12 Delicious Reasons To “Eat With the Seasons” in Japan
As a traveler, you’ll notice a reverence around the changing seasons that’s unique to Japan.
The bursting of springtime cherry blossoms draws epic crowds (by a recent estimate, 63 million visitors from inside and out of Japan flocked to enjoy the pink buds at their peak).
Similarly, straight-from-the garden ingredients that appear for a precious few weeks each season generate their own flurry of excitement. Those culinary arrivals guide and inspire the menus at top Tokyo restaurants like Narisawa and Takazawa along with more modest establishments — all honoring the latest and greatest harvests from local farms.
You can tap into that deep sense of seasonality that is so integral to Japanese culture with your taste buds. Try opting for dishes that spotlight seasonal fruits and vegetables as you peruse a restaurant menu.
Here’s what to look out for, organized by season:
Find it on the menu: In oden, a traditional stew of boiled eggs, tofu and fish cakes in a dashi broth made with water, sea kelp and dried fish flakes.
One of the most popular vegetables in Japan, this Japanese radish is a long, white root that looks similar to a carrot (“daikon” translates to mean “big root.”) The most common variety is about four to five inches in diameter, with a bright-green stem and leaves.
The mild-flavored winter radish, eaten raw, pickled, dried, simmered and even used as a condiment, is very similar to horseradish, without the bite. While daikon is usually available year-round, the winter variety is thought to have the sweetest flavor, making it the perfect ingredient for hot, simmered dishes.
Yuzu (Japanese citrus)
Find it on the menu: Drizzled as yuzu ponzu sauce over sashimi or thin slices of seared meat (tataki).
If a fruit could represent winter in Japan, this small, sour citrus would do the trick. Best described as a funky-looking lemon, it’s bright yellow but rounder and with a bumpier peel. Yuzu adds a fresh acidity to dishes, and its tart juice and zest spike both cocktails and desserts.
Satsumaimo (Japanese sweet potato)
Find it on the menu: In soups and stews, or in imo gohan, potato rice.
With a deep magenta peel and white flesh, the Japanese sweet potato is longer than an orange sweet potato and also a bit sweeter. Its dense interior turns golden yellow as it cooks.
These potatoes are a popular street food, and it used to be that picking up a steaming hot satsumaimo from an ishi-yakiimo-ya, or stone-roasted sweet potato seller, was a winter tradition in Japan. Today they’re more commonly found as a snack called the university potato, or daigaku imo — a fried satsumaimo drizzled in sweet syrup (the unusual name comes from the cheap snack’s appeal to cash-strapped students!).
Takenoko (bamboo shoot)
Find it on the menu: In takenoko gohan, steamed rice with bamboo shoots.
The pale-green-and-white bamboo shoot (the soft top of a young bamboo plant) is widely used in Japanese cuisine. Takenoko’s early harvest makes it the quintessential spring ingredient: If it isn’t plucked before the plant fully emerges from the soil, it becomes tough and green. The vegetable’s mild taste takes on the flavors of other foods, so it’s a typical ingredient in stir fry, tempura, and is also grilled or boiled in soups and stews.
Find it on the menu: Adding zest to dishes when boiled in hot pot meals or miso soup.
Closely resembling a white radish, the Japanese turnip has a globe-shaped root and bright-green stem. Known as the “salad turnip,” the kabu is smaller and sweeter than other turnips and can thus be eaten raw. Its tender skin doesn’t require peeling, so it is often shaved onto salads, including one that’s made of its own leaves — which taste a bit like mustard greens.
Biwa (Japanese plum)
Find it on the menu: Baked into upside-down cakes and crumbles.
With its unique flavor and easy-to-peel skin, this soft, orange fruit looks like citrus but without the rough exterior. Best described as a mixture of peach, pear and mango, the biwa’s flavor is juicy, refreshing and only mildly sweet. Though the soft interior is usually eaten raw while avoiding the hard, brown seeds, the fruit is also often used in candy and jam.
Find it on the menu: Accompanying sushi and sashimi.
One of the most popular seasonings in Japan, this fresh leafy herb comes in two varieties, green-leaved and purple-leaved. Small and heart-shaped, the leaf looks similar to mint, with a flavor profile containing notes of basil, cumin, cinnamon and citrus. Shiso is sometimes called perilla or Japanese basil, and while it’s sold year-round, the summer months are when it is freshest.
Momo (Japanese peach)
Find it on the menu: As the jammy filling in sweet peach dumplings.
A stone fruit with fuzzy skin and white interior, the Japanese peach is very similar in taste to its Western counterpart but is typically eaten peeled. Peeled momo are used to top desserts including cake, ice cream and shaved ice, or to make jam. Boxes of the fragile fruit are a luxurious summer gift throughout the country.
Find it on the menu: Adding a fruity punch to cocktails, also known as a shochu highball.
Large, dark and so very purple that they’re almost black, these grapes are extra juicy, with an intense flavor. Much like a Concord grape, this hyper-sweet variety has thick, easy-to-peel skin. Kyoho grapes tend to be expensive, so they’re often sent as gifts or used on desserts as a decorative topping.
Find it on the menu: In kabocha no nimono (squash simmered in dashi broth).
Short, squat and dark green, this squash is also referred to as Japanese pumpkin. Similar to a sweet potato in flavor and texture, the kabocha squash has a bright-orange interior that’s sweet and versatile. The Japanese culinary staple is fried as tempura, simmered in soups and stews, roasted or sautéed.
Renkon (lotus root)
Find it on the menu: Fried into light, crispy chips.
This classic autumn vegetable comes from the water lily family. When sliced, the interior of the round root reveals eight evenly spaced holes that form a circular pattern resembling a flower. It’s often found in tempura dishes, stir fry recipes, stews or soups.
Find it on the menu: In stir-fry dishes.
With white stems, light-brown caps and bright-yellow gills, these fungi have a light distinctive flavor. They are among the most popular mushrooms in Japan, and while they are frequently dried and added to recipes for their umami flavor, autumn’s fresh shiitakes can often be found simmered in soy sauce or served sliced in a steamy bowl of miso soup.