The Surprising History of Leaf Peeping Dates Back 1,200 Years

published Sep 23, 2019
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Credit: Laura Hoerner

If a leaf changes in a forest, and there’s no one there to Instagram it, does it actually turn from a vibrant summer green to a deep autumnal red?

If you went based on the popularity of the #leafpeeping hashtag (120,000 posts) or #fallleaves (almost 750,000 posts), you might think the answer is no. But those who have studied Japanese history or been steeped in its cultural influences would have another story: that in fact, the tradition of “hunting leaves” and celebrating autumn dates back hundreds of years. That Japanese culture has an entire lexicon devoted to the colors, trees, and activities that revolve around the changing hues of fall. 

This is the tradition of momijigari, which literally means autumn leaf hunting. (Which, for what it’s worth, I think is a more preferable phrase to leaf peeping.)

In the Heian Era (794-1185), Japan’s noble families and rulers led the country into a renaissance, and encouraged the appreciation and creation of the arts, which came with depictions of seasonal imagery and festivals. One of the most influential texts of this time, “The Tale of Genji,” specifically references “An Imperial Celebration of Autumn Foliage,” and is one of the strongest signals that the era’s nobility were fans of fall. The art of this period reflected a combination of aesthetic appreciation for the seasons and an enduring appreciation for the Buddhist idea of “transience,” meaning that our lives are defined by their impermanence. And what is more impermanent than a changing season?

Heian art reflects the Buddhist idea of ‘transience,’ meaning that our lives are defined by their impermanence. And what is more impermanent than a changing season?

“The seasons make for a nice organizational principle in poetry anthologies or paintings, and screens,” said Dr. Kendall Brown, professor of Asian art history at California State University in Long Beach. “How do you have variety, yet continuity? The cycle of the seasons.” The Heian Era, which is often characterized as a 400-year period of peace with a focus on aestheticism and art, allowed for this “seasonal sensitivity” to flourish. According to the Department of Asian Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “this sensitivity to seasonal change is an important part of Shinto, Japan’s native belief system.” The tradition endured with Momijigari (“Viewing Scarlet Maple Leaves” or “Maple Viewing”), a film shot in 1899, adapted from a play.

As Japan became more open to the West, they realized that the they had to come up with an alternative to the word “nature” to better match the way western nations defined the term. As Japan became less isolated around 1900, they established a new definition for a westernized version of nature now known as “shizen.” While nature as the Japanese knew it was more about being one with the universe, shizen incorporated the idea that nature was something that could be owned, manipulated, and mined.

The way leaf peeping exists today, especially in America, may feel more like the latter definition—that we manipulate leaves through filters and forget to enjoy the moment of being in the natural world. And it’s true; that some of that commercialization exists in Japan as well.

Marie Mockett, a Japanese-American writer and traveler, explains that each season brings an entire aesthetic makeover to storefronts and restaurants across Japan, and especially in Kyoto. People don’t seek out one location and assume they can celebrate fall by standing still, but rather, people refer to it like chasing a “tidal wave” of color across the country.

“I think of fall [in the U.S.] as being sad because the colors are fading, but fall over in Japan became really exciting because there were so many red leaf decorations everywhere,” said Mockett. The red maple leaf, recalled Mockett, adorns windows, tablecloths, even clothing. But the most incredible spots for leaf hunting speak to a deeper tradition than just leaves turning a beautiful red.

This year, Mockett plans to visit the Enrian, a temple that’s only open five weeks of the entire year. One of the features of the temple garden is a 350-year old Japanese maple tree supposedly planted by an anonymous female nun. Many say that its most beautiful day is Nov. 25, but to plan that way is “not the way to look at trees,” as she was told over and over. In Japan, it’s important to appreciate the different stages of color the same way they appreciate the entire cycle of life. That includes brown leaves that have fallen to the ground.

Why do we seek out the changing colors in a way that feels akin to a long-planned road trip, as though we were traveling to one of the most important landmarks in the world?

One question remains: if this tradition is steeped in so much cultural significance, how did it become such a popular fall outing in America? Why do we seek out the changing colors in a way that feels akin to a long-planned road trip, as though we were traveling to one of the most important landmarks in the world?

Brown has a theory. “The U.S. was most connected to Japan through New England because that’s where the ships went.” Boston and Salem both did significant trade with Eastern regions, resulting in “vast holdings of Chinese, Korean, Japanese and South Asian art.” According to Brown, “Salem is the original hub for American connection to Japan,” and specifically, the lacquerware brought over from Japan would have had the maple leaf motif, which may have tipped New Englanders off that a similar beauty was in their own backyard.

In Kyoto, one of the most popular locations for both natives and tourists to seek out the vibrant maple leaves, elderly people will bring folding chairs with them to set down anywhere with a good view and sit and appreciate the season. The crowds don’t bother them. And if you plan to visit Japan to follow the “wave” of changing leaves as they travel across cities, you should prepare to embrace the mob.

“You have to think of it not as a private communion with nature, but as a pilgrimage,” said Mockett. “You’re part of a communal group of people who are going to experience the intensity of this color or this heightened experience.”

And pro tip: According to Mockett, the best way to view leaves is to stand under a tree and look up, seeing how the undersides of the leaves against the sky form a rainbow.