Vegetables have traditionally been eaten fresh, added to stews and pickled in brine. In the old days families made their own pickles and houses had storage area for pickles. Now, most people purchase them at stores. In some places people use lactic acid bacteria to pickle the leaves and stalks of red beets to make sunki, which adds a unique tart flavor to soba.

The variety of vegetables is staggering and the vegetable concoctions the Japanese dream up are delicious. Among the more unique varieties are “tomburo” (seeds from the broom plant, known as “caviar of the field”), slightly bitter “shokuyogiku” (edible chrysanthemum pedals), mountain mizu (crunchy, marble-shaped buds), and mountain vegetables such as “warabi” (bracken), “udo” (Aralia cordata) and “makurage” (stem lettuce).

The Japanese are very fond of massive white radishes (“ daikon” ), cabbage, sliced lotus roots (known for their wagon-wheel shape and crisp texture, often deep-fired as tempura), burdock (a high-fiber root with a nutty flavor) and mountain yams (cooked in starchy mass served with soup, noodles or fresh tuna). Spinach is a symbol of secret love. Giving someone a present wrapped in spinach-green paper is an expression of passion.

Vegetables can be very expensive in Japan. Prices have come down considerably in the last few years thanks to cheap imports, primarily from China. A variety of pickled vegetables are available. Pickling things like Chinese radishes with “nukamiso” (smelly fermented rice bran) in a ceramic pot has traditionally been a way of preserving vegetables for the winter months. Popular Japanese pickles include “takuan” and “umeboshi”. Kyoto is especially well known for pickles.

In recent years, organic produce has become popular. Japanese consumers are very health conscious and they don’t seem to be too concerned about shelling out twice as much money for vegetables that look less appetizing because no preservatives have been added. The market for organic food became very big after a series of scares and worries about genetically-modified foods. Farmers were happy about the development because it gave them a chance to make some good money.

Eggplant is very popular in Japan. Japanese eggplants are longer, thinner than conventional eggplants and have smaller seeds, thinner skin, smoother flesh and have a sweeter, less bitter taste. They are used for main dishes. Broad beans are usually boiled in water with salt and served as a snack to accompany drinks. Rawan butter is a plant with soft , juicy stalks that grow to a height of three meters.

In Hokkaido pumpkins are “grown in the air” on vines wrapped around special farms. The unusual growing method reduces the numbers of pests and give the pumpkins a better shape and color and little variation in quality.

Good Websites and Sources: Good Photos at Japan-Photo Archive ; Japan Guide ; Japanese Vegetable Dishes on / ; Growing Japanese Vegetables ; Wikipedia article on Japanese Fruits Wikipedia ; pictures of Japanese Fruit ;Matsutake Mushrooms ; Swedish Site on Raising Matsutake Mushrooms in Japan ; Wikipedia article on Shiitake Mushrooms Wikipedia



Lotus Root

lotus root
Lotus root is cut in slices that look like wagon wheels. A traditional New Year's food that is believed to bring good luck because there are may holes through which the future can be seen, it can be raised in the winter and is grown in flooded rices paddies and ponds. They are harvest in December, often when the water is quite cold, by farmers who sink to their waists in the mud and water and pull the roots out of the muck by hand. Ibaraki prefecture is the largest producer of lotus roots.

Renkon (lotus root) are sold almost all year round, but is regarded as especially tasty during the winter season. Tamako Sakamoto wrote in the The Daily Yomiuri: Renkon have a crunchy texture and a slight sweetness. Because of its round shape with eight or nine holes in the center, renkon slices resemble lace and can be used as decorative items on a plate. Stuffed renkon is an attractive dish and one of the most popular among my foreign friends. It can be enjoyed as an appetizer or a main course. It is tasty either with a mixture of ground pork and beef or with ground chicken. I often make it for dinner and freeze the leftovers for bento. [Source: Tamako Sakamoto, The Daily Yomiuri, November 2, 2012]

When buying renkon at a supermarket, choose one that is lighter in color, fairly straight, and thick. For this stuffed renkon dish, I choose straight but slightly thinner ones. Otherwise each piece will be too big. If you end up with renkon that is too large, you can cut it in half before deep-frying. To prevent the vegetables' creamy color from darkening, as soon as it is peeled and sliced, place it in bowl of water with vinegar...Last year, my mother gave me a huge black renkon wrapped in newspaper. I was very surprised because I had never seen such a renkon. It was freshly harvested, and my mother had received it from her friend. I then saw that it was covered in mud to keep it fresh, which was why it looked black.

Cabbage, Lettuce and Leeks in Japan

Two primary kinds of cabbages are eaten in Japan: 1) “ kandama” (“cold round ball”) cabbages, sold from June through February that have dense, packed leaves, taste best cooked and used in Japan in okonomiyali pancakes and an ingredient in gyoza (Chinese dumplings); and 2) spring cabbages, sold from March to May, featuring lighter, less dense heads with leaves that taste good raw and are often used in salads served with pork cutlets at restaurants.

Chinese cabbage is used in nabe stews and to make kim-chi. It is leafier and longer than regular cabbage. The best is said to be Kokufu Hakusai from Takasaki in Gunma Prefecture. Selling for about a dollar more than other kinds, it has soft leaves and a strong flavor. A typical cabbage weighs five kilograms. One harvested at the end of the season in mid December can weigh up eight kilograms.

The village of Kawakamo in western Japan has been called the richest village in Japan, with farmers earning six figure dollar incomes and driving Mercedes. The village was dirt poor until 1989 when it began switching from rice to lettuce as its primary crop. It just so happens the village is at perfect elevation (1,350 meter) for growing lettuce and water in the local river has just the right mineral content to produce delicious lettuce that is widely sought both in Japan and abroad by connoisseurs.

Lettuce was traditionally not part of the Japanese diet. Japanese farmers began growing it for American soldiers during the postwar occupation.

Leeks are essential ingredients in soba, yakitori, shabu shabu and sukiyaki. Leeks with vivid white and green sections are said to be the tastiest. The best leeks in Japan, the Senju-negi variety, are twice as thick as normal varieties and have longer white sections and have as many as 10 layers.

Sweet Potatoes in Japan

sweet potato truck
“Yaki-imo” (baked sweet potatoes) are a treat that is enjoyed in the winter months. Many people buy them from the “yaki-imo” man who roasts sweet potatoes over stones in a small wood burning stove with a pipe for smoke. The sweet potatoes are ideally cooked on smooth river stones. Many vendors get their firewood fire from recently demolished houses. The heat is kept around 70̊C, the temperature at which starch converts into sugar.

Sweet potatoes are usually harvested in September but is said that taste sweeter and better if they are stored for a month or two under controlled temperature and humidity, maturing in late November. Heating them makes them sweeter still as the starch becomes past-like at about 70 degrees C and enzymes turn the starch into malt sugar.

Sweet have traditionally been enjoyed two ways during the winter: stone baked and sold from the back or a truck or jar-baked with charcoal placed under a one-meter tall unglazed jar wheeled the streets in a two-wheeled cart. Slow-baking helps convert the starch into sugar.

A woman who sells the jar-bakes sweet potatoes told the Daily Yomiuri, “Both ways take about an hour, with the potatoes needing to be turned every 10 minutes. I can tell how much they are baked by touching them with may hand through cotton globes when I flip them.”

In the old days the men who pushed the sweet potato carts through neighborhoods shouted out a song "”oimoo-o-o-o ya-a-ski-imo”" (“Roooassted potaaatoooos! They’re so delicious.”). The custom originated after the Great Tokyo Earthquake in 1923 when they brought food to people whose houses were in ruins. Vendors have traditionally carefully guarded their turf, with trouble breaking out if a vendor’s territory was breached. These days hot sweet potatoes are mostly sold from trucks that make a whistling sound and wind through neighborhoods with taped version fo the sweet potato song being played over and over again.

White Radishes and Bamboo Babies in Japan

Large white carrot-shaped radishes, called “daikon”, are Japan's favorite vegetable in terms of planted acreage. Cheap and sold throughout the year, they can be truly massive — as thick and as long as a man's arm and weighing several kilograms. They are easy to grow and harvest and flourish in the winter. Many farmers plant it in the autumn and harvest in the winter or spring. It is said the best tasting are harvest at dawn in frosty mornings in January and February.

More than 100 different kinds of daikon radishes have been grown in Japan. Most are long and thick but there also round varieties. Aokubi daikon, which vary in size and thickness from a rolling pin to a bowling pin, account for 95 percent of production. The tastiest ones are said to come from the Miura Peninsula south of Tokyo where it is said that ocean breezes enrich them with minerals.

Radishes made their way to Japan from China via Korea. It is not known whether radishes originated in Asia or evolved from Mediterranean varieties that were brought eastward on the Silk Road. Radishes have been eaten for at least 5,000 years. They were among the rations eaten by the builders of the pyramids in ancient Egypt.

Daikon are used in a lot of different dishes. It is grated and minced into sauces served with fried fish; it is pickled and eaten with rice; it is cut into chunks are added to stews and things like sukiyaki. Japanese eat a lot of it. It contains a number of enzymes they are said to be good for health. One of it attractions is that it remains firm and doesn’t get mushy even when it is cooked a long time

The Sakurajima daikon, grown along the Nagara river in central Honshu, is one of the heaviest vegetables in the world. It can reach a length of 1.5 meters and weigh 20 kilograms or more. About 90 percent of the white radishes eaten in Japan are of the “aokubi”, or green neck varieties. They are known for juicy meaty, relative sweetness and suitability for grating, boiling and pickling

Bamboo shoots are a popular food and are often harvested by people from bamboo groves near their homes. Known as “takenoko” (bamboo babies), they are gathered in the early spring and dug up by hand. Takenoko is added to soups and stews and is sliced and grilled on barbecues. It needs to be boiled before it can be consumed.

People hunting for bamboo babies look for slight mounds of earth at the beginning of spring. The best ones haven’t emerged from the ground yet and it takes some probing of the ground to find them. Increasingly mild winters have moved the season up to February.

Bamboo shoots are known as “ takenoko “ in Japan. Those from the maso bamboo found around the town of Otakimachi in Chiba Prefecture are regarded as among the best in the country. They have a pear-like texture and slightly sweet flavor and can be eaten uncooked like sashimi. Locals say the clayey soil there produces bamboo shoots that have a fresh flavor but aren’t bitter.

Experienced bamboo shoot hunters use a special pick-ax-like hoe to dig up the shoots and can find shoots that haven’t broken the soil surface in what seems like ordinary ground. Soil is removed from the shoot before it is dug up. A white color means the shoots have not been exposed to air, promising a bitter-free taste. The inner parts of the shoot, which are revealed after pealing away the outer layers, are the sweetest and most flavorful parts of the shoot.

Round Eggplants

“ Mizu-nasu “ is a a round eggplant who name literally means “water eggplant.” Yasushi Wada wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “When farmers became thirsty in olden times, they often would munch on a raw mizu-nasu. The eggplants were grown in the corners of rice paddies and other fields for this very purpose. Mizu-nasu are juicier than other eggplants and without a funky smell. They are often made into pickles. [Source: Yasushi Wada, Yomiuri Shimbun, June 4, 2011]

The mizu-nasu season lasts longer than that of other eggplants. From April to June, it is grown in greenhouses while field-cultivated mizu-nasu are available from June to September. Workers at a pickle factory for Shunka, a company in the Senshu area near Osaka that is a major producer of mizu-nasu pickles. Workers there first wash the eggplants before removing their hulls. They then gently massaged the vegetable using solar salt.

"If the eggplant's surface is lightly scored, salt can penetrate its center. When this occurs, the eggplant is able to fully absorb the flavor of nuka [a rice bran culture used as a pickling medium], which is the next step when pickling eggplants," the manager at the factory explained. I tasted mizu-nasu that had been pickled for two days, apparently the best time to eat them. I was told to make shallow incisions in the eggplant with my fingernails before pulling it apart. "If you use a knife to slice mizu-nasu, the knife's metallic ‘smell' will react with the eggplant," the manager said. The salt brought out the eggplant's natural sweetness. Moreover, the rice bran added depth and flavor to the piquant pickles. The mizu-nasu tasted like a fruit, almost suitable for dessert.

19th century fruit seller

Fruit in Japan

Fruit is often eaten as a desert and is usually pealed and eaten with a fork. Great care is taken so the fruit look good and is well presented in supermarkets. Japanese apples can sell for as much as $5 a piece. They are often individually wrapped on the tree for protection and polished before they are sold. Aomori is famous for apples.

The “usagi ringo” (“rabbit apple”) is a piece of apple with the skin cut and pealed back to look like the ears of a rabbit. They have traditionally been fixtures of bento box lunches, and making them has traditionally been seen as sign of being a good parent and host. In a 2008 survey, 35 percent of Japanese parents in the 20s, 30s and 40s said they did not know how to make the special apples.

“ Umeboshi “”pickled plums”are eaten by many Japanese athletes who swear they give them energy and stamina. Umeboshi’s high concentrations of citric acid are said to be the secret behinds it fatigue-stopping powers. A quarter of Japan’s plums come from a single town, Minabecho, in Wakayama Prefecture. About 14,000 people live on the main hillside of the town and nearly all of the town’s 1,500 framing households raise plums or are involved in plum-producing businesses.

Pears and Bananas

Japanese pears are very good. They are round rather than pear-shaped and have a thick skin and firmer, more flavorful flesh than American pears. Pickled plums are very common in Japan. Plums have been regarded as a life-prolonging fruit for centuries.

Chiba is the largest pear growing prefecture in Japan. Pears grow bigger and tastier there than in other places where there are large temperature variations throughout the summer because the temperatures in Chiba are stabilized by its nearness to the sea. Some of biggest and tastiest Chiba pears weigh over one kilogram.

A well known maxim in Japan “Nasha-jiri, kaki-atama” (“pear bottoms, persimmon tops”) means that the bottom part of a pear is the tastiest and the top part of the persimmon is best. A pear grower told the Daily Yomiuri that first half was correct. “It’s true: pear are sweeter at the bottom,” he said, “We pack pears upside down which helps the sweet flavor sink down through the whole fruit.”

round pears
Japan gets many of its bananas from plantations in Vietnam. In early autumn of 2008 there was a banana shortage initially caused by television programs and books that claimed eating bananas helped people lose weight. When the shortage began to take hold panic buying made it worse. The shortage lasted for a couple of weeks. Shelves were empty; prices were high. Increased imports of bananas produced plentiful supplies a short time later. The boom started when a claim was made that bananas and room-temperature water lead to weight less. The claim was given a boost when a television personality tried the diet.

A vending machine offering fresh bananas installed in Shibuya near the trendy 109 fashion complex in 2010 has been well received. Selling individual bananas for ¥130 and bunches for ¥390, more than 2,500 bananas were sold the first month.

Melons and Watermelons in Japan

box-grown watermelons
Single cantaloupes sell for more than $100 in Japan. Known as melons, they have green rather than orange flesh and are carefully attended and grown in greenhouses and sold in special boxes with a ribbon around the fruit. One reason they are so expensive is that they have traditionally been given to people in hospitals, where giving something that is expensive is an expression of love.

To ensure that melons have a perfect round shape they are sometimes grown in the air hanging from strings. Upon request melons can be grown in special boxes so that they come out pyramid- or square-shaped. The square one are designed to fit in refrigerators and produced primarily around the city of Zentsuju in Kagawa prefecture. It is also possible to buy apples with a personal message grown into the skin.

The inner fruit of a melon, dated to 2,100 years ago, was found in the Shimonogo ruins in Moriyama, Shiga Prefecture. Melons are native to Africa and came to Japan via the Middle East and India,

Melons from Yubari in Hokkaido are highly-regarded and have particularly a high sugar content. In 2006, the first pair of melon sold at auction for the city were sold for $7,000. The year 2004 was a particularly good for these melons; they were larger and sweeter than usual. At one auction 98 melons were sold in less than 20 minutes for a total of almost $300,000. One pair was sold for a record at the time of $4,100.

A pair of Yuibari melons was sold for $20,000 and $25,000 receptively in 2007 and 2008. In May 2009, pair was sold for $5,000. A pair of yubari melons was sold for $16,500 at an auction in May 2010.

Most watermelons are shipped in July and August. Ideal watermelon-growing areas have big temperature differences between day and night and soil compacted by heavy winter snows, which helps the soil retain water. Watermelon processing centers have devices that check the sugar content of watermelons and determine whether or not they have a hollow center. Those with low sugar contents and hollow centers are rejected.

Watermelon production is declining somewhat because farmers are becoming older and they are having a hard time lifting the fruit which can weigh 10 kilograms or more.

Persimmons in Japan

The Japanese love persimmons (“cokis”). They are a popular autumn fruit. There are two kinds: 1) the sweet kind that are eaten straight of the tree after the skin is cut off; and 2) the sweet but slightly bitter kind that os dried. Persimmon wine and freeze-dried persimmons are also available.

Dried persimmons, known as Hachiyagaki, have traditionally been served during the tea ceremony. After they are harvested they are stored for several days and then peeled, They are peeled again when the fruit is as soft as an ear lobe. After that they are dried in the sun for 20 days. During that tume they are turned over twice a day and gently squeezed which brings a sweet, white powder to the surface. It takes great skill to dry persimmons correctly.

Persimmons are high in fiber, Vitamin A, potassium and the phytochemcials lutien and lycopen, which are said to help the body fight disease. Some kinds of persimmons are high in tannin oil, an ingredient in many medicines and cosmetics and is said to lower blood pressure and fight cancer and viruses. In Chinese medicine persimmons have traditionally been used to nourish the lungs and heart and treat diarrhea.

Persimmons are high in water-soluble dietary fiber, carotenoids and polyheneols (anti-oxidants), and flavanoids. They have a lipid-lowering affects and anti-oxidant properties when added to a high cholesterol diet. Polyphenols help fight heart disease and lower LDL (the bad cholesterol). Studies in Korea suggest they lower the risk of precancerous colon polyps in women

Persimmons trees can live up to 100 years and bear 200 kilograms of fruit a year, The cultivation of persimmon originate din China. Then spread to Korea and Japan. In the 16th century persimmons were the size of grapes and were used to make some of the first alcoholic drinks made by Europeans in the Americas.

Persimmons contain tannins, astringent substances that can be soluble or insoluble. When you eat a persimmon containing the soluble type, the tannin dissolves in your mouth and tastes tart. In contrast, sweet persimmons contain the insoluble type. Tart persimmons can be made sweet by using alcohol and carbon dioxide to turn the soluble type of tannin into the insoluble kind. [Source: Tasushi Wada, Yomiuri Shimbun, November 13,2010]

Persimmons grown on about 300 farms in Nishi-Yoshinomachi, Gojo, Nara Prefecture are said to be among the tastiest in Japan if not the world . "This area is in the mountains 200 to 300 meters above sea level. As it's blessed with plenty of sunlight and good air circulation, it's suited to growing persimmons," a persimmon farmer told Yomiuri Shimbun, Trial and error in the pursuit of growing unparalleled persimmons has led the farmer to enrich his farm's soil with fully fermented compost and minerals such as magnesium. The farm — Okada Persimmon Farm in Gojo — has more than 1,000 persimmon trees and grows about 100 tons of the fruit a year.


Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri: Yuzu is a tart, highly aromatic citrus fruit originating in China. One of the most cold-tolerant of the citruses, some botanists now believe that it may actually be a hybrid species. The fruit, usually about baseball size or a bit smaller, is more yellow than orange, though not quite as yellow as a lemon. The waxy surface is pocked with numerous bumps and indentations. The leaf is evergreen, with a distinctive petiole at the base. [Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, December 20, 2012]

Yuzu juice is a major ingredient in ponzu sauce, a dip used for various Japanese dishes such as shabu-shabu and yudofu; while the rinds are made into marmalade, or mixed into chawan-mushi pudding and suimono clear soup consomme. Dried, crush rind is sometimes added to the shichimi-togarashi "seven-ingredient" spice mix. My farmer friend always saves me a basket of yuzu fruits that are oddly shaped or have suffered some damage or blemishes that make them unsuitable for market. I plan not to eat them, but to float them in the bathwater on the winter solstice. This tradition, called yuzu-yu, celebrates the rebirth of the sun, and is also said to help prevent colds and chilblains. Some public baths and Japanese style inns may feature yuzu-yu baths on and around the solstice. Also, coffee shops and restaurants may offer a hot, throat-soothing drink called yuzu-cha, with tart yuzu rinds mixed with sweet honey, as a seasonal menu.

Tamako Sakamoto wrote in the Daily Yomiuri: To produce the special atmosphere of the New Year's table, there is a magic fruit that gives everything "the fragrance of the New Year." That is yuzu, my favorite citrus. A few weeks ago, when I received a paper bag full of this unique fruit from a neighbor who has a yuzu tree, I cooked clear soup for dinner and added a small piece of yuzu to each bowl. When I served it to my children, all of them said, "It smells like Oshogatsu [New Year's]!" [Source: Tamako Sakamoto, Daily Yomiuri, December 30, 2011]

Yuzu, a winter fruit, is too sharp to eat fresh because of its strong and penetrating aroma, but it has a variety of uses. For example, on the day of toji (winter solstice), yuzu-yu--taking a hot bath with yuzu floating in it--is customary. When I was a child, my mother made a small bag of soft cotton cloth, put plenty of yuzu in it, and put the bag in the bathtub so that we could enjoy aromatic yuzu water, which is said to be good for the skin.

On Jan 1, when we eat zoni, the final step in preparing it is to scrape off small bits of yuzu zest and place them on top of each serving of zoni in wooden bowls. The wonderful aroma, a mixture of the savory soup and the yuzu fragrance, makes everybody feel that the New Year has come. Even if you resort to store-bought osechi dishes, you can still scoop the yuzu pulp out of its rind to make a yuzugama (a yuzu cup or pot) and arrange some simple appetizers in it to give your dining table a special New Year's atmosphere. When I make osechi, which is presented in a multitiered lacquer box, I make it a rule to include a yuzu cup with ikura salmon roe or yuzu-flavored kohaku namasu (red and white marinated daikon and carrot).

During the winter, I make various yuzu desserts as well--cookies with yuzu icing, yuzu cheesecake, yuzu madeleines and so on. If you suddenly decide to visit your friends or relatives and can't think of what to bring, I recommend baking yuzu madeleines, which can be easily made in half an hour. This very simple homemade confection with yuzu fragrance is sure to please anyone and makes an apt gift for the New Year's period. And yuzu sweets aren't limited to madeleines. Simply replacing the lemon juice in your dessert recipes with double portions of freshly squeezed yuzu juice is all it takes to create your own original yuzu treat. Even store-bought plain cookies can become your own original ones with yuzu icing.

So, if you feel it is too late to prepare special dishes for the New Year, I recommend that you buy a small basket of yuzu, preferably small, golfball-sized yuzu with leaves, at a grocery store. They will give your kitchen a very special atmosphere and will definitely be enjoyed in various ways during the New Year's holidays!

Japanese Olive Oil

Yukako Fukushi wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “Early in November, bottles of freshly extracted olive oil made with olives from Shodoshima island in Kagawa Prefecture were featured in a Tokyo store specializing in goods from the prefecture. The oil smelled of fragrant young leaves and had a spicy flavor. "It's so different from what I use every day for cooking. It smells fresh and pleasant," said one customer who stopped by the shop. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, December 7, 2012]

Most of Japan's olives are produced on the island, and their harvest begins around September. Those harvested early in the season are pickled lightly. In October and November, some of the newly harvested olives are processed for olive oil nouveau.

Taeko Katsumata, a lecturer at the Tokyo-based Olive Oil Sommelier Association of Japan, said freshly extracted olive oil should be tasted by itself by dipping bread and vegetables in it. She also recommends dipping slices of sashimi into a spicy oil nouveau to take advantage the fish's sweetness. Dipping sashimi in the oil along with soy sauce, salt or a squeeze of yuzu citrus juice are additional tasty options. "Blue-backed fish goes well with a spicy olive oil. You can search for the optimum combination of sashimi and oil," Katsumata said.

Image Sources: Ray Kinnane, xorsyst blog, Japan Visitor, Visualizing Culture, MIT Education

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2013

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