Tuesday 31 October 2023

High Skies, Sardine Clouds, Reading Week, and Margheritas: Autumn has Come!


We're almost into November, but pleasant days (and short-sleeves) continue, perhaps not surprising given we had the hottest summer on record. At the same time, the sky tells us that autumn (aki=秋)has well and truly arrived. The Japanese have a lovely saying for this season, sora ga takai (空が高い) - literally, "the sky is high." Indeed, a famous (originally Chinese) proverb reads 天高馬肥秋 (ten takaku uma koyuru aki), literally "autumn, the sky is high and the horse fat" (the latter part pointing to a successful harvest). Even my weather app comments on the sky being high: the attached picture notes that, "today the clear autumn sky (akibare=秋晴れ) feels to be high." Although this expression is not found in English it is true that the sky is more blue at this time of the year, due to the humidity level dropping off leaving less moisture in the air. Cirrocumulus autumn clouds are also described as resembling fish scales (uroko-gumo=うろこ雲) - sometimes called sardine (iwashi-gumo) or mackerel (saba-gumo) clouds -  just like the English expression "mackerel sky" referring to rows of clouds displaying an "undulating, rippling pattern similar in appearance to fish scales."

While season words (kigo=季語) are a staple in Japanese poetry, surprisingly clouds don't figure so much. The only one I found was this by Basho, though unusually the season is clearly identified: この秋は 何で年寄る 雲に鳥 (In this autumn/why do I get old?/ birds in clouds). Much more common are references to the moon, which in contrast to the "high" sky, often appears to sit low to the horizon, as well as being brighter, at this time of year (moon-watching or tsukimi used to be a popular group activity in autumn in Japan). Autumn in Japan is also associated with a number of other activities. One is reading, as expressed in the phrase dokusho no aki (読書の秋) and a special reading week (dokusho shūkan=読書週間) started on October 27th (though it actually runs for two weeks!). Thought to be a post-war phenomenon perhaps inspired by US Children's Book Week, others trace the phrase back to Natsume Soseki quoting an old Chinese poem about "reading by lamplight." Autumn is also promoted as a time to engage in sport and outdoor activity, probably due to the fact that schools typically hold their sports day (undō kai=運動会) during this season. Indeed, the national holiday held on the second Monday in October is called Sports Day (スポーツの日), a holiday originally established to commemorate the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. 

Nevertheless, the most common refrain one hears about autumn is the phrase shokuyoku no aki (食欲の秋) - literally autumn, the season of good appetite! While foods such as saury (sanma), matsutake mushrooms, persimmons (kaki), and pears (nashi) deserve an honorable mention, the holy trinity is probably sweet potatoes (satsuma-imo), pumpkin (kabocha), and chestnuts (kuri) - see here for a simple video on how to make aromatic chestnut rice (kuri-gohan), an autumn staple. Given the popularity of Japanese food worldwide, you might expect that Japanese people would favour eating out in Japanese restaurants but in fact Italian food is first choice for many Japanese for a nice meal out - and there are so many great options. For those of you in Tokyo, Fukuoka, or Yokohama, you have to try L'Antica Pizzeria da Michele, founded in Naples in 1870 and boasting possibly the best Margherita in Japan! And on that note, let me wish all my readers a belt-busting autumn - and do let me know in the COMMENTS what the season means to you, culinary or otherwise!

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