In Japan, each new season brings a feast for the senses
Even in Japan’s biggest cities, nature is never far away. Japanese culture is intimately connected with the natural world, and each new season is celebrated for the beauty of its landscapes and for its unique flavours. Whether you are eating in high-end restaurants or cosy izakaya (Japanese pub restaurants), you will find that menus showcase seasonal specialties available only at certain times of the year. Follow our foodie guide to feast your way through every season.
Spring in Japan has become synonymous with sakura, or cherry blossoms. Their flowering is certainly spectacular, but it’s not the only flower that livens up the season. Visit a Japanese garden at any time during spring and you will discover a glorious variety of plants in bloom, from plum blossoms to tulips, azalea to wisteria.
Savoury sensations: Seafood is one of spring’s signature tastes, particularly dishes such as Asari clams and red snapper. Seasonal vegetable dishes include nanohana no karashiae, canola stems cooked with mustard, and tender young bamboo shoots, or takenoko.
Sweet treats: Strawberries are the hit of the season, with gift boxes of perfect specimens commanding huge prices. Other favourite seasonal desserts include ichigo daifuku, a rice cake containing sweetened red bean paste and a whole strawberry, and strawberry and cream sandwiches.
Regional highlight: Young Japanese sand eels, or ikanago, are a specialty of Hyogo Prefecture, and are harvested in early spring, before they retreat to the ocean depths to escape the summer heat. Head to Kobe to try the delicious ikanago no kugini, sand eel cooked in sweet soy sauce.
Essential spring experience: What else but a hanami, or cherry blossom viewing? Pick up a hanami bento box from a department store food hall; they are packed with seasonal treats including carrots cut in the shape of cherry blossoms and sakura mochi rice cakes.
Summer is festival time in Japan, and communities celebrate with fireworks almost every night. Kyoto has astonishing festivals including the Daimonji fire festival and Gion Matsuri, which continues for the entire month of July; Shikoku celebrates the country’s largest dance festival, Awa Odori Matsuri. However, the weather is usually hot and humid. If you don’t cope well with those sort of conditions, head to the cooler climate of the mountains or the northern island of Hokkaido.
Savoury sensations: The Japanese turn down the heat with an impressive array of cold dishes. Must-tries include cold noodle dishes such as somen (thin wheat noodles) and hiyashi chuka, cold ramen noodles served with eggs, ham, and prawns. Also worth a try is rei shabu, a chilled pork version of shabu-shabu.
Sweet treats: Watermelon is summer’s most popular fruit. You can even buy square or heart-shaped watermelon, if you can afford the eye-watering prices. Also try warabi mochi, a jelly-like treat usually served with slightly sweetened peanut or roasted soybean powder.
Regional highlight: Head to Iwate Prefecture to try one of Japan’s most famous summer noodle dishes, Morioka reimen. These chewy glass noodles are served with cold beef broth, egg, watermelon and kimchi.
Essential summer experience: The hot weather provides the perfect excuse to sample some of Japan’s idiosyncratic soft-serve ice cream flavours. Why stick with chocolate when you can try Okinawan sweet potato, black sesame, green tea, and wasabi?
Less famous than spring’s cherry blossoms, autumn’s magnificently coloured leaves, known as koyo, are an attraction in their own right. Koyo viewing is a popular activity between the months of September and November.
Savoury sensations: Arguably one of the tastiest seasons in Japan, autumn brings such treats as shinmai, or newly-harvested rice, which is considered more delicious than older rice, and sanma, or Pacific saury, a fish that is usually served grilled with wasabi and soy sauce. Other delights include the umami-packed matsutake mushrooms and sweet potatoes, which are best eaten freshly baked.
Sweet treats: Autumn’s rich harvest of fruit includes crunchy nashi pears and kaki (persimmons). The latter can be eaten raw, baked in a pie or made into cookies.
Regional highlight: Ibaraki Prefecture, near Tokyo, is Japan’s chestnut HQ, growing more than 10 different varieties. Roasted chestnuts are less popular here than in Europe; instead, locals love to eat kuri gohan, or chestnut rice, and kuri yokan, jellied blocks with chestnut chunks inside.
Essential experience: One of Japan’s loveliest traditions is Otsukimi, the moon-viewing festival. Like Easter, it is calculated on the lunar calendar and therefore has shifting dates, taking place on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month. Friends and family get together to gaze at the moon and enjoy delicacies including chestnuts, taro and mochi, or rice cakes, in the shape of rabbits.
For a true taste of Japanese winter, head north. Skiers and snowboarders know that Japan’s winter resorts are world-class; if speeding over the snow isn’t your scene, the Sapporo Snow Festival features snow and ice sculptures as well as colourful light displays.
Savoury sensations: Midwinter menus often feature seafood and this is the time of year to enjoy amberjack, flounder, snow crab and even blowfish, or fugu. Other cold-weather favourites include a broad range of hotpots, from sukiyaki to shabu-shabu. Keep an eye out for street sellers hawking oden, a soy sauce-based broth packed with delicious morsels including egg, tofu, daikon (giant radish) and fishcake.
Sweet treats: For fruit fans, winter offers juicy mandarins and snow apples, which are frozen in the snow to increase their sweetness, their juiciness and their crunchiness. If you would rather have something to warm you up, try suwito potato, a type of sweet potato pie made with brandy, cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla.
Regional highlight: During Kyoto’s cold winter, one of the locals’ favourite ways to warm up is with a dish called yudofu. Originally eaten by Buddhist priests, who follow a vegetarian diet, yudofu is tofu boiled in a kelp stock and dipped in sauce.
Essential experience: Lake Shikaribetsu Kotan is an ice village built every winter on a frozen lake near Sapporo. As well as sleeping in an ice house, guests can drink in the ice bar, watch movies in an ice cinema and heat up in an outdoor hot tub.
For more information on culinary experiences in Japan, visit Japan National Tourism Organization’s website: www.jnto.org.au