If you have been to Japan during the colder months between December to February, you will notice the sudden abundance in citruses such as yuzu (柚子・ゆず) and mikan (蜜柑・みかん mandarin oranges). There are several reasons why these citrus fruits are associated with winter in Japan apart from their seasonal availability—the tanginess helps to invigorate the senses our bodies need when the weather turns colder, and traditionally they have always been around; whether on display on a kotatsu or in a winter solstice night bath.
But Japan is more than just about yuzu or mikan. There are more than 100 varieties of citruses recognised in Japan, each of them bringing a unique flavour profile to the (dining) table—some of which can be consumed as they are, and others being used in various ways in everyday life.
Let’s dive deeper into the wonderful and zesty world of Japan’s citruses.
Introduction to Citrus, A Culinary Overture in Japan
Yuzu ready to be harvested | Photo by photoAC
In the heart of Japan's rich agricultural landscape, the vibrant and diverse array of citrus fruits takes centre-stage, adding zest and fragrance to the country's culinary scene. Citruses in Japan are typically cultivated in areas where the climate is mild and temperate, typically in the Western regions along the Pacific Coast. From the sun-kissed groves of Wakayama to the terraced slopes of Shikoku, Japan's citrus orchards produce a symphony of flavours, each fruit telling a unique story of regional pride and seasonal abundance.
With numerous traditions and cultural references featuring yuzu or mikan, one might assume these citrus fruits are native to Japan. However, they were not originally from Japan; instead, they were introduced to the country at a certain point in history, and the locals have developed their own sub-species of each citrus variant ever since!
Here's a closer look at five of Japan’s more well-known citrus varieties that you and your taste-buds should take note when visiting Japan!
1. Yuzu, The All-in-One Aromatic Fruit
Yuzu | Photo by photoAC
Area of cultivation: Kochi Prefecture
A fragrant citrus fruit with a distinctive and tantalising aroma, yuzu easily ranks high as one of the most versatile and multi-purpose citrus fruits in Japan. Its thick and lumpy peel is hardly consumed as a fruit on its own, but it is commonly used in cooking, and its zest and juice are added to dressings (yuzu ponzu, yuzu kosho) and dishes ranging from appetisers to desserts (yuzu jelly). As winter's chill sets in, the warmth of yuzu-infused drinks becomes a comforting tradition, bringing communities together.
If you visit the Izu Shaboten Zoo in winter and spring, you will get to chance upon capybaras soaking in yuzuyu! | Photo by photoAC
Beyond the culinary world, yuzu is also a key ingredient in the traditional yuzuyu (hot yuzu bath) taken during the winter solstice (typically end of December) in line with winter wellness. It is believed that the oils released from the yuzu fruit in hot water can have health benefits and help prevent colds. Yuzu is also used as an ingredient in skin care and fragrances.
2. Mikan, The Crowd’s Favourite
Mikan and mikan juice | Photo by photoAC
Area of cultivation: Ehime Prefecture, Wakayama Prefecture
Often referred to as mandarin oranges or satsumas, unshu mikan are sweet and easy-to-peel citrus fruits. The sweet simplicity of mikan brightens winter days and are widely enjoyed as a cherished snack in Japan. Mikan are also used in various desserts and beverages, such as mikan juice.
Mikan or mandarin oranges | Photo by photoAC
A member of the mikan family, the Kishu mikan is a variety of mikan known for its small size, sweetness and thin skin. A speciality of the Kishu region (Wakayama Prefecture), it is highly prized for its quality, and it is said that just two medium-sized mikan fruits will provide about half the recommended daily intake of vitamin C (100mg/adult)!
Mikan on a kotatsu is a common sight in Japanese households during winter | Photo by photoAC
Mikan are also symbolic of prosperity and good fortune in Japanese culture. As winter is a time for celebrations, including the New Year, the presence of citruses is seen as auspicious and brings positive connotations to the season.
3. Sudachi, The Essence of Tokushima
Sudachi | Photo by photoAC
Area of cultivation: Tokushima
Sudachi (酢橘) is a small, green citrus fruit, about the size of a golf ball, known for its tart flavour. Similar to yuzu and mikan, the majority of sudachi is typically cultivated in the Shikoku Region, with approximately 90% of the sudachi harvest originating from Tokushima Prefecture.
Sudachi tastes great with soba buckwheat noodles no matter the season! | Photo by photoAC
Adding a citrusy kick to various dishes, it is often used as a condiment of garnish or dressings, similar to how lemons or limes might be used. It is particularly popular accompanied with soba noodles as well as fish dishes cooked and raw like sushi and sashimi, where its pleasant citrusy flavour compliments the taste of raw fish and could easily overpower any strong fishy smells.
The fruit is also used in beverages such as cocktails in izakaya or refreshing summer drinks. Its distinct flavour is appreciated across cuisines traditional and modern, so be sure to try this unique fruit when you are eating Japanese food!
4. Kabosu, Arguably The Sky’s Most Popular Citrus
Kabosu has more juice content as compared to yuzu or sudachi | Photo by photoAC
Area of cultivation: Oita Prefecture
Like both the yuzu and sudachi, kabosu (臭橙) has a strong sour and tart taste and is a perfect condiment for fish dishes. Unlike the yuzu and sudachi, it is rich in juice and it is particularly well-known in the skies of Japan…
Kabosu being juiced | Photo by photoAC
If you have flown with All Nippon Airways (ANA), you have probably heard of or tasted the airline's exclusive signature drink, 'Aromatic Kabosu' (香るかぼす Kaoru Kabosu). First introduced onboard ANA flights in 2009, Kaoru Kabosu, made with kabosu juice and honey, was designed to showcase the essence of Japanese flavours and has proven to be a memorable experience for passengers on board.
Kabosu are typically grown in Oita Prefecture in the south island of Kyushu, which accounts for around 98% of the country's total production of the fruit.
5. Dekopon, The Sumo Citrus
Dekopon is characterised by its large bump | Photo by photoAC
Area of cultivation: Kumamoto Prefecture, Hiroshima Prefecture, Ehime Prefecture
Dekopon (デコポン) is a seedless and sweet citrus fruit typically grown in the southern parts of Japan, and its delicate flavour attracts all who chance upon it. It is a hybrid of a Kiyomi and ponkan mandarin orange and is characterised by its large size and distinctive protruding "bump” on the top of the fruit.
Originally cultivated in Kumamoto Prefecture since 1972, dekopon are usually enjoyed as a premium citrus fruit. Due to the fruits' high quality, they are also gifted as a high-grade gift during winter and the New Year holidays in Japan.
Japanese Citrus, Packed with Flavour, Vitamins, and Traditions
Which citrus is which? | Photo by photoAC
All in all, these citrus fruits play a significant role in Japanese cuisine and culture, contributing not only aroma and flavour but also offering health benefits due to their high levels of vitamin C, which helps reduce fatigue and the risk of colds.
While there are many other citrus fruits unique to Japan that aren't listed here (such as the native Okinawan shequasar fruit), it's no secret that Japan loves its citrus, as evidenced by its use in all aspects of daily life.
As the days grow colder, why not treat your loved ones to a box of citrusy and wintery snacks from JAPAN RAIL CLUB! As a snack subscription service, JAPAN RAIL CLUB offers a variety of seasonal snacks hand-picked from Japan each month, and this December's Omiyage Snack Box is filled with yuzu drinks from Umaji Village of Kochi Prefecture and mikan sweets from Sowa Kajuen of Arida, Wakayama Prefecture.
Here's wishing you and your loved ones a "Merry Citrus" while enjoying Japanese snacks!