Autumn, again: A time for apple pies, cinnamon doughnuts and strong black coffee in Japan

Autumn in Japan isn’t only about red leaves; fall foliage can be gold too. — Pictures by CK Lim
Autumn in Japan isn’t only about red leaves; fall foliage can be gold too. — Pictures by CK Lim

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TOKYO, Oct 7 — Autumn isn’t always the colour of fire. The tree tops aren’t always aflame. Depending on where you are in Japan as summer fades away, the leaves might be a bright canary hue rather than crimson and scarlet.

Even if the trees that remain in full leaf aren’t ablaze with assorted reds, there’s no denying that Aki, or autumn in Japanese, has arrived. The temperature has dropped, for one, if not all the leaves yet. Time for woollen beanies and cardigans that hang loose.

Tokyo, despite its reputation for breakneck modernisation, has pockets of green spaces dotted all over the capital. You can wander from one neighbourhood to the next, be it in the city centre or in one of its surrounding suburbs such as Sangenjaya or Nishihara, through tree-lined parks and boulevards.

The crunch of dried leaves on the ground, scattered by some invisible tree spirit like copper and orange confetti. Above your head, the branches still hang heavy with a coat of ochres and golds. They will stay this way for many more weeks, easily.

Even the most robust of flâneurs need a break, however, if only to use the excuse of resting one’s feet to savour the slow taste of autumn.

Enjoy autumnal colours while sipping a cup of strong black coffee.
Enjoy autumnal colours while sipping a cup of strong black coffee.

There’s nearly always a cosy café you can find in every quiet neighbourhood. Watch where the pedestrians who leave the train and subway stations scurry off to. Chances are you’ll soon find yourself at the doorsteps of an ageing café, full of character and quaint charm.

Inside the proprietor might still be wiping down tables or dusting the window sills. Greet them hello in Japanese as well as you can, depending on the time of day. They would be pleased you tried, even if your accent needs much working, if it’s anything like mine.

While waiting for the café staff to get ready, you can spend your time admiring the shop’s décor: warm woods and gentle lighting. Perhaps there is a profusion of eclectic bric-à-brac from the owner’s travels around the world; perhaps the shop has clean lines and white walls, reflecting the owner’s minimalist bent. (This is the country where Marie Kondo hails from after all.)

Find a café with a cosy interior, all warm woods and eclectic bric-à-brac.
Find a café with a cosy interior, all warm woods and eclectic bric-à-brac.

Suddenly, as you’re flipping through a dusty collection of vinyl records, a most delicious aroma hits you. A scent of frying and of sugar, but also something fruity.

Apples, of course. Autumn is the best season for apples, and whilst the crunch of a fresh apple showcases the fruit at its peak, there are other ways to enjoy this fruit. Cinnamon, in particular, adds a divine fragrance.

These are cinnamon apple doughnuts, then. Made with a yeast batter, so that it is airy rather than dense and crumbly (no cake doughnuts here; perhaps those are better saved for winter, when it is colder still). Filled with a homemade apple jelly and dusted with cinnamon sugar.

There’s nothing like doughnuts fresh from the fryer, needing only a dusting of cinnamon sugar.
There’s nothing like doughnuts fresh from the fryer, needing only a dusting of cinnamon sugar.

No need for crackly glazes, no need for chocolate ganache. Here is the taste of autumn in one bite or two, and your valiant attempt at not ordering more. There’s nothing crueller than only having a single deep-fried cruller.

Nothing goes better with doughnuts, still hot from the deep fryer, than a cup of strong black coffee. The barista will ask you what you want and wait for your answer.

Perhaps he will judge you if you ask for a pumpkin spiced latte and inform you that he regrets they don’t have that on the menu. Perhaps he is more generous of spirit than that.

A friendly barista will ask you what you want and wait for your answer.
A friendly barista will ask you what you want and wait for your answer.

Either way, you don’t disappoint him. You ask for an espresso, stiff as a hard drink. You will follow with café au lait but that’s later. You pass the test and are rewarded with a winning, handsome smile.

When you get a whiff of that inimitable aroma, that of freshly brewed coffee, you thank the barista silently for pulling a perfect shot. The Japanese love their kōhī and so do you.

You carry your cinnamon apple doughnut and your espresso to the long communal table. The autumnal sun flows in like a friend. You take one sip, two, no more, and allow that espresso to go down like a dream. That caffeine kick, that no-nonsense pick-me-up, makes every bite of your sweet doughnut a tiny heaven.

Relax and enjoy an uninterrupted time of quiet reading.
Relax and enjoy an uninterrupted time of quiet reading.

Now you can relax and read that novel you’ve always been wanting to start but never found the time or head space for before. Maybe a Marlon James, maybe a Banana Yoshimoto. Or watch the world outside pass you by from the windows, garlanded by wreaths of dried leaves and flowers.

No, the leaves aren’t red yet. But who has time to go hunting for flames and fire? There is enough sunlight still, in the bluest sky and on the branches of every tree.

Minutes pass, or hours. Time for another bite, another cuppa. This time you ask for that milky café au lait and a slice of humble apple pie. The creamy coffee, the flaky pastry, the sweet chunks of baked apples — these are the flavours of autumn, you tell yourself.

Apple pies are what autumn tastes like.
Apple pies are what autumn tastes like.

Yes, rejoice — for it’s autumn, again. A time for apple pies, cinnamon-dusted doughnuts and strong coffee. A time for reflection and long, uninterrupted reading.

A time for bracing oneself for more seasons to come, more change, and more life. Always, more life.

For more slice-of-life stories, visit lifeforbeginners.com.

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