Tomoji Yokoishi, 49, recalls how astonished he was 21 years ago by three pretty women sitting next to him in a sushi restaurant in Osaka's Namba district.

It wasn't their beauty that caught Yokoishi's eye, but the way they were toying with scarlet maple leaves used to garnish the food, floating them in a glass of water and finally placing one tenderly in a pink handkerchief to take home.

Yokoishi, who at the time was working at an agricultural cooperative in Tokushima Prefecture, was amazed at the way the women were fascinated with the red leaves. And it changed his life forever.