Photo/Illutration "Kinmokusei" fragrant olive flowers in bloom in Nankoku, Kochi Prefecture, in October 2016. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

As someone who has a relatively weak sense of smell, with or without the novel coronavirus, I am not quite well-equipped to enjoy the olfactory pleasures of the seasons.

One exception, however, is the fragrance of “kinmokusei” or fragrant olive flowers. As in every autumn, I recently encountered the delicate (powerful for many people) fragrance of the flowers of kinmokusei wafting in the wind and saw their bright tangerine-colored blossoms.

When the Japanese name of this fall flowering shrub is written in kanji, the “kin” indicates the golden color of its flowers. Its botanical name, “Osmanthus fragrans,” means “fragrant osmanthus,” with osmanthus coming from the Greek words osme (smell) and anthos (flower).

In China, the home of this species of plant, it is also known by the name of “jiulixiang,” which literally means “nine Chinese miles fragrant,” because its fragrance reaches far and wide. Now, as in ancient times, people usually detect the fragrance before they find the flowers.

Does this sweet smell attract bees and butterflies? Not necessarily. This smell rather repels many insects, according to “Kaguwashiki Shokubutsu-tachi no Himitsu” (Secrets of fragrant plants), a book coauthored by botanist Osamu Tanaka and Kunikazu Tanji, a neurologist.

But that does not matter to kinmokusei in Japan. Most of the fragrant olive trees in this country are male plants, which cannot be pollinated.

Though they bear flowers, they do not yield fruit. They give off fragrance but do not need to attract insects that act as vectors to move pollen. Pondering these facts, I am inclined to think that we, the human race, could at least enjoy their fragrance.

Japanese haiku poet Fusae Fubasami (1914-2014) composed a piece about the sweet smell of fragrant olive flowers. “I inhale (the scent of) mokusei/ So deeply that/ I feel pregnant (with it).”

There are signs of autumn that can be captured by the eyes, nose or ears. The loud chorus of cicadas has gradually given way to the gentle chirping of autumn insects.

Japanese author, playwright and poet Mantaro Kubota (1889-1963) composed a short poem about the singing of insects. “Chirping insects/ Take a rest/ At a regular interval.” The way these insects make sounds by scraping together their wings and take a rest regularly helps calm our minds.

Needless to say, there are also signs of autumn that should be tasted and enjoyed with the tongue. But it is a little sad that these days we seldom find “sanma” (Pacific saury) that is neither expensive nor very thin.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Sept. 12

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.