Wednesday 22 November 2017

The Changing Colour of the Leaves, Ginkgo Trees, and Poisonous Nuts

Though not in the same league as cherry-blossom viewing (hanami), at this time of year many Japanese go to see the autumnal leaves beginning to change colour, what is known as kōyō (紅葉). Although this literally means "crimson" or "deep red" leaves, it does in fact refer to any kind of colour change - including yellow. One of the first trees to change are the ginkgo or gingko trees which have already started to display their autumnal yellow. Apparently the English name ginkgo/gingko is a mis-spelling of the Japanese gin-kyō (銀杏)literally meaning "silver apricot." The Japanese don't pronounce the tree this way though - it is pronounced ichō though the kanji is the same. To add to the confusion, the yellow fruit of the tree - that is ginkgo/gingko nuts - also use the same kanji compound which in this case is pronounced gin-nan.

One of the best spots for viewing the ichō trees in Tokyo is the Meiji Jingu Gaien (明治神宮外苑) area. The 300-metre-long Gaien Ginkgo Avenue (いちょう並木) is lined with 146 ginkgo/gingko trees and at this time of the year is crowded with both locals and tourists. The foliage has started to turn yellow a week earlier than usual and usually lasts through early December. During this time (November 17th to December 3rd) a festival is held with 44 food and drink stalls which has attracted some 1.8 million visitors  in recent years. Visitors are enraptured by the sight of the tall pointed pear-shaped trees forming a "golden tunnel" leading up to the domed Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery (聖徳記念絵画館).

The leaves of the tree have a distinctive shape which, like the cherry leaf, all Japanese seem to have memorised - the picture right shows railings decorated with the leaf design on the pavement outside my house. The nuts also have a very distinctive and rather awful smell if they are crushed underfoot so they are often gathered before this happens and eaten, usually roasted in a frying pan or boiled. They are particularly common in chawan-mushi (茶碗蒸し) - a kind of savoury steamed egg custard. This was one of the dishes I notice was served up to President Trump on his recent visit to Japan - but with matsutake mushrooms rather than the nuts. Maybe Abe was being cautious - gin-nan nuts are reportedly poisonous if one eats too many!