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Autumn Curiosity

I suppose you have to live here to understand that there are only two seasons in Japan. Forget the calendar that announces spring, summer, autumn, and winter. The Japanese people celebrate only sakura and momiji. People spend the long, blustery winter months anticipating spring. Ah…sakura. It is an intoxicating season, even without the sake to accompany the custom of hanami, which actually means to view flowers. However, Ohanami has come to be used exclusively for the act of viewing the showy sakura (cherry blossoms) in white and pink. It further implies a certain, seemingly obligatory, craziness of behavior; including the consumption of large amounts of alcohol and food while sitting, shoeless, under the spreading sakura boughs and turning their besotted, smiling faces to the multitudes of petals that drift down like silky snowflakes upon the revelers. The delicate beauty of the country during this romantic season soothes the eyes and comforts the spirit with the promise of life. Now I know how Persephone felt.

After the silliness of sakura, people spend the sizzling, sticky summer months reliving their sake sodden Ohanami fun and anticipating the coming of drier, clearer air and the brilliant displays of autumn. In late summer, the brightly colored cosmos appear to warn us to be ready. An abundance of other fluffy weeds, colorful flowers, and berry laden bushes burst on the scene. The kaki (persimmons) ripen about the same time the rice is harvested and my voice departs. As it turns out, I am allergic to much of what is delighting me with its late summer and early autumn splendor. I appreciate the show anyway.

Autumn is, hands down, my favorite season. In Koriyama, autumn is drop dead gorgeous. The mountains are on fire with brilliant reds, stunning yellows, and subtle oranges set against the deep and various shades of evergreens, which provide a backdrop for the colorful display. Around town, the expertise of the horticultural crew is evident. Tall bright yellow ginko trees and well trimmed red azalea hedges line major boulevards. It is no accident that the trees selected to line the streets are alternately green, yellow, and orange at this season.

The first thing one notices about Autumn is that the country is on the move again. Trains and busses arrive at Koriyama eki (station) filled with people traveling from cramped concrete cities to the open roads of the mountains in order to view the retina searing foliage. This is when the advantages of living in Koriyama become clear. We live within view of the “two dragons”. The majestic volcano, Adatara, with its range of 7 peaks to the north and the distinctive cone of Bandai san dominating the west. On clear sunny days, it takes only minutes in our little Cube 3, to be swallowed up in a fantasy of color, with each turn of the road more beautiful than the last. Visits to favorite waterfalls and hiking areas reveal leafy canopies of summer’s green giving way to orange, red, and yellow. The pools and rivers are clogged with shed leaves. Dozens of photographers, each with an impossibly large camera and equally impossibly long lens, plant their tripods on precarious rocky outcroppings, getting in each other’s way and jockeying for position to get just the right shot of the dramatic display.

Autumn serves up, not only visual delights, but culinary delights as well. I love the sweet, subtle flavor of the kaki (persimmons) that come ripe in November. The unusual beauty of the tree also intrigues me. During summer large, dark green leaves protect the developing fruit, hiding it from view. However, once autumn arrives and the kaki is ripe, the leaves fall away revealing brilliant orange fruit hanging heavily on the gnarled, black branches. This is where curiosity kicks in.

It is as if every house and farm in Otsuki suddenly sports strings, loops, and lines of bright orange balls. For many people in this farming community, this fruit is their main source of vitamin C during winter. The long strings of drying fruit can be seen hanging outside every window and door, and draped over every balcony and laundry pole for a month, after which it is stored in a cool place (any room in their house) for winter consumption. I wonder aloud; why doesn’t it rot? Does it get dirty? Does it freeze? Do the birds eat it? What is the process? How does it taste?

On Culture Day, an important Japanese Autumn holiday, my friend, Yuko san, invited me out for tea and back to her home. Once in her kitchen, she produced a dozen ripe kaki and two very sharp knives. Ah…one mystery solved. The fruit does not rot because it is first peeled before hanging. Then the secret process is explained. My instructions are to trim the stem, peel the fruit, and hang the peeled fruit, two to a plastic string, over my laundry pole or sunny balcony where it is sheltered from the rain. The pole keeps the fruit from touching each other and the string, which keeps the kaki from rotting. One mystery solved. Do we just hope no one has to do laundry for a month? That is still a bit fuzzy. It is clear, however, that the kaki have priority.

Other interesting facts; birds do not often bother the fruit, I am told. Most of the pesky little creatures have migrated to warmer climates. (Silly me) Despite nippy nighttime temperatures, the high sugar content keeps the fruit from freezing; and, “Oh, my, NO, do not wash the fruit.”, cried Yuko san. Just blow off the dust. Curiosity mostly satisfied.

As I watch my kaki drying in the sunny, sheltered spot outside my window, I contemplate the end of autumn. The mountains still display an intense variety of color under their cap of fresh snow. A few Siberian swans have begun to arrive and take up winter residence nearby. Millions of kaki hang drying in the company of daikon, onions, mushrooms, and laundry outside hundreds of homes. Old men are rushing to harvest the rice and old women their autumn gardens. Rice is bundled and sent to market and the squash, turnips, and potatoes are carefully stored away for the winter ahead. This is a season of rich bounty and much activity. Many American holidays cease to have meaning here; but, after living in a rural farming community, I am beginning to get Thanksgiving.

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