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The Autumn Leaves


There was no mistaking it. He must have been one of the cooks - the white uniform, apron and headgear gave that away. But what on earth was he doing up there on the roof of the restaurant? It wasn't very steep, and he didn't seem to be in much danger. He was simply walking back and forth among the tree branches overhanging the building, carrying a small, flat basket. I wasn't able to watch long enough to figure out what he was doing, as my companions were too eager to get inside, and see if we could get seats. It was 'high season', this was a very popular restaurant, and it was obviously going to be very crowded.

A small group of former English students of mine had suggested we do a bit of 'maple viewing', over on the Tama River in the Okutama area. I've been up there walking any number of times, but had never managed to make it during the season for seeing the fall foliage. Part of this had been my desire to avoid the crowds at that season, but the general 'busy-ness' of autumn had really been the main reason. Over the years though, I'd heard so much about the fabulous scenery up there, that when the suggestion was made for this trip, I didn't hesitate to accept.

Things hadn't gone according to plan. One of the members had cancelled, another was late, and we then found out at the station that the trains were all off schedule, due to some kind of problem down the line somewhere. We were thus arriving at the restaurant nearly an hour behind our planned time, and didn't really expect to find a place. But there must have been some cancellations (perhaps because of the train problem), because to our surprise we were not only given seats, but given the best seats in the house - a corner table overlooking the river. Huge wide windows, with the warm sun streaming across the table. And outside, spreading all the way up the mountainside opposite, were the colours we had come to see.

My companions were duly appreciative. "Wonderful!" "We're here just at the right time ..." "The colours are so beautiful this year!", etc. etc. And it was a very pleasant scene - the sunlight reflecting off the water surface upstream providing a sparkling highlight to the green, yellow and brown panorama. They turned to me, "You don't have anything like this in your country, do you?"

"We...ll, no. Not exactly ..." I tried to keep my voice neutral. But these women know me well, and the hesitation gave me away. "What's wrong? Don't you think our Japanese 'momiji' are beautiful?" Now I was in the soup. They were very proud of their beautiful scenery, and happy to be showing it to a foreigner. I shouldn't criticize it ... But what to say about the autumn colours in Canada? What to say about those Quebec mountainsides clothed in fire ... the absolutely brilliant reds, oranges and yellows? What to say about driving down a rural highway surrounded by displays of vivid colour that completely defy description? What to say about the crispness of the air, the unbelievable depth of the blueness of the sky ...? How to tell them about these things without seeming to criticize their autumn scenery? As I said though, we know each other well, so I told them of these things, albeit a little apprehensively.

As it happens, I needn't have been so worried. They listened attentively to my description of the glories of autumn in Eastern Canada, but were not impressed. It wasn't that my description was inadequate; perhaps I even overdid things. It was simply that to their minds, such concepts as 'brightness', 'boldness', 'vividness' and 'clarity', were not particularly positive points. To them, the image I presented was simply too strong ... too 'noisy'. They didn't want to be 'hit in the face' with their autumn, they rather seemed to want delicate shadings ... sublety ... gentleness ...

It was at this point in our discussion that one of them directed my attention to the plate in front of me (if I can use that rather bald word 'plate' to describe such a beautiful ceramic creation ...). Our meal consisted of a dozen or so small courses, brought in turn by a kimono-clad waitress. The current dish was made up of a selection of five morsels, some meat, some vegetable. My friend pointed in turn to each one of the five, and then out the window. At first, I didn't understand what she was trying to indicate. One of the other women had to spell it out for me. Each of the five items was an autumn colour - and matched exactly a colour that we could see from our window. Our dish was a tasteful (in two ways!) representation of the mountain scenery in front of us. I nodded my understanding. She was too polite to ask me if we had anything like this in my country ...

The rest of our meal became a kind of game; what was the 'significance' of each serving? Many were fairly straightforward - being simply seasonal vegetables. Some were more complicated - the name of the dish had a poetic allusion to the season. And a few of them defeated us (I should say - defeated them) completely. But at one point during the meal, a light went on over my head. Placed ever-so-carefully next to the food on one of the plates was ... a curled-up orange-brown maple leaf. Of course! This was what the cook had been doing up on the roof ... collecting ingredients for our lunch from the overhanging tree branches!

This time my companions were not so polite. Laughing, they started to ask me, "In your country ..." I couldn't even let them finish the question. The idea of a restaurant cook prowling across the roof picking brown leaves to decorate the lunch ... No, I had to admit that I didn't think this would happen in Canada.

So we came to a sort of draw. In their minds, the Canadian autumn is a rather brash affair; 'beautiful' yes, but somewhat unsophisticated. And to me, the Japanese autumn is a basically unimpressive show, for which the Japanese compensate by playing these poetic 'games'. To each his own. And is it really a coincidence that each of these two countries has the climate that creates an autumn suited so exactly to the character of its people? Or is it that the character of the people has been shaped by such things as the colour of their autumn leaves? An interesting question indeed ...