With over 40 varieties produced domestically, the number of citrus fruits cultivated in Japan is staggering, especially when compared to the handful most of us are familiar.
There hasn't always been this immense diversity of citrus fruits, of course. Many varieties are the result of centuries of cultivation, breeding, and geographic adaptations.
Despite its size, there are a surprising range of climates found throughout the prefectures of Japan, from the snowy alps of Nagano to the tropical heat of Okinawa. As such, certain regions are renowned for their citrus production.
In Japan this area is known as thesetonaikai, the area surrounding the Seto Inland Sea. It consists of parts of Kyūshū, Shikoku, and the coasts of southwestern Honshū where the climate is perfect for citrus cultivation.
Here are some of the most popular and interesting citrus fruits in Japan.
Native to Kagoshima Prefecture in Kyūshū, mikanis without a doubt the most common citrus in Japan. Sweet, seedless, and easy to peel, it is a hybrid between a type of pomelo native to Japan and a mandarin orange, and is thought to be a cure fornatsubate, summer fatigue. Though its roots are in Kagoshima—formerly known as Satsuma which is another name for the fruit—mikanare now mostly grown in Ehime and Wakayama Prefectures.
Iyokan is the second most cultivated citrus fruit in Japan, with about 80% of production coming from Ehime Prefecture, and is slightly bigger with a thicker peel and tarter, more bitter flavor than themikan. It has a surprisingly fragrant aroma that works well in candies and treats.
Arguably the most well-known Japanese citrus fruit,yuzu look like a rougher, more dimpled cousin to the lemon. With an aromatic peel and a flavor somewhere between a grapefruit and a mandarin, tart with a hint of sweetness,yuzuare mainly used for their zest and juice. They are commonly used to flavor soft drinks, teas, snacks, cakes, pastries, and other desserts.
Originating from a type of kumquat in China,kinkanare slightly larger than an olive and closely resemble a mini orange. They can be eaten whole and have a fragrant, sweet peel, with a slightly sour tang inside.
Kabosu are closely related to yuzu and are famed for their production in Oita Prefecture. They are slightly tarter thanyuzu, with a sourness closer to that of a lemon, and are often used as an alternative to vinegar in various dishes.
Native to Japan and famous in Tokushima, sudachi is a very sour small green citrus fruit often used in place of lemons or limes in Japanese cooking. It is most famously used in the production ofponzu sauce, a tart citrus and soy sauce-based condiment often served alongsidesashimi, or can be sliced thin and added to hotpot and noodle dishes.
One of the citrus fruits cultivated outside of thesetonaikai, theshikuwasa (or shiquasa), is native to the Ryūkyū island chain, including Okinawa and Taiwan. It has a unique tart flavor like a cross between a lemon and lime and is often used as a garnish like asudachi.
While not a citrus fruit that is actually consumed because of its intense bitterness, daidaiis a symbol of longevity in Japan. This is because the curious fruit can last for several years on a tree, turning green in summer and orange in winter. Its name is a homonym for a word roughly meaning “generation after generation.”
About the author: The spark that lit Kevin Kilcoyne’s interest in Japanese culture began in elementary school through a friendship with his then classmate Keisuke. Since then, that passion has evolved and bloomed to encompass more than just video games and manga, leading Kevin to live in Japan as a participant of the JET program. During his time in Japan, Kevin sought out as many foods as he could, the experiences and taste memories lingering long after they had gone. Now he is forging a path to link his passions for Japanese food, history, and visual culture and is planning for his return to live in Japan once again. For now, you can find Kevin on Instagram (@waruishouten) where he posts his photography and illustration work. Keep an eye out for more posts and updates as Kevin delves more deeply into his passions for writing and food!