Fallen Gingko Leaves (銀杏落葉) Give Tsukuba ( and much of Japan) Glimmering, Golden Groundscapes
By Avi Landau
The most commonly used expression for AUTUMN FOLIAGE in the Japanese language is KOHYOH ( 紅葉), which literally means- RED LEAVES. This is a testament to the fact that since more than a thousand years ago, the residents of the old capital Heian-Kyo ( now Kyoto), out of all the colorful autumn trees, have had a strong preference for the deep red hues taken on by the Japanese Maple (kaede, 楓). And despite the fact that the mountains which surround Kyoto turn a wide range of blazing colors, the Heian aristocrats and literati referred to a foliage-viewing excursion specifically as MOMIJI-GARI ( 紅葉狩り)- red, maple-leaf hunting.
This association of autumn with RED LEAVES is so strong that when talking in English, Japanese people, even the best speakers, will incorrectly use the expression- RED LEAVES ( in English) when referring to what native speakers would call autumn leaves, changing leaves, autumn colors, or autumn foliage.
This has always seemed strange to me, living in contemporary Japan. For though there are certainly a few spectacular maple trees here and there, the dominant autumn (and early winter) color of Tsukuba is surely YELLOW, with various trees turning that color- most outstandingly the ITCHOH- or as we say in English, the GINGKO TREES.
These trees are commonly found within the precincts of temples and shrines, and abundantly in parks, as well. In Tsukuba, they have also been planted as a roadside tree, most famously lining the important Tsuchiura-Gakuen Line.
Not only do these trees create beautiful glowing tree canopies, but as their leaves fall away, they turn the ground around them into a golden carpet. There are some famous spots in Japan, such as the Jingu Gaien Park in Tokyo, where two long rows of gingko trees form a tunnel over the fallen leaves creating a spectacular golden walkway. The padded feeling of strolling on the soft leaves adds to the surreal experience of passing through it. A miniature version of this can be seen, and walked through, in Tsukuba`s very own Doho Park.
The Kyoto Imperial Palace and the Shoso-In in Nara are also famous for their fallen gingko leaves.
A careful examination of an individual gingko leaf will reveal its FAN-like shape. It is because of this shape that in Japanese cooking, slicing vegetables into thin half-circles is called ITCHOH-GIRI ( 銀杏切), literally- gingko slices.
These leaves have also been traditionally used to prevent insect damage ( by keeping the pests away) to Japanese style books ( of washi paper) by placing them between volumes.
And don’t forget to remind your Japanese friends that autumn is not exclusively RED !
( and if you are a Japanese student of English to use the expression AUTUMN FOLIAGE instead of red leaves)
And if you have grown tired of merely enjoying the foliage with your eyes, I have written about how some people have another way of TAKING IN the leaves.