"Nande Mikan?": Seasonal Eating in Japan


In the US, seasonal eating isn't necessarily something that's really thought about. Aside from pumpkin spice lattes and hipster "locavore" restaurants that pop up along the coasts, most people don't really give a second thought to what's in season and what isn't when making food choices. And the truth is, practically speaking, there's no real need to. With food imported from other climates all year round, there's never really a time when something you want is unavailable. While prices may fluctuate, they aren't so different as to deter you from buying something you want to cook with. Plus, with processed foods, you don't even get that price change. 

Growing up in Hawaii, for most of my life, I was particularly unaware of when foods were and weren't in season (other than the tropical fruits that grow on the island -- it's hard to ignore the fact that you don't eat lychee, mango, or avocado all year until summer rolls around and then you have so much that you don't know what to do with all of it). Hawaii's climate isn't suited for growing things like apples or berries or broccoli, and so all of it is imported, even further obfuscating their origins.

The other day, I heard an exchange between some of my students. Two girls were commenting on one of the dishes that came with their school lunch.

"Why is this mikan flavored?" (Mikan are a type of citrus ubiquitous with winter)

"Because it's Winter?"

"But isn't it basically Spring already?"

And while this alone is innocuous -- I suppose it might be akin to someone in the US wondering why they were eating something pumpkin pie flavored during December -- it got me thinking about the ways that seasonality is thought of here, especially when it comes to food and food choices.

I've found that everyday life in Japan is much more closely tied to the seasons than in the US. The equinoxes and solstices are national holidays, many restaurants (national chains and mom-and-pops alike) have rotating seasonal menus, and school terms are split neatly along seasonal lines.

But nowhere is it more apparent than in the supermarkets. Currently, as March progresses and we're entering into Spring, even my middle-of-nowhere, countryside grocery store's produce section is stacked with strawberries from a number of different prefectures. And nevermind things being more or less expensive -- depending on the season, some products appear and disappear from the shelves completely. 

I don't necessarily want to say that one way of thinking about food is better than the other. While eating seasonally and locally may provide more tasty and nutritious food, it's also significantly more expensive. People who visit Japan might tell you that the food here is cheap compared to back in the US, and that's true for eating out, but when you're at the grocery store trying to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, the opposite tends to be the case. Reluctance to import, especially when less than 4% of the total population works in the agricultural sector (as of 2014) means that what little that is produced domestically is costly, especially considering Japan's population density and farmland availability.