and with them so have my habits. And the next time I am asked if we have seasons in Britain I might just lessen the disappointment of the question-asker when he or she discovers that Japan is not unique in this regard. ‘Yes, we do,’ I will say, ‘but they’re not really seasons. They’re not the same.’