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Meet Natalie Leon: Author of The Japanese Art of Living Seasonally




My Japan Journey Interview 7:

Meet Natalie Leon: Author, Japanophile, Forager



Natalie Leon The Japanese Art of Living Seasonally

In our blog today, we celebrate new writer Natalie Leon, and the launch of her first book,

The Japanese Art of Living Seasonally.


In the course of our chat, Natalie describes the research adventures that she undertook

while preparing to write her book, including her travels to the top of a remote mountain in Japan

to forage for wild plants and travelling to a cherished but remote kaiseki restaurant in Tottori.


In our article we discover an author passionate about the quieter corners of Japan;

fascinated by long held traditions of Japanese cooking and eating;

a writer who loves the poetry that underscores the very beginnings of Japanese seasonality;

and someone nostalgic for the English gardens of her childhood homes.


Come with us as we talk about foraging, poetry, English gardens, and the beauty of Japan.


 

Natalie Leon The Japanese Art of Living Seasonally

Natalie and I begin our conversation talking about the recent snowy weather, springtime emerging in the garden, and the interesting similarities between the UK and Japan. Join us as we continue our conversation:


Natalie: I think it's interesting that there are certain points of convergence between British and Japanese culture. There are so many crossover points - obviously Tea is a huge one.


We have a very rich history and Tea culture in the UK, and obviously, Japan has its own Tea culture. Our love of gardens, our love of flowers and nature in the wider sense is also something that I wrote about in the book. It's what you feel like when you find somewhere where your soul, your spirit, feels very at home.


And because I've always loved gardens, and I've always loved flowers, and grew up in nature and the countryside, I never found anywhere else but Japan where I felt had this reverence and total love and adoration, and gratitude and respect for nature - but Japan really does share that.


So, Tea is a great example. Also, there are things like the idea of afternoon tea, and cream teas - that British teatime phenomena which is also enormously popular.

Cathy: I had never actually been to one, and although I love cake and I love tea, afternoon tea hadn't come up on my radar! My first afternoon tea was with Yukki in Oxford, and I understood then why it was so popular!


Natalie: It's interesting that this idea of the perfect British afternoon tea is a global sensation. It's not just Japan, the Americans are also obsessed. And I'm forever being asked, people are coming to London, where should I go? They want to know the best afternoon tea in London.


It's an interesting cultural phenomenon, and those two things constantly return to me in terms of that connection between Japan and the UK.


So there's Tea, but also Tea and Tea culture in a wider sense. There's also a love of gardening and gardens. The cottage garden which is our quintessential British cottage garden is hugely popular in Japan. And there are several gardens across Japan that mimic that, they have rose gardens, and they have exceptional cottage style gardens.

Cathy: I think what you're saying is so interesting, Natalie, because I also reflect on how we're both island nations. We're both on the edge of big continents. For example, the influence from China on Japan was huge, and in the same way, we're a little island on the edge of Europe getting all those influences through various means. I do wonder if there's something similar in our national character as well because we're quite reserved, aren't we?


Natalie: We are, and so are they. It's interesting though because we're not subject to the extremes of natural phenomena that they are. We are very blessed because we generally have a very pleasant and mild climate. Meanwhile, Japan is subject to the extreme whims of nature. But yes, you're right about both being island nations. And I think, Britain has lost that connection to that aspect of our cultural heritage, whereas Japan is still very deeply connected to it, and you see that in diet and in culture in so many different aspects.

Cathy: How do you mean diet? I'm interested.


Natalie: Well, I mean for example in the UK we consume very little variety in terms of fish and seafood, in comparison to Japan. In contrast, Japan as a nation consume something like 30 different varieties of fish and seafood, all caught locally around the archipelago. It's an essential constituent part of the Japanese diet and has been for a very long time. And things like seaweeds, for example, which are not just incredibly nutritious and sustainable, they're a superfood, they are a part of an everyday, traditional Japanese diet.

Whereas in the UK, we don't consume seaweed anymore, but we used to.


We don't have that strong connection, to that particular aspect of our diet based on geography, which is a very strong link in Japan but isn't here anymore.


And people are trying to re-establish it, but it isn't easy because, whereas in Japan that link is unbroken, here in the UK, a lot of re-education is necessary. Very few people still hold that knowledge or understanding of all the spots where you can find indigenous seaweeds and what you can do with them once you have found them. You need to know how to forage for them, when to forage for them, and how to prepare them, how you can then get the best out of them.


And all that knowledge has to be passed down. Unfortunately, at the moment we don't really have much of that, but there is a resurgence, and an interest in foraging and seasonal living. This resurgence is taking shape in the form of a renewed interest in living off the land more sustainably, living in tune with the seasons. Of course, foraging is a vital part of that.


Interest in foraging has exploded on social media, in the news, and in the press since the pandemic. More books on edible wild plants are coming out all the time.

Cathy: I reflect on things that my grandmother used to say. It does seem to be a different world. I was walking along the South Devon coast at the weekend. I always go down there to try and see the primroses and the violets at this time of year.


One of the reasons I love it is because it reminds me of what my gran used to say. My gran was born in about 1914, I think, and so her young years were in the early 1920s and 1930s. But she used to talk about carpets of primroses, and the only place I've ever seen them in the UK - and I do keep my eyes open, because I love the fragrance of primroses - are in these fields rolling down to the coast in South Devon. And when you see those fields, which look largely untouched, you could say yes, that is a carpet of primroses - they're everywhere. But she used to talk about it as if it was a common thing. I reflect that it's only just over a hundred years ago and yet so much has altered in the tapestry of our English landscape.


Natalie: It's lovely to hear, and it's so interesting. I think you're right. In 100 years, our ecosystem and ecology will have changed, and the sights that she would have seen every day and that were completely normal are now disappearing, and that's deeply worrying and deeply concerning on many levels.

Cathy: I think, if I'm honest, it's always been a concern. When I was a child, I loved bird

watching, and I remember being concerned about it then, so this change has been going on a long

time.


Natalie: Are you familiar with the concept of the Silent Spring?

Cathy: No, not at all. Is it about not hearing so many birds in the morning chorus?


Natalie: When you mentioned that, it immediately popped into my head. One of my favourite naturalists is Rachel Carson. I recommend you read her book, The Silent Spring. Essentially, it's a warning, a rallying cry prediction of when spring falls silent, and how and why that would happen, and how deeply concerning that concept should be to everybody. Her writing is beautiful. She writes predominantly about the ocean, which is her speciality, but she was a naturalist and has written at great length about all sorts of habitats and landscapes.

Cathy: That's interesting Natalie, we have a crossover, I think, in a sincere love of nature and a sincere love of the British landscape, and also, seeing nature represented in Japan.


That's what interested me about the book that you've written called The Japanese Art of Living

Seasonally.


There are so many questions I want to ask you!


Natalie: I'll do my best to answer as well as possible!

C: It's massively exciting for you, isn't it?


Natalie: Honestly, Cathy, it's very surreal - it's such a protracted process. If I think about the timeline, I had the initial idea when doing my master's degree in 2018/2019. Initially I planned it to be my master's thesis, and my professor said, 'Oh no, that's a book', because a master’s thesis is only about 10,000 words.

So, instead, I focused on kimono for my thesis, but I never put the idea down completely. I was at SOAS, so I was incredibly privileged to have access to the library there and to talks and workshops. I started my research in earnest when I was doing my master's. I graduated in 2019, and from then on, I was fully focused on the book.


I did my first serious research trip that November - December. Then, in 2020, I finished writing my proposal and began pitching. There were two years of proposal writing, pitching, editing, pitching again. Finessing then negotiating. I had one deal fall apart, another came through, and then more negotiating. The deal was signed in September 2022 and I had a year to write.

Cathy: Gracious me, that's pressure as well, isn't it. But it must also have been a wonderful thing because this is where your passion is. This has been on your mind since you were doing your master's?


Natalie: Oh, for a long time.

Cathy: You must have been gaining a lot of knowledge and you must have had a lot of avenues that you wanted to explore.


Natalie: Yes, absolutely. I was interested that one of your prepared questions was, why seasonality?, why seasonal Japan?


And the answer is that this is the thread for me. There are so many aspects of traditional Japanese culture that I adore, that I'm fascinated by, and that I'm passionate about, whether that's tea or kimono or certain philosophies, poetry, matsuri, or foods.


I realised that is the green thread you follow that connects everything together.


And that's why I realised that seasonality really was my focus. I thought, what is it that binds all these things together? What is it that connects everything that I'm fascinated by, that I love about Japanese culture, and that was it – that was the thread. I've written about this in the book, once you begin to gently tug on that thread, and you begin to follow it, you see how it weaves through everything.


Then, when I discovered the concept of kisetsukan, it was given a name.

Cathy: I've not heard that word, but kisetsu means season, doesn't it.


Natalie: Yes, kisetsukan (季節感) is an awareness or a sense of the seasons.

Cathy: But that's hugely embedded in Japanese culture.


Sometimes passions take you over, and clearly, this is a passion that's taken you over. I love the Heian era in Kyoto, and I think what fascinates me so much when you're talking about seasonality is how the seasons weave through the beautiful arts that have evolved throughout the ages in Japan. My mind immediately takes a big leap right back to the Heian era and even beyond to the Nara era – it's fascinating how there's a very tenacious quality about the seasonal motifs of plum blossoms and cherry blossoms.


One thing that fascinates me is how the motifs that feature on the beautiful tenugui and furoshiki that

we import from Japan, the origin of these flower motifs goes back centuries. And they originate with the poetry, which was at the core of social communication in the Heian era. Everything seemed to revolve around the seasons and the seasonal festival calendar then.


I was astonished, Natalie, to hear that you had access to the SOAS library. Obviously, my ears pricked up massively because it was only a week or two ago that I discovered that I was allowed to go into the Japanese Library in Oxford University. I was astonished—I went down there, and I swear I could hear Heian flutes playing when I got down in the basement! I was walking along the bookshelves, and it was astonishing what was there!


The most beautiful thing of all for me, was being able to open up the Kokinshū. Because in everything I've ever read about the Heian era, this anthology is always mentioned. I'd read about this collection of beautiful seasonal poetry, but I hadn't seen it for myself, and until you see it for yourself, it doesn't really resonate, does it.


And to spend an afternoon leafing through those pages and seeing how the poetry is categorised, how the poems are itemised according to the turn of each particular season, it was wonderful.


Harmony of nature was so important to those people all those centuries ago. And it's always a pleasure to go through poems on cherry blossoms, let's be honest!


 

Researching the Man'yōshū


We are no different from the poets of the Manyoshu, which was written over 1,200 years ago. Instead of composing poems to celebrate the infinite beauty of nature and sending them to our friends, we compose photographs and social media posts to share them with our loved ones. We are just as in awe of the natural world as those who lived over 1,000 years ago – proving that our appreciation for nature and desire to connect with the natural world transcends time.


From The Japanese Art of Living Seasonally by Natalie Leon



Natalie Leon kimono

Natalie: It's interesting. The Heian period is the golden age of Japanese culture. But the question of the tradition of seasonality goes back much earlier. You mentioned the Nara period, and I spent a lot of time in Japan researching the Man'yōshū, written during that period long before the Kokinshū. It is one of the wellsprings of Japanese culture, especially seasonal culture. So, we have the Kokinshū, but we also have

the Man'yōshū, which was compiled so much earlier.


What makes it very unusual is that it contains poetry written by people from every walk of life.

Cathy: That's interesting, you wouldn't find that in the Kokinshū, the poems are always written by the aristocracy.


Natalie: Whereas the Man'yōshū is very unusual in that you have the poetry of princes and aristocrats in the same volume as the work of labourers, peasants, and working-class people: men and women, old and young, from all aspects of society. And that is incredibly rare and special.


It was very interesting when I was on my second research trip last spring, I spent some time in Toyama, and the reason I went all the way to Toyama particularly, was because I wanted to go to the Man'yōshū Museum.


I went there specifically to interview the museum curator and to discuss the impact of the Man'yōshū on Japanese art and culture, the importance of the poetry anthology, and how it has had this tremendous lasting legacy. It is one of the catalysts leading to the birth of Japan’s cult of the seasons.

Cathy: Gracious! I mean I'm aware that there were very old practices, such as the practice of hanami (cherry blossom viewing), which is still so current. Hanami is ancient and it attaches to religious beliefs, being about the transference of the spring life force from the beautiful spring flowers that only last for such a short period of time, into yourself.


Natalie: It's incredibly ancient because it was imported from China. Initially, it was focused on the ume (plum blossoms). When the Japanese adopted it initially, they recreated it using plum blossoms. Then they made it uniquely Japanese by focusing on the sakura (cherry blossoms).


But it's an incredibly ancient practice. I would say there are several strands to the concept of hanami. It's obviously about welcoming and celebrating spring. It's also linked to fertility, evanescence, and the ephemerality of life.

Cathy: Sakura symbolises the concept of mono no aware, which comes up time and time again in Genji Monogatari – that gentle sadness at the transience of a beauty that cannot be captured. The waka poetry incorporates these concepts.


Natalie: It's also very closely linked to agricultural practice as well. The idea being that the god who dwells in the mountain would come down from his home to dwell in the cherry trees at this time of the year. According to legend, an abundance of blossoms forecast a good harvest later in the year. So, when the god came down from the mountain to dwell in the trees, he was essentially giving his essence to help nurture those crops, which would eventually become rice in the autumn harvest.

Cathy: It was phenomenally important in an era of plague and pestilence and floods.


Natalie: In an agricultural nation like Japan, there were and are still many agricultural practices that continue outside of the cities, which are incredibly important.

Cathy: It's so interesting how the more you learn about these things, the more you begin to understand why Japan is the way it is.


I always remember the first time I ever went to Kyoto; I remember being stunned by the beauty of the city, and I was curious to discover why it was the way that it was. Because at the time it seemed like the world had turned 180 degrees - Japan was so completely different.


I went back to the early literature because I like to understand the origins of things, and I felt that was a pretty good place to start. It sounds fascinating that you were talking to the curator of the Man'yōshū Museum, that must have been wonderful!


What else have you done in terms of research for your book?


Natalie: The most meaningful experiences I had related to my research were the interviews I conducted, and I was incredibly lucky.


 


Spending Time with an Urasenke Tea Practitioner in Kyoto


Tea is inextricably bound up with nature. Consider that the water in your tea bowl was once a cloud; the finely powdered tea was once vibrant green leaves in a field growing in the shadow of Mount Fuji and the clay that formed your tea bowl is the soil of Japan. 


From The Japanese Art of Living Seasonally by Natalie Leon


Natalie Leon The Japanese Art of Living Seasonally

Natalie: I met some amazing people who were very gracious with their time and welcomed me into their homes or tea houses. I met Bruce Hamana sensei, a prominent Urasenke School tea practitioner in Kyoto who invited me to one of his keiko.


Keiko is a chain of teaching derived from hundreds of years of teaching. Each teacher was once a student of another. The techniques, philosophy, and traditions are passed on and practiced faithfully.


After class, I interviewed him. He is one of the most delightful people you'll ever meet— he is a very special person and he has a terrible predilection for sweets—especially anything matcha flavoured! I remember we spent an absolutely delightful afternoon in a small cafe, in Kyoto where we consumed these enormous matcha parfaits, we were in there for hours!


Kisetsukan is also a great interest and passion of his, which is how we bonded. We spent hours talking about the nature of the cult of seasonality in Japan, the definitions of the aesthetics of beauty in Japan, and how they could be defined. We had the most wonderful conversations, which I found hugely inspiring. So that was a dream come true and a great honour.



 

Researching Sansai in the Yamagata Mountains


Whenever I eat sansai, it feels like a privileged experience to indulge in something so wild that was gathered with such care. Eating them is to take part in an ancient washoku tradition. I hope that the renewed interest in foraging I’ve witnessed in the UK and abroad since the Covid epidemic will lead to the conservation of their mountain and forest habitats and that more people will endeavour to care for and protect the sansai so that future generations can enjoy them.


From The Japanese Art of Living Seasonally by Natalie Leon



Natalie Leon The Japanese Art of Living Seasonally

Natalie: Going foraging in Yamagata with two local foragers from the community was a dream come true. Until the last days of my trip, I didn't even know if it would come together because it is so difficult to access the foraging community in Japan if you're not Japanese.


There is a very active foraging community in Japan, but the foragers are generally people's grandparents.


This knowledge has been passed down, often, by people's grandparents; so they don't speak much English themselves. I think there is more of an interest now, but generally, the foraging community skews older, so that's difficult for communication and outreach. You have to know someone who knows someone who knows someone. I was fortunate, through several degrees of separation, to be connected with Yoshi san and Michi san, who were incredibly kind.


Before covid, they did home stays in Yamagata. A friend of a friend reached out to someone who runs cultural tours in Yamagata who knew of them and asked them if they would be interested in hosting this British writer for an experience. They very kindly agreed and welcomed me into their home. It was the most unbelievable experience from start to finish.


We went to meet them and got changed into our gear. You have to be covered head to toe and protected. You have to be very careful because some of the sansai, like taranome has very sharp little spikes. Even so, I managed to get a massive gash down my arm.


We took the car as far as we could and then we had to stop and get in the back of the flatbed of the truck because the mountains were very steep, and you couldn't get the car up.


So, we're in our wellies and our foraging gear, holding on for dear life to the back of this truck, myself and my translator, shrieking with laughter and also with somewhat genuine fear as we're going up this vertical hillside to get to this foraging spot. There are no signposts; these places are only known by the locals who have lived there their whole lives. Yoshi san and Michi san have only ever lived in Yamagata.

Cathy: How amazing!


Natalie: There's still snow on the ground in Yamagata in May, I was shocked. It's a fantastic prefecture that I would like to explore more of - it is so exceptionally beautiful!


One of the reasons that the sansai [springtime mountain vegetables] in Yamagata are supposed to be so exceptional is that they are fed by these beautiful pure water streams that flow down as the ice melts. Filtered through the mountains, the water flows down, so it's incredibly clean and pure, and this feeds all the sansai.



Natalie Leon The Japanese Art of Living Seasonally

As we got out of the truck, I saw them—almost instantly. I could see fukimoto, the buds hiding in the undergrowth. And the sansai is so rich and so diverse. You can find all the major varieties there very close together.

Cathy: And did you get to cook them?


Natalie: Yes, we did! It was a holistic experience. We went out in the morning and foraged. We had baskets and baskets of assorted sansai. Then we came back to the house and washed, blanched and prepped everything and made these overflowing baskets of sansai tempura.

Cathy: Wow!


Natalie: They taught me how to prep everything and make the tempura.

Cathy: That's amazing! Fresh like that out of those beautiful ingredients!


Natalie: It was mind-blowing!


I've eaten sansai many times in different situations. Some are very refined, and some are just chopped up very fine as a garnish for a bowl of noodles. But this was a completely different experience because you're seeing them in the natural habitat, picking them, learning about them - whether this one is safe to pick, or this one isn't safe to pick. You don't want to pick too much of one patch because we want it to recover and return next year. So, we move on to another, and you learn all about how to care for the plants because it's a very popular foraging spot. Still, people know how to care for the plants so that they don't over-pick them.

Cathy: So, it's sustainable in that way.


Natalie: It's very sustainable. My favourite thing that we made that day, which was also the simplest thing we made that day was the vibrant green fronds of the ostrich fern that was still very tightly coiled; it was so lovely.

Cathy: Do you mean the ones that curl around?


Natalie Leon The Japanese Art of Living Seasonally

Natalie: Well, all fern species are frond-shaped with those natural curls, but there are only some that are edible and there are some that aren't. So, you have to check which kinds you're eating. However, there are a couple of edible species in Japan, and they're so delicate, and so beautiful, and so brilliantly green - full of life.


And what you do is you wash them, you chop them, you blanch them and then you just serve them with a little ponzu sauce, and they taste absolutely incredible. It's so simple! But of course, to find them fresh like that, is only an experience you can have if you're in the right place at the right time.

Cathy: I was going to say, I'm sure the rarefied cool air of being up on those mountains probably enhanced the flavour as well, in your experience.


Natalie: I think the incredible water that feeds them—and you're right—the air, the water, the soil—all adds to what makes them so delicious, and Yamagata sansai are legendary for being exceptionally tasty.

Cathy: That was such an amazing experience, Natalie!


Natalie: It was a dream come true!

Cathy: To have the opportunity to benefit from the wisdom of this lovely couple, it must have been wonderful!



Natalie Leon The Japanese Art of Living Seasonally


Natalie: And then we had this incredible feast. We also made a hot pot with all the vegetables and with noodles, and enoki mushrooms, and locally sourced beef from the farm down the road. It was one of the most delicious meals that I've ever had in my entire life.


We washed it down with some homemade umeshu [plum liqueur].


The four of us sat around this table, and we couldn't eat another bite. But everything was so exceptionally delicious. I stayed with them that night—that was literally one of my last days in Japan because it had taken so long to make the connections to make it happen. I was so delighted that it all came together. I spent the day and one night with them in Yamagata, and the next day, I went back to Tokyo, and then the following day, I flew back home to London.


So, it was squeezed in at the last moments of my trip, but it was the most sensational experience; I'll never forget it as long as I live; it was pure magic.

Cathy: I'm sure, my goodness, but isn't Japan like that, whenever you go it's always magical. That does sound exceptionally lovely, though.


Natalie: It was such a dream. I love to forage, but to be able to forage in Japan with knowledgeable guides and one of the most amazing prefectures for sansai.

Cathy: I was going to ask you: do you forage in the UK?


Natalie: Yes, I have, ever since I was a child.

Cathy: I didn't know you were a forager! Was there any crossover? Because what interests me about Japan, is quite a lot of their bird life is a little bit similar to English. They might be slightly different subspecies but generally, there seem to be the same sort of woodpeckers and so on. Does that follow with the plants? Did you come across familiar types?


Natalie: No, not in my experience, the main varieties of sansai you can't find in the UK. Sansai are the iconic mountain vegetable of spring. They are only available for a very limited season: March through May. You'll see them being prepared in lots of different ways. Sansai tempura is very traditional, and sansai soba is also very traditional.



Natalie Leon The Japanese Art of Living Seasonally


There are lots of different varieties of takenoko (筍)—bamboo shoots, which are an extremely well-known variety of sansai. Then there is warabi, which is bracken starch, and which is also well known. You can find it foraging wild, but because it's so popular, it's also now farmed.

Cathy: Okay. So, if you've been doing this from such a young age, I can see why it's such a passion and it sounds heavenly being up in the mountains foraging anyway, but to do that when it's something that's been the continuing thread through your life, that must have been very special.


Natalie: Yes. And I'd like to do it more. I lived in Kent for about five years, where there's amazing foraging.


You would come home with an embarrassment of riches, especially in the spring and summer. I'm in London now, so I forage a bit less than I used to, but I'm hoping to move back to the countryside eventually so I can continue.


But every British child learns to forage whether they realise that or not. Have you ever picked a blackberry? Then you've foraged! If you've picked a blackberry off a hedge, congratulations, you're a forager!

Cathy: Our garden does well with Mediterranean plants, it's really sheltered. We have a spectacular olive tree and lots of oregano!


Natalie: You've got a unique microclimate there!

Cathy: But I must admit, one of the plants that does really well and that spreads across it are those little Alpine strawberries. I never planted them, and I love the leaves!


Natalie: They've self-seeded, and of course, strawberries, as you know, send out their little tendrils.

Cathy: Is that why they're spreading so much? I was looking in the borders yesterday thinking it's all strawberries! What am I going to do?


Natalie: I love those. I remember we used to have them where I lived when I was very small. I lived in a tiny village in Hertfordshire when I was growing up. I remember we had these Alpine strawberries at the back of the garden. There was a beautiful, great, big tree, and underneath it, my mother would grow all kinds of lovely spring flowers, but Alpine strawberries would always pop up there in the summer, and obviously, they self-seed.


I remember that as a child, I loved to eat them in the summer.

Cathy: I bet you did! To be honest, I'm getting images of the little girl in Totoro, bending down to pick something.


Natalie: Pretty much! As a child, I spent hours and hours in the garden. I would, to my mother's complete mortification, pick all her flowers and make perfume! It was more a blend of whatever petals I liked the look of, and a lot of water, and then I stirred it with a stick!

Cathy: I do wonder if a love of plants and gardening is genetic…!


Natalie: I inherited it from my mum, for sure.

Cathy: Being around someone who is very fond of flowers, if you're susceptible and sensitive to that sort of thing...


I'm interested because we've been going through a lot of old home videos, and there was a video of my granddad's garden. The garden was gorgeous in that lovely, traditional English, herbaceous border kind of planting. And I know that he was a gardener, but I'd never seen the evidence of it, and it made me wonder - he loved gardens, and I love being in the garden…



Natalie Leon The Japanese Art of Living Seasonally


Natalie: I think these things are passed down, definitely. My mum is incredibly green-fingered, and she's made my parent's garden over the years exceptional. Every year, she focuses on a different thing. She created a rose arch, which is my idea of heaven. She's also interested in unusual and different plants and trees, so we will talk about different species or things she wants to grow or plant that are heritage varieties or rare. She created a little pond with lots of different acers. We both love acers.


It's a small pond, and she planted lots of different acers around it. It's a lovely spot in the summer when it's hot. I like to sit down there and make tea by the pond.

Cathy: That's beautiful, and it echoes of Japan.


Natalie: My mum is mad about Japan.

Cathy: She's been to Japan as well?


Natalie: Now that's the thing, she hasn't been!

Cathy: But that's interesting, because one of the original translators of The Tale of Genji into English, Arthur Waley, never went to Japan, apparently because he didn't want to spoil the image of Japan that he had in his imagination. And I always wonder how he might have gone there and discovered it was beautiful!


Natalie: Obviously, in the same way, Paris is not the world that we know from books and films, and neither is London nor Japan. And I also think that when you leave the cities, which so few people do, and I'm trying to do it more and more and finding it so exceptionally rewarding, when you leave the big cities and leave the golden route, you discover the Japan of Totoro and the Japan of Mononoke.



 

Discovering A Magical Restaurant in Tottori



Natalie Leon The Japanese Art of Living Seasonally


Natalie: Another incredible experience I had last spring was travelling off the Golden Route and pushing myself to travel further afield. Another prefecture that I visited for the first time was Tottori. Tottori is where the famous sand dunes are and I was going for a very specific reason: I was going to a very special restaurant. It sounds mad because it was a six-hour round trip!

Cathy: It must have been worth it!


Natalie: It was! My schedule was so packed it couldn't be any other way, and I was determined to eat at this restaurant, no matter what!


The problem was that it became a bit of an epic odyssey because this restaurant, Mitaki-en, opens every spring, on the first of April. They close over the winter and open again for the first servings of sansai in spring, which is just a heavenly concept.


I've had kaiseki many times and it's always a dreamy experience, but I also have a very special place in my heart for sansai. I'd heard about this place through my sansai research.



Natalie Leon The Japanese Art of Living Seasonally

It's set in a woodland glen of acers and huge moss-covered rocks. It's about 50 years old, but it's tough to get to. From Kyoto, it's about a 6-hour round trip. You arrive at the nearest station, but there is no way to reach the restaurant unless you have a car. It's about half an hour from the nearest station. There used to be a bus that ran locally, but the problem was that the bus service stopped because there's been a decline in the population there.


So, I went on this odyssey trying to figure out the trains to get there, getting to the station and thinking that I could take a bus but then realising that the bus services had ceased. I thought, I'll just get a taxi. No big deal. But no, because taxis have also stopped because of the lack of demand.


So, the local community has come together to create a taxi pool service. It all runs out of the local tourism office, which is opposite the station. But you have to register in advance, in person. You pay at the tourist office, and you get a little laminated pass. When you pay, you get a strip of raffle tickets, and the drivers are randomly assigned— they are all people from the local community.


I had this delightful female driver who explained everything that had happened, I had to show her my pass and give her the tickets. It's all funded through the community to make it affordable and possible for the people who live locally and who don't have cars or who are elderly or not driving, etc., to get around.

Cathy: That's a wonderful community spirit!


Natalie: Yes, the community found a way to make things work once they learned that the buses were going to be stopped.

Cathy: But they must have loved you turning up? They must have been quite surprised, weren't they?


Natalie Leon The Japanese Art of Living Seasonally

Natalie: Well, they mostly couldn't understand how I had heard about them. Secondly, because there are no buses and no taxis, how did you get here? It's in the middle of nowhere, outside the village. I had to explain to the owner, who's so delightful, and her daughter that I was writing this book and I adore sansai. That I heard about your fantastic restaurant, and I've been dreaming of coming here.


They couldn't get over it; they were over the moon. Their food takes sansai to an entirely new level. One of the specialities that they offer is young bamboo shoot sashimi, which is served with a sansho miso which they make onsite. Everything is homemade. Every morning, they go out and harvest the sansai before the dew has even dried and then bring it back to the restaurant and prep it to serve it to you that day.


It's an exceptional place, the experience is like stepping into a Ghibli movie. I remember I was waiting for my table to be ready. I was walking through the glade where the restaurant is, and this brilliant white chicken skittered across the path. There was a cockerel calling, and the light prismatically filtering through the green acers which had all leafed out.


Smoke was rising from the kettle, and the buildings there were these very, very old Japanese farmhouses. The roofs of all the buildings were covered in mosses and trailing vines and flowers. It was a completely idyllic, otherworldly experience. You pass through a wooden torii gate to enter the restaurant and feel like you've entered a parallel dimension.


So, these experiences I travelled far and wide for are at the heart of the book. I had to be brief to be able to include them all because there was so much that I wanted to pack into the book.

Cathy: Have you thoughts of writing a second book?


Natalie: Yes, of course. There's so much that I want to talk about because there is so much beauty there. There's so much poetry there. There's so much magic and enchantment there.



 

Beginnings


Natalie Leon The Japanese Art of Living Seasonally

Cathy: I've got to ask you, if your mum loves Japan how did that influence you in your life? How did you get there, and what was it like for her? She must have loved you going and coming back with all these stories.


Natalie: Oh yes, she did. And I hope that she will finally go to Japan one day. She loves museums and like me she loves gardens, so I always bring her books on Japanese gardens, and art galleries that I think she'd enjoy. I always tell her about the hundred-plus year old shops that I’ve visited, especially in Kyoto.

Cathy: You've obviously loved Japan for a long, long time and does this extend back into your childhood then?


Natalie: Definitely. I talk about it in the book in the kimono chapter. I talk about the first time that I ever saw a kimono in real life, not in art. I was fortunate; I grew up in a house full of books. My parents love art and antiques, so there was always an incredible selection of books available on all different aspects of art, whether that was from China or Japan or the Middle East or Europe, the Renaissance. I was very fortunate in that respect.


I saw woodblock prints and pictures of cherry blossoms, and kimono long before I ever experienced the real thing, all in books. My mum had a black-lacquered cabinet where she used to keep all sorts of treasures, and I remember one day when I was quite small, she opened the cabinet, and she took out this bundle of very brightly coloured fabric, which looked shiny to me as a child. It was this great big bundle of fabric. She unfurled it and showed me what it was.


I think that was the first time I ever saw a kimono in real life. It was an uchikake which she had been given. Uchikake is the robe that you wear over your wedding kimono. It's an iconic garment, and it's very different from other kimono, it's incredibly heavy because usually they have a padded hem. They are very heavily embroidered with all sorts of metallic threads, and auspicious designs such as cranes, Mandarin ducks, cherry blossom.


What had happened was, in the 1970s, a close friend of my mum's had been working in Japan. He had been given it as a gift or he'd purchased it, and he brought this gift back for my mum, because he knew that my mum was mad about Japan. And so, she kept it in this very special cabinet, and she took it out and showed it to me, and it just blew my mind. I don't know how old I was, I must have been about 10 years old but I was in love, and I've been completely fascinated and obsessed with kimono ever since.



Natalie Leon The Japanese Art of Living Seasonally


I started collecting kimono myself when I was a teenager, and I have done ever since. When I was growing up it wasn't so easy to find good English language books on specific aspects of Japanese art, you could find auction catalogues and you could find general overviews. Over time, I amassed a research library, which I'm constantly adding to, whenever I can.


I bought the most fantastic book the other day, I'm very excited about it, all about hina dolls. It was published twenty-plus years ago.

Cathy: I agree, I think it's difficult to find good textbooks. A lot of them seem to be American - they often seem to be affiliated with an American university.


Natalie: Well, I buy a lot of vintage Tuttle books, who are based in the States. So yes, a lot of the good books are from America or Japan itself. I don't buy them new; I buy second-hand wherever I can. I wanted to include original waka poetry in the book, you need several translations to pull from, because of course the nuance does change.

Cathy: Yes, and I would think almost certainly quite a big percentage of the nuance is missed, even in the best translations.


Natalie: I'm sure that that's true, because you're talking about translating ancient Japanese, which very few people can do.

Cathy: There are a lot of puns and internal references to classical Chinese poetry.


Natalie: Exactly, you have to have an incredible knowledge, not just of the Japanese language, but also almost be a culture encyclopedia.

Cathy: Yes, which is why those Heian aristocrat ladies were so incredibly educated, I think.


I'm really honoured to be a part of your book launch event because this is a massive deal, and I can't wait to read your book.


Natalie Leon The Japanese Art of Living Seasonally


Natalie: I hope you're going to love it, Cathy, I really, really do. I think you'll be excited because there are so many aspects of things that you're interested in that I've written about: the Kokinshū, the Man'yoshū, kasane… There's a whole chapter on kimono.

Cathy: I'm fascinated by kasane!


Natalie: There's a lot of original waka poetry, and talking about the importance of waka, the importance of haiku, the importance of poetry, and how Japanese poetry is so bound up with the seasons. I think there is so much for you in there, I really hope that you're going to love it.

Cathy: But I love as well that you've written about your unique, personal experiences. Because we're all on a journey of discovery, aren't we, at whatever level we're at? We're all trying to learn and what you've done is exceptional, I think.


Natalie: Oh, gosh, that's a big word. That's incredibly generous of you. I think, the thing that I really struggled with initially was I have an academic background, but I didn't want to write an academic book. The reason being that I wanted it to be seen, I wanted to be read, and I wanted to be enjoyed and understood by as many people as possible.



Natalie Leon The Japanese Art of Living Seasonally

I wanted to write something that pretty much anybody who was even vaguely interested in Japan, or vaguely interested in seasonal living, could pick up and open, and enjoy and understand. I want to talk to

them in a way that's respectful and encouraging and supportive.


The idea is the book is an invitation. It's an invitation into this world, and to bring the parts of this world that you enjoy back into your own life. The idea was that it would be a companion, it would become a friend, who would open the door and say come on in, everybody's welcome, I would love to share my passions with you and my interests with you. I would love to share all of these amazing things that I've learned and discovered, and my fervent hope is that people would find beauty, they would find poetry, they would find joy, and that they might be inspired in whatever way, creatively, personally, from whatever perspective, and that they could pull on those strands of whatever is interesting them, whatever made them curious, or whatever delighted their personality, or their creativity.


To then bring small aspects of those things back into their own world, in their own way, and create their own rituals, their own creative practice around these concepts.

Cathy: It's so timely, isn't it? I think at this time when the environmental crisis is at the top of a lot of the news cycles, and everyone's concerned, your book sounds like a gentle way of helping us all to reconnect.


Natalie: That's my hope. It's interesting what you say about it being timely. I have felt almost a kind of pressure or a little voice in the back of my head saying, now is the time. You have to do this now, people are ready. Especially since covid, there has been a resurgence of interest in all sorts of rewilding - personally and professionally in every way on a global scale, and this little voice in the back of my head was saying, now is the time, this is when people are open.

Cathy: I think you're right. I often go into Oxford, and there has been a noticeable change in the last few years, in that some of the college gardens are now given over to wildflowers, and they look stunning. Subtle differences are happening, and I think we all appreciate things like that.


Natalie: I think there really is an interest in trying to slow down, simplify, and live even in small ways, because you can do it even if you live in a city.


I live in London, and you can bring aspects of the outside world inside and you can enjoy celebrating the seasons, no matter where you are. It's one of the things that I really wanted to offer people and say, it doesn't matter if you live in a tiny flat in London or wherever.



 

Inspirational Literature

Cathy: I'm fascinated that you are a writer. I love English literature, and I'm sure you do too. One of my big passions before I fell in love with the literature of Heian-era Japan was English literature. So, I would love to know, what are your influences? Do you have a book that you go back to over and over again, or that has stayed in your mind for years - one that you think about when you're out on walks?


Natalie: There are so many. Relatively recently, a book came out that for me has been completely transcendental, which is Robin Wall Kimmerer's book, Braiding Sweetgrass, which has really stayed with me, and I go back and reread.


She's written another book on mosses which is again exceptional. Robin Wall Kimmerer is an indigenous American scientist. I love her work, and not just her work but her writing - in the way that she weaves together her indigenous understanding of the world with her scientific background is quite exceptional.

So definitely Robin Wall Kimmerer is someone who's work I hugely admire, and I think her writing is beautiful.


Natalie Leon The Japanese Art of Living Seasonally

I love poetry, so I consume a huge amount of poetry in all different languages. Mary Oliver is one of my favourite contemporary poets, and again, her turn of phrase is so magical. Her words reinvigorate you and remind you quite how exceptional it is to be alive, how incredibly lucky we are to be alive, and what a wondrous thing it is to exist on this planet. Her work is exceptional.


Rachel Carson, as I mentioned to you earlier, is a very interesting female naturalist, and her work is amazing.


In terms of writing about writing and people who have really inspired me in my writing process, Laura Pashby's book, The Little Stories of Your Life, is incredible. That was published, I think, last year.


Beth Kempton is obviously a huge influence as one of the only female anthropologists focusing on Japan I discovered during my own studies. Her work has been hugely influential in my life. And her recent book, The Way of the Fearless Writer, is, I think a book that everyone who wants to write should read.


Another obviously incredibly important anthropologist who focuses on Japan is Lisa Dalby. Her earlier works were hugely influential on me. Her books Kimono, and Geisha, and obviously, if you're interested in nature and the seasons, then East Winds Melt the Ice which is her memoir, is incredibly beautiful, as she takes us through the seasons of her life.


In terms of Japanese writers, there are probably too many to name, but I love to read the works of the 36 Immortal Poets (Sanjūrokkasen), and I like to dip into the Man'yoshū as well as the Kokinshū because there are so many gems waiting to be discovered. And Ki no Tomonori who is the one of the compilers is a particular favourite.


As a child there were so many things that I read that influenced me - Anne of Green Gables was a huge influence. I read a huge amount of mythology and folklore as well.

Cathy: What sort of genres?


Natalie: All sorts of things, everything from morality tales, like Aesop's Fables - I was obsessed with folklore and mythology of the world. Indigenous Native American mythology and folktales, and folktales from Russia, from China, from Korea, from Japan. Obviously, the classic European Brothers Grimm and

Hans Christian Andersen, but I didn't limit myself to Europe, I would devour folktales from all over the world because I found them so intriguing.

Cathy: I must admit, when I was in my teens, I loved Arthurian legend, and loved reading the original texts. So, to be honest when I discovered the Genji Monogatari, I felt in my comfort zone!


Natalie: That explains it, I feel like I know you so much better now, because that explains to me why you were immediately drawn to Genji in that way.

Cathy: Genji is very early 11th century, so it is written in a similar era. I loved Malory and the French romances like the ones by Beroul and Chretien de Troyes. They're so beautifully illustrated in the early manuscripts. The illustrations that accompany the early manuscripts of Arthur are detailed and richly coloured, and equally the early manuscripts of Genji are detailed and fascinating. So, to me, they're two sides of the same coin. I love these worlds from long ago that seem to glitter.


Natalie: I remember reading the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, that's incredibly beautiful, illustrated with Persian miniatures. Obviously, it's an abridged version, but I also read things like Arabian Nights.


There was always this interest in global folklore and global mythology, and I found it very interesting how, as an adult studying it from an academic point of view - you know how they say that we only really have ten stories, right across the world, and folklore and mythology are constant re-imaginings, repetitions, reworkings of these core archetypal stories. As an adult studying film, studying literature, studying folklore, you can really see those core stories. This is something I wrote about in the book as well. One of the things that I always found very interesting is this idea of the mythological forest, this magical glen

where fairy tales are set, and where anything could happen. Which is a trope or a trope archetype, a leitmotif, that repeats across history and across cultures globally throughout time.



 

Viewing cherry blossoms


Natalie Leon The Japanese Art of Living Seasonally


Natalie: One of the things I wanted to do with the book was, I wanted to make things like hanami, which have become a global phenomenon, accessible for everybody, no matter where you are. Some people don't have access to cherry blossoms because they don't grow in all climates; they're very delicate. And, if you live in a city which doesn't have access to a fantastic botanical garden, you can still celebrate hanami no matter where you are.


It doesn't have to be a cherry blossom; it could be something else. It could be a magnolia, a crepe myrtle, or a jacaranda tree. There are so many exceptionally beautiful flowering trees throughout the world that we can celebrate and enjoy every spring.


One of the things I was trying to do was to take these uniquely Japanese ideas like hanami (cherry blossom viewing) but make them globally accessible and say, look, you can make your own spring ritual, you can make your own hanami and enjoy the beauty of spring, and celebrate the ephemerality of the blossom, in a way that's relevant to you and to your locality, because it's also about appreciating where we are.

Cathy: Have you ever been to hanami in Japan, Natalie? I'm about to go to my first one!


Natalie: Yes, I have, many times! I have; I've been very lucky. I've celebrated hanami many times, both in the UK, in Paris, and in Japan, and in many different ways. I have celebrated it during the day, at night, in a huge group, just with one other person, just by myself—in lots of different ways.

Cathy: I've never seen Japan in the cherry blossom, and I'm a bit concerned because on Instagram they're beginning to show pictures of the cherry blossom flowering and I'm thinking it's two and a half weeks till we go…

I hope we're not going to miss it!


Natalie: There are lots of different locations. The Somei Yoshino cherry is the dominant variety because they planted hundreds of thousands of them. However, there are lots of different types of cherries and they bloom at different times.


Also, warmer areas bloom sooner . So, already, the warmer parts of the country have started blooming, and early varieties have started blooming. But that doesn't mean that there won't be sakura by the time you go. When are you there in Kyoto this year?

Cathy: We go to Tokyo first at the end of March.


Natalie: That's ideal timing. Check the latest sakura forecast because they'll keep updating it!


 


Thank you so much Natalie for joining us for this fascinating chat!

You can find more information about Natalie,

how to pre-order her book below:


Natalie Leon The Japanese Art of Living Seasonally

Natalie Leon

Instagram @_natalie_leon


Available to pre-order

Natalie’s book, The Japanese Art of Living Seasonally, is available to pre-order at


It is also available at








All photographs are by Natalie Leon, apart from the spring portraits taken by Adam Isfendiyar and the autumnal kimono portraits by Stasia Matsumoto.

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