Based on all the Japanese novels I've read over the years, autumn is regarded as a time of nostalgia. Maybe it's the changing color of leaves, the earlier sunsets, or the chillier weather, but there's something about that season that most Japanese writers like to use as a setting. I can't count the times I've read phrases about the smell of roasting chestnuts, or the mixed joy and sadness of walking under maples amid falling leaves.
I've been in Japan twice during the autumn months, once in late November when I was as I was walking along the banks of Shinobazu Pond in Tokyo's Ueno Park on a grey day. The leaves of the lotus that clog a third of the pond were browning and drooping, and a few tufted ducks paddled in a desultory fashion in the pond's open water section. Cormorants roosted in the bare-branched cherry trees edging the pond.
It was hard to imagine what a crowded and bustling place the park would be during cherry blossom-viewing season because part visitors seemed to have their winter faces on already. Most people were walking briskly around the pond, rather than pausing to take in the beauty of the setting. It definitely had that kind of somber beauty that is so key to the Japanese aesthetic vision.
The other autumn trip took place in mid-October. I spent most days interviewing lawyers whose firms had just opened offices in Tokyo following a change in regulations that would permit them to practice law in Japan in a limited way.
I had one Sunday free, so decided to take the train down to Kamakura on the Izu peninsula. It takes a little more than an hour on Japan Railway's Yokosuna Line, which departs from Tokyo Station four or five times an hour. It's a commuter train that connects Tokyo to Yokohama and bedroom communities beyond, so if you travel on weekdays, be prepared to experience some of the legendary crush associated with rush-hour trains in Japan.
Once I stepped out of the Kamakura station, I felt like I had stepped into the pages of one of my favorite Japanese novels. The surrounding hills were aflame with Japanese maple trees in red and gold. And right away I encountered a kuri man rolling his charcoal-fired cart up the street, filling the air with that famous fragrance of roasting chestnuts. Here's what I saw right outside the station.
Kamakura is popular enough with Western visitors that I didn't attract the kind of attention that I sometimes get in rural Japan and China, although I was trailed throughout my entire time there by a college student who wanted to practice his English conversation skills. We actually ended up eating bowls of noodles together at a little café outside the gates of one of Kamakura's many temples.
Of course I had to see the Daibutsu, which is a giant statue of the Amida Buddha. It's about 40 feet tall, and has been a popular pilgrimage site ever since it was cast back in 1252. I had previously seen Nara's much older and larger giant Buddha statue, so wasn't blown away by its sheer size. As usual it was mainly being treated as a photo backdrop by individual visitors and organized groups. People also like go climb around inside the statue. Statue interiors don't have much appea for me and I thought it was much more interesting to shoot a photo from the back side.
I went to so many temples that day that I can't remember where I shot this photo. It was quieter, and the Buddha was in a much smaller scale. I liked the effect of this statue's green patina against the orange leaves.
When I returned from Japan, I pulled Kawabata's Izu Dancer off my bookshelf and read it again. It's set on the Izu peninsula, which was a favorite hangout of Japanese literati.
Izu Dancer, the debut novel by Nobel laureate Kawabata Yasunari, is a sweet tale of unrequited love between a student from an elite Tokyo high school, and a young member of a troop of dancers traveling through the Izu peninsula, performing at various venues. It's a much beloved book in Japan, and has been made into films several times.
Kawabata took me back to Kamakura and that nostalgic beauty of that time and place. I don't know if I ever will have the chance to return to Kamakura. Certainly the walking tour of the temples is beyond me now. But I so often think of that day whenever I see Japanese maples in flaming colors before the leaves begin to fall.