Japan and Autumn: An Ode to Pumpkin

Something that we don’t have so much in the UK is pumpkin. I’m sure all you Americans are squealing “But what about pumpkin pie?” Well, we do without it. Although I’m pretty sure it would improve my life.

As mentioned previously, seasonal food is a big thing in Japan so expect a ridiculous re-flavouring of just about everything every month. This autumn, I seem to have missed out on all the sweet potato and gone straight for the pumpkin.

Let me introduce you to two very popular sweet things in Japan that are total Japanisations of familiar Western products.

1) Harajuku crepes

Pumpkin crepe
Pumpkin crepe

Harajuku – the pop culture epicentre of Tokyo – has been popularised through artist like Gwen Stefani, eager to absorb and advance it’s colourful melange of fashion. Nowadays, it doesn’t seem to host as many lolitas or cosplayers as its reputation suggests but it’s still the place to go to soak up teen culture. Just like the fashion, the food has to be sugary sweet to match.

Thus, we have the crepes. There are savoury versions but I stare at the neon plastic displays and think that the savoury food might be exactly that: neon and plastic. Not that the sweet stuff is much better, of course. But I hope you didn’t order a crepe looking for a quality dessert – this is all about a sugar hit wrapped in vaguely warm batter topped with the mildest hit of flavour.

And, in autumn, there’s pumpkin pie with pumpkin ice-cream. Did it taste of pumpkin? No. Did I sort of regret it? Yes. But sometimes these things have just got to be done. The crepe places are always colourful and sometimes lit up like this.


They’re not to be confused with all the other colourful and lit up stores in Harajuku…


2) Egg custard tarts

Pumpkin custard?
Pumpkin custard?

A cursory glance at the big Internet thing tells me that there’s a bit of a debate as to where these originate from. Portugal, England, France…. Middle Ages…Wherever, whenever – it’s definitely not Japan! But these are super-popular out here. I used to get chocolate cream ones in Kyoto. Of course, matcha (green tea) flavour is also available because matcha manages to enter almost anything sweet in Japan.

This autumn, I decided to say hello to the pumpkin custard tart. And whilst I got it from the Tokyu Food Show branch of Andersen, a respectable bakery chain, I can tell you very firmly that pumpkin should never breed with egg custard tarts. It looks beautiful though.

Arashiyama: The Red Sea

A couples of weeks back I went to Arashiyama for full momiji (autumn leaves) immersion. The whole of Kyoto decided to visit on that day too. Or maybe it just highlighted how crowded Japan is. I blame the mountains. They should keep chopping them down and using them for reclaimed land – that’s how they got the land for Kansai International Airport.


We walked across the bridge with a gorgeous view sweeping upstream of the Oi River, but I was too busy eating already:

Sod the scenery - let's eat!

(It actually wasn’t very satisfying; you can read all food-related trials here.)

We headed straight for Tenryu-Ji, the largest temple in the area and built in very strange circumstances. According to my sometimes faithful Lonely Planet, the temple was built on the former site of Emperor Go-Daigo’s villa after a priest dreamt about a dragon rising from the river. The dream was somehow interpreted as symbolising the Emperor’s uneasy spirit and the temple was constructed to appease it. I’m wondering who doesn’t feel better when they have big fancy buildings dedicated to them?

To be honest though, it wasn’t the temple we went to see; it was the gardens.

We then had lunch. And it messed with my tongue and my head. What’s worse is that we waited over half an hour to be seated for the lunch. At least we found a friendly house, apparently meant to play with your mind:

Mind Games

I also felt right at home at London Books.

Home to Hitler Paraphernalia

Actually that “at home” feeling vanished when the first book I pulled off the shelf turned out to be a manga about Hitler.  He was on every page, looking very angry.

After lunch, we visited the crowning glory of our trip – Okochi Sanso, the villa of an actor in samurai movies. And wow, did he have some taste when it came to garden design. Not only that, but it’s nestled into the hill with a spectacular view of the city. It really gives a sense of how Kyoto, like a lot of Japanese cities, is carved into the flat land between the clusters of mountains. Admire the Red Sea:

Tea under the maple leaves

Don’t do that to my taste-buds!

Don’t do that to my taste-buds!

That was the result of our lunch during our trip to Arashiyama to see the momiji. Firstly, I should say that I’m convinced there is a ginger conspiracy. People serving food around Arashiyama that day must have a thought process which goes something like the following: “Look at all the red leaves. So much red and orange. Imagine if all these crowds of people had hair that colour. Ginger hair. Ginger spice. Yes, let’s add lots of ginger to everything.” Now I don’t dislike ginger (or gingers for that matter!) but read on….

I arrived at Arashiyama already starving. The stomach didn’t care about the view; it cared about this big, fat nikuman. This is a steamed bun filled with pork, as pictured below:


I thought that this would be similar to baozi in China, which are simply delicious. I used to eat three for breakfast when I was teaching out there in February (NB: the baozi were NOT as big as the one in the picture!)

As soon as I saw the nikuman, the memories of China came flooding back and my stomach started calling for it, for its long lost love. And at 250円, I really hoped it would be delicious.

Nope, it had been Japanacised. No juicyness. Very sweet. Too much ginger. I couldn’t even finish it.

Needless to say, after that experience I hoped for a very good lunch. The streets were seething with people and the restaurants were seething with tourist prices. Just off the main drag, we managed to find a bakery-café, which did a pasta lunch deal that included coffee and dessert for 950円-not bad. Shame about the 30mins+ spent waiting to get into it.

The place: Doppo
The food: Pasta lunch deal

Below is a picture of the starters. A fresh salad, tartly dressed. Something squidgy and fishy that I didn’t fancy. Bread and sweet potato bread, which both tasted the same – bland. A soup that was really quite delicious but I can’t remember what is was. Do you know why? The memories of this part of the meal have been trampled on and murdered by what I was served next.

Starters, incl. purple sweet potato bread

How could pasta – spaghetti even – cause this much havoc? You may well ask…

I ordered a bacon and pumpkin spaghetti dish. Should have been delicious – bacon goes very well with sweet vegetables (my mother makes a delicious bacon, butternut squash and feta linguine).  But when I was served it, the sauce itself looked puzzling.


Yes, the sauce equated to not much more than a gelatinous coating. But that was a minor offence compared to the EXTREMELY LARGE PIECES OF GINGER THAT WENT WITH NOTHING IN THE DISH!! Would you put bacon and ginger together? Not particularly! Pumpkin and ginger maybe? No!

Just when I got a tasty chunk of bacon or pumpkin, a nasty piece of ginger came along and jarred through the mouthful. It was edible but it messed with my taste-buds terribly! The dessert didn’t help.

Oh yes, it looks like a harmless piece of vanilla pudding, doesn’t it? Wrong!! It’s covered in a nastily strong citrus sauce that obliterates the vanilla and doesn’t go at all!

Overall 2/5 – The value was great. But do you want to subject your tongue to that?!


I did eat something that wasn’t gingered up that day. The entrance fee to Okochi Sanso included tea and a Japanese sweet. And if there’s one thing the Japanese love more than ginger, than it’s macha (Japanese green tea). Potent and bitter, it’s not my cup of tea (*cringe*) but for warming me up under the bright red leaves, it was perfect.

Macha sweet/biscuit

Light-up leaves

Kiyomizudera, moments before the alien invasion began

One thing that I particularly admire about the Japanese is their ostentatious appreciation of beauty. People in the UK might glance at autumn foliage and say “Ooh ain’t it lovely!” and then whizz right past in their cars. You rarely get the whole hoards of people, slamming on the brakes and whipping out their cameras.

I’m being a little unfair. Japan is full of, surprise surprise, Japanese maples, which turn a vibrant red colour and make for simply stunning scenery. The UK doesn’t boast quite such a collection of colours.

But there’s another reason. The Japanese are obsessed with not just the casual observation of beauty, but with its creation. Rather than the often-used yet awkward juxtaposition of man-made = ugly, natural = beautiful,  the Japanese seek to improve upon nature, taming it into perfection. Temples gardens are wonderful examples of  an attempt to control not only the nature contained within them, but people’s own viewing experiences. Everything is laid out so as to create the most satisfying view.

Actually, when I say “everything”, I might be overstating things, but I’ve been paranoid ever since I read about Japanese garden planners’ clever designs. Breaks in the path or awkward stepping stones force the walker to look down and watch his or her footing, thus not observing their surroundings. This can be used to either distract the viewer from a less aesthetic part of the garden or to reward them or make a strong impression with a particularly spectacular view when they look up again. Now every time I walk round a garden, I deliberately look around everywhere in some kind of desperate attempt to objectify my experience.

Creating satisfying views is unashamedly and boldly the aim of the momiji (autumn foliage) night-time light-ups which take place at various shrines and temples across the city.

On a VERY cold Friday evening, I found myself being led up a poorly lit street by my endlessly enthusiastic friend Mimi to see the lights at Shoren-in. We waited in trepidation at the mysteriously lit entrance:

The mysterious entrance

The queue grew longer and the crew of the TV van next to us grew twitchier and twitchier. Until doors opened and we rushed forwards…

For those who have never been to Japanese temple garden walk, let me explain. First of all, you approach a wooden building and take off your shoes. Carrying them, you shuffle inside the building which takes you on a veranda walk with views of the garden. You then put on your shoes for when you actually venture into the garden itself. The garden is, of course, laid out in a way that makes it wonderful to view just from the temple building itself.

On our trip, we were greeted not only with an outdoor light up but some tie-dye bruvvas glowing inside the temple.

Tie-Dye Gang$ta

However, the garden really did steal the show. If only my photos could capture it. The whole experience was strangely intimate despite the crowds of people. The only thing that really intruded were the continuous camera flashes, which could have made a light show of their own.

Bamboo grove

Kiyomuzudera was an entirely different experience. It’s a famous tourist hotspot with in Kyoto and rather than being intimately tucked away, it sits boldly on a hillside overlooking the southern part of Kyoto. On the steep ascent up to the temple, the main building becomes visible, lit up in glorious orange with a beam passing straight through the upward protruding part of the roof. It’ss meant to make a statement.

Cameras flashing and sprawling landscapes, this is a place where I had to get your elbows out and squeeze into the gaps to find the view. Nevertheless, the colours are enthralling. And a night-time city scape always has a mesmerising quality.