The leaves are changing colour, the days are getting shorter, there’s a nip in the air…
Autumn is here! (Or fall, depending on where you’re from ? )
Perhaps you already know that the seasons are very important in Japan.
In Japanese culture, people honour the changes in the seasons with foods, drinks, customs, festivals and celebrations.
Of course, autumn or fall is no different! There are plenty of Japanese traditions to celebrate this time of year.
Let’s take a look at some essential Japanese vocabulary words to talk about autumn in Japan:
Let’s start with aki (秋 / あき) – the Japanese word for autumn or fall. If you are studying kanji, you might recognise that the character for 秋 includes the radical characters for grain (禾) and fire (火).
Kanji are awesome, aren’t they? It’s easy to create a memorable mental image of fiery red leaves to help you remember this character.
Of course, one of the most common symbols of autumn anywhere in the world is the changing colour of the leaves. This phenomenon is known as kouyou (紅葉 / こうよう) in Japanese.
In Japan, people take this seasonal event to a whole new level, taking the time to look at and appreciate the changing leaves in the same way they hold cherry blossom viewing parties (hanami) in the spring. People often travel to famous viewing points to see the most beautiful red and gold leaves.
The kanji, 紅葉, literally means ‘crimson leaves’ – although it can describe yellow and gold leaves too.
After the kouyou comes rakuyou (落葉 / らくよう). Rakuyou means fallen or shedded leaves.
Is there anything more autumnal than going for a walk with crispy, bright red or golden fallen leaves beneath your feet?
Momiji (紅葉 / もみじ) are Japanese maple trees. Around October or November, momiji leaves turn the most stunning bright red colour. This makes momiji areas some of the most popular spots for kouyou (autumn leaf) viewing.
Sharp-eyed readers may have noticed that the kanji for momiji are the same as the kanji for kouyou – ‘red leaves’ (紅葉). There are two different ways to pronounce the same kanji characters.
Momiji are a well-loved symbol of autumn. Here are some other momiji-related Japanese autumn words for you to learn:
- Momiji manju (もみじ饅頭 / もみじまんじゅう) – a famous steamed bun from Miyajima island in Hiroshima.
- Momijigari (紅葉狩り / もみじがり) – autumn leaving viewing (literally, ‘red leaf hunting’)
Of course, Halloween is not a traditional Japanese custom, but it’s becoming more and more widely celebrated – especially in families with children!
Trick or treating is not popular in Japan, but some families enjoy Halloween decorations and sweets at home. Shops like Daiso (a famous 100 yen shop) are full of Halloween themed treats at this time of year.
ハロウィーン (Harouīn) is written in katakana because the word is borrowed from English.
Kuri (栗 / くり) or chestnuts grow in Japan and they are in season in October. At this time of year, chestnuts are used in a lot of traditional dishes such as kuri gohan (chestnut rice), kuri manju (steamed buns stuffed with chestnuts) and wagashi seasonal Japanese sweets. Chestnuts are also enjoyed as a snack, boiled with soy sauce or salt.
Kuri always bring back warm memories of the autumn season for anyone who grew up in Japan.
Kaki (柿 / かき) are Japanese persimmons. These are everywhere in Japan during the fall! The main persimmon season is from mid October to mid November, but of course you can find farmed persimmon outside of this season as well.
The bright orange colour evokes autumnal feelings for many Japanese! In the countryside, a lot of people grow persimmon trees in their gardens too.
The fruit is rich in vitamin C and helps to keep you healthy as the weather turns cold. You can also dry persimmons out to make them last all winter. Dried persimmons are very sweet and tasty.
During October and November, if you travel in the countryside, it’s very common to see strings of persimmons hanging outside in windows and porches to dry out.
Here are some more popular Japanese autumn foods:
- Matsutake (松茸 / まつたけ) – Matsutake mushroom. Also known as pine mushroom, these seasonal delicacies are rare and expensive! They are often given as gifts. Matsutake are best enjoyed in soup, or grilled with rice rice.
- Satsumaimo (さつま芋 / さつまいも) – sweet potatoes. Unlike the bright orange sweet potatoes found in other parts of the world, Japanese sweet potatoes are a creamy yellow colour inside. They are often enjoyed simply roasted as a snack.
- Nashi (梨 / なし) – Asian pears. These pears are round like an apple, but slightly bigger. They are crispy and sweet.
- Ringo (りんご) – Apples. Apples are available year-round, but are best picked and eaten when they are in season from October to December.
- Sanma (さんま) – Pacific Saury. A small fish that is very tasty in autumn. It can be grilled and eaten whole, simply flavoured with salt.
Shokuyoku no aki (食欲の秋 )
Shokuyoku no aki (食欲の秋 / しょくよくのあき)means ‘autumn appetite’. In Japan, autumn is known as the season when everybody gets a healthy appetite!
Probably this is because it’s harvest season and there is a huge glut of fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables such as apples, pears and persimmons (see above 🙂 ).
It might also be because we want to eat more as the weather gets cooler, in preparation for a cold winter.
Tsukimi (月見 / つきみ)or o-tsukimi (polite version) is the Japanese moon viewing festival. It takes place around the date of the autumn equinox in early autumn (usually in September).
This is when the moon is at its furthest point away from the earth. It’s supposed to look completely round and exceptionally bright and beautiful at this time. Japanese people love to celebrate by holding evening moon-viewing parties outdoors.
The word tsukimi contains the kanji 月 (tsuki, moon) and 見 (mi, view or watch).
There are lots of customs and traditions associated with tsukimi. Here are some more useful words:
- Tsukimi dango (月見団子 / つきみだんご) – a white rice dumpling. The round shape represents the full moon.
- Susuki (薄 / すすき) – Pampas grass. Pampas grass looks like the rice plant, so it is used to represent a good harvest. It is displayed in bunches of five or ten.
- Tsukimi soba (月見そば / つきみそば) – Moon viewing soba. Soba noodle dishes are often topped with a raw egg during the tsukimi festival, because the egg resembles the full moon. You can also get tsukimi udon.
The rice harvest takes place in autumn in Japan. When rice is eaten soon after the autumn harvest, it’s called ‘new rice’ or shinmai (新米 / しんまい).
New rice has a sweeter flavour than older rice. It is only available for a few months of the year – after December, it’s not considered ‘new’ any more.
Shinmai is best enjoyed plain, or with other seasonal foods, such as matsutake mushrooms or chestnuts.
Do you know any more Japanese autumn words? Share them in the comments below!
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Rebecca is the founder of Team Japanese. She spent two years teaching English in Ehime, Japan. Now back in the UK, she spends her time blogging, self-studying Japanese and wrangling a very genki toddler.