November 11, 2011

brown is beautiful

Making the most of the short season...

Autumn in the mountains is short. (In fact, all the seasons seem to be short except for winter, but that's another story.) Autumn also happens to be my favorite time of the year, for its crisp air which is a bliss after the dreadfully hot and humid summer, days of sunshine and blue skies that we can often expect during these months, and of course, the bounty of harvest.

And there is also the autumn foliage that we are so obsessed with in Japan, as we are with cherry blossoms. We anxiously wait for the trees to turn gradually into red and yellow, and go far and near to catch a sight of the pretty leaves.
end of October, near our place; trees were still mostly green if little brittle

And here in the mountains at the heart of Nagano, this seems to happen all in a very short period of time; one week trees are still mostly green, and just a week or so later leaves have all fallen and everything is in brown. So it's really these magical few weeks from late October to early November, when the mountains glow in gradations of green, yellow, orange, red and brown, changing colors day by day.

I've spent rather a lot of my time in Nagano over the past few years, but I seem to have missed this short period every year - either because I was away or simply too occupied with other things in my life to stop and appreciate what's out there.
But not this year. In the past couple of weeks I've managed to take my time and go out, even just for an hour or two, to admire the fleeting beauty of the nature....

On the last weekend of October, we took a short drive to got to a small temple on a cliff by the river. You park your car at the bottom of the hill, from where you walk up along the rugged, steep path. Along the way you'll be greeted here and there by numerous small jizo guardians and statues of Buddhist Goddesses that are believed to watch over people who brave the short but challenging trail to visit the hilltop temple, which is known for a 13th-century wooden shrine.

Before leaving home that day, I had checked autumn foliage forecast/report, according to which it was supposed to be the best time to visit this particular area. So we couldn't help but find the scenery there a bit of anticlimax - as far as the foliage was concerned, anyway. But the day was sunny and warm, and we did enjoy the walk - especially exhilarating for me as I hadn't been out walking for a while.



A few days following that weekend, we went to another temple, this time close to our place. Mom had seen it the day before as she drove by there, and said it was looking good.
This is a small and quiet temple in a rural area, but has pretty gardens that are also nice to visit in the spring when cherry blossoms are in full bloom. In the autumn, maple and gingko trees paint the place in bright red and yellow, be it up on the trees or down on the ground of the gardens. Although the leaves were a touch past their very prime - "We should have come yesterday!", mom was chagrined -, I thought they were beautiful and very much enjoyed walking on the ground carpeted with the leaves while picking some up here and there.



Yet another few days later over the first weekend of November, I took a short walk near our place. The trees that had been still greenish just a week or so earlier were now miraculously all orange - or more like brown.
It was an overcast day, but still fairly warm and nice for taking a walk. As you can probably tell, the trees here weren't in bright red or yellow; they will never be. In these mountains, you find very few maples and gingkos, which we tend to praise the most in Japan. These leaves simply turn from green to dirty orange, then dull brown.

But together, they paint the mountains in million shades of brownish orange, and that is nothing short of breathtaking, though for a very brief period of time.
That weekend turned out to be the last days before the temperatures dropped sharply and cold rains washed most of the trees off the trees, so my autumn foliage season is probably over now. It is starting feeling more winter than autumn.

Autumn in Nagano may be over, but I'm hardly done with autumn - at least not food-wise. There are still a lot of things we can enjoy for the tastes of autumn, preferably in a warm room though.
There are so many foods I love in autumn, but chestnuts are definitely one of the five best. (Other things include kabocha squash and Japanese sweet potatoes, as I have mentioned before, last-of-the-season figs and Japanese pears, new crop rice, new-season buckwheat soba noodles, mushrooms, walnuts... hang on, did I say five??)

Okay, chestnuts; I adore them. I like them sweet or savory, but mainly sweet. If you find yourself in Japan between September and November, you're likely to find a flood of chestnut sweets practically everywhere. One of the most popular is mont blanc, a dessert that consists of sweetened chestnut cream, whipped cream, and a meringue cookie (or cake), and there are a lot of Japanese sweets that feature sweetened chestnuts.

Last autumn, I had a chance to visit Obuse in Northern Nagano, which is known as a major producer of good chestnuts and for a variety of chestnut-based delicacies. I never managed to blog about the visit here, but I did write a post on my Japanese blog, where you can at least see some pictures of this pretty town.
snaps from Obuse, October 2010

From my trip I brought home a whole lot of chestnut sweets (which can also be seen on my Japanese blog), and the downright best of all was kuri dorayaki from Sakurai Kansei-do. Now dorayaki, a traditional Japanese pancake sandwich, is usually filled with sweetened adzuki bean paste, which I hate. There are a lot of kuri dorayaki (which means chestnut dorayaki) around, but most are filled with adzuki bean paste and pieces of sweetened chestnuts, so these too are no-no for me.

Most of uri dorayaki sold by confectioners in Obuse, on the contrary, are filled with sweetened chestnut paste; without the adzuki bean paste, these dorayaki immediately won me over. We tried them from a few different shops, and all of us liked Sakurai Kansei-do's the best, for theirs was not too sweet and full of flavor of real chestnuts. I was so hooked I even ordered a boxful online right after our trip to Obuse.

They are available year around, but they start using new-season chestnuts from late October, and they are simply sublime that way. So I eagerly waited for them, and finally got my hands on them at the beginning of this month.
I got a large box of kuri dorayaki (some to share with friends - no, really!), as well as a few sweet chestnut pies, which I hadn't tried last time. These pies were also filled with sweetened chestnut paste and a whole candied chestnut (no adzuki beans), and tasted good, but we still thought the kuri dorayaki were the winner.

So one chilly afternoon in early November, I took out some of my favorite plates to serve the chestnut sweets, and opened up a bag of my favorite Kyoto green tea to go alongside.
May I just say it was a tea break of autumn to ends all the things.

Besides the kuri dorayaki, there was another thing that we all fell hard for on our visit to Obuse last year, and it was chestnut soft serve. The one we tried was from Chikufu-do, another confectioner based in Obuse, but others also offered one. Since it is impossible to take soft serve home, I tried to make something similar at home - not soft serve, but chestnut ice cream.
chestnut ice cream, November 2010

I used sweetened chestnut puree that I'd brought back from the town, which happened to be also from Sakurai Kansei-do. And the ice cream may not look much, but it was seriously good - even rivaled the soft serve we had in Obuse.

It was simply a frozen mixture of the chestnut puree, some whipped cream and a dash of brandy and milk. It was clear that the key was the chestnut puree, made from chestnuts and sugar and nothing else. We liked it so much I ended up churning up the ice cream a few times last year. So I didn't think twice and added a couple jars to my shopping cart when I ordered the kuri dorayaki.
This chestnut puree tastes good just as is, or even spread on a piece of toast. But its flavor seems to truly shine when combined with cream, so that's how I like to use it. This time I also got a jar of chestnuts in syrup. I haven't opened it yet, but it will be turned into something sweet in due course - if I can resist the temptation to snack on all of them, that is.

While I'm by all means making my kuri ice cream again, the weather has not exactly been ice cream-perfect as of late, so I've made something else for now. (I will be making ice cream in full-on winter when the room is heated nice and toasty.)
First was chestnut mousse, a mixture of the sweetened chestnut puree, eggs (separated and whipped with a bit of sugar) and whipped cream. I didn't use any particular recipe but sort of whipped it up, and it turned out fine.

Another thing, also easy to make, but with a bit more layers of flavors:
Chestnut tiramisu! Tiramisu is one of my favorite desserts to eat and make, either in its classic unadulterated style or with some mix-ins. Here I very loosely followed this recipe, by omitting the eggs and sugar (in the cheese mixture), tripling the amount of chestnut puree, and adding shaved dark chocolate between the layers. I'm eating the last cup of this as I write this, and there is just one word to describe it: DIVINE.

So, those were some of the highlights of my autumn this year, so far...
...well, I refuse to think my autumn is over, just yet. Mornings and evenings are getting cold and mountains are looking bare in dull brown. But like the kuri dorayaki and all those chestnut sweets, things can be beautiful even if there is no colorful glitz to them. As much as the cheerful, pretty red, yellow and orange represent autumn, more subdued, low-keyed shades of brown of late autumn are also an irreplaceable part of the autumn beauty, I think.

Whatever colors you see through your windows now, I hope you are having a lovely autumn - and a happy weekend, too! -cxx


Maria said...

In Lapland, Finland the autumn colours are beautiful and vivid too and I really miss it here in Sydney! Your photos are gorgeous and make me want to go back to Japan so bad... I also happen to love chestnuts! Thank you for sharing, I really enjoyed this :-) Have a lovely weekend! xx

Sophie said...

Mmm. Chestnuts are so lovely. Often, I buy this french Chestnut puree for toast and crepes fillings. But warmed toasted Chestnuts are also very delicious too! I really adore the Japan scenery photos; makes me reminded that one day I shall explore such a serene country.

Winam said...

Your post reminded of my trip to Japan 5 years ago. I spent a few days in Yudanaka, to visit the snow monkeys and to take in the autumn leaves. Wish I could go back again!

Rachael @ Tokyo Terrace said...

Just beautiful- fall is definitely my favorite season in Japan and your photos capture it beautifully (not that I'm surprised). I need to try some more chestnut recipes- I love them too but don't really cook much with them. Thanks for the inspiration!

Anonymous said...

I had no idea Japan got color like this! Your photos are just stunning. Makes me want to visit!

Unknown said...

it is beautiful indeed, I am enjoying it in all its nuances in our beautiful land, Piedmont, and here, on your blog. Thank you for sharing so many romantic pics and the lovely chestnut recipe!

Anonymous said...

i've always wanted to visit Japan, now even more, because of your pictures, thank you! :)
and the chestnuts recipes, mmmm :)

forestlily said...

Such a beautiful season now in Japan. I haven't had a chance to enjoy Koyo yet. Your pictures and the way you choose words in the post are inspiring. Fall is full of pleasure from golden leaves to delicious food!

Anh said...

What beautiful colors! So lovely.

Unknown said...

Beautiful photos! Autumn is my favourite season too.

low carb recipes said...

wow, I just have to say those autumn pictures are amazing.

Romy said...


I am in Kyoto, do you think I can get these sweets here? The Autumn leaves are only just starting here ...

Romy x

Kamila said...

I love the way you present a fabulous nature in Japan.
And I always regret looking at your blog in the morning...
after that I'm so hungry;)

Shalum said...

I've just been to Japan, my first time. In Tokyo and a tour in Mt.Fji and Hakone, particularly. I have yet to post anything in my blog. I now understand why you have those beautiful shots. Your country is so blessed with beauty-the sun,mild weather and beautiful sights, colors, food, everything! I loved my 6 day stay :) We hope to visit again!

betty said...

your photos are amazing- and i love chestnut as well! that tiramisu looks awesome

Esther @ "Keep Calm and Cook More" said...

OH this reminds me of my trip there also. Amazing pics! Id go back in a second if I could! For the food and maple leaves alone!

banglarecipes said...

just love the colour..nicely taken

Amy Eggies said...

This is why i love the fall, the colors of the leaves changing colors is so beautiful. I enjoyed simply looking at these pictures. Thanks for putting them up to look at.

Nuts about food said...

I love the photographs, I have alway sbeen fascinated by Japan. An autumn foliage forecast? For real? I love it!

chika said...

hi all, thanks so much for your comments!

Maria - i bet lapland is stunning in the autumn. it's one of the places i'd always dreamed to visit.

Sophie - i enjoy french chestnut pastes too! chestnut crepes? mmm...

Rachael - you know what, your kurigohan was a total inspiration - it's such a common dish for us, and we would never, ever come up with an idea of adding dried cranberries to it. must give it a try!

Shalum - glad if japan treated you right! i hope you'll get to come back and do make sure you visit kyoto - just lovely.

Nuts about food - yep, autumn foliage forecast is totally real. shows how much we are crazy about them (or just plain crazy)!

zat said...

I love autumn and planning to visit Japan next year. If I want to squeeze one day in Nagano, where shall I go for best autumn photography?
Anyway, your photos are really gorgeous!