By Avi Landau
For a deeper understanding of Japanese culture, as well as a way of making your life in Japan more enjoyable, you should always be aware of the succession of KISETSU NO MONO (季節の物, things representative of the season), and always try to find out what fruits, vegetables and fish are SHUN (旬), or AT THEIR BEST.
As you have probably heard before, to be Japanese is to be sensitive to the continual flux of the seasons, and this is reflected in eating habits, dress, poetry, letterwriting, etc. Do not imagine that, in MODERN Japan, it is only at expensive restaurants and traditional tea ceremony parties where such season-consciousness lives on. A visit to any Japanese supermarket, bakery (!) or convenience store (conbini) also reveals how strong the traditional awareness still is with many of the goods on display being or containing KISETSU NO MONO and much of the produce being SHUN. This is in recognition of the fact that to this day many Japanese celebrate or acknowledge the time of year by eating in-season foods, decorating their homes with seasonal decorations, or doing season-linked activities.
As a foreign visitor you would want to use the word SHUN while at a sushi shop. ( the U here is proumounced as the OU is in the words SHOULD or COULD)
Ima wa nani ga shun desu ka?
What fish is in season?
Or at a Japanese sweet shop (wagashiya) you might want to ask for a KISETSU NO MONO — ima no kisetsu no mono wa nan desu ka? — since shun only refers to produce and not processed foods.
It is summer now in Japan so there is an abundance of things which are SHUN at the supermarket. Familiar to westerners are potatoes, cherries, watermelons, eggplants, tomatoes, corn, cucumbers, etc.
In addition to these, there are now (in the middle of June) certain items which are SHUN which foreigners might not be familiar with and which for the Japanese are IMPORTANT symbols of the season. I will mention three of them here — ao ume (青梅, green plum), loquats (枇杷, biwa), and goya (bitter gourd).
Ao ume (pronounced something like awoome), is a powerful symbol of the season and if you don’t hurry to the supermarket you might not be able to find them as they are quickly snapped up by housewives bent on making a batch of sweet plum liquor (梅酒, ume shu), plum juice or the ubiquitous UME BOSHI (梅干し, salted plums).
These green plums, which are slightly smaller than ping-pong balls, are SO representative of the season that the character for plum (梅) is used for writing the word tsuyu (梅雨), Japan’s June rainy-season.
If you visit a Japanese family’s house this week you will very likely find a box of ao ume waiting to be salted or made into liquor. The plums have to be used before they ripen and turn yellow. You might be confused by the use of the character ao (青） which you have surely learnt means BLUE. In this case ao ume can best be translated as YOUNG UME, or UNDER-RIPE UME. Another baffling use of the word ao is in ao shingo, meaning green light. I guess in this case the ao is referring to the color of the plums!! Speaking of Shingo, the proprietor of the pub Gold Rush ( near Doho Park in Tsukuba) always has some interesting ume shu on hand with Zuisen from Okinawa being the most interesting, being made from awamori and Okinawan brown sugar
Another fruit in season not very familiar to foreigners (sorry for being so Euro-Ameri-centric, as I realize that this might not be true for many non-western foreigners in Tsukuba), is the loquat, which is called biwa in Japanese, as its shape is suggestive of the biwa, or lute. Though most Japanese friends of mine say that they don’t really like biwa THAT much, they still usually buy a box every year to celebrate the season. If you want to try them be careful of the pits, as they will fill your mouth up more than the meat of the fruit! The number one loquat production areas in Japan are Nagasaki Prefecture and Boso Peninsula in Chiba, our neighbor to the south. Many Ibarakians also have them growing in their gardens. Mayumi Kamiyama, a friend of mine who grew up in Hojo (part of Tsukuba), told me an interesting story. She said that she has always heard that if you planted a loquat tree in your garden you would end up poor.
The reason for this is the generosity of Ibaraki farmers (a proud prefectural trait) who insist on giving away their vegetables. Since the leaves of the biwa tree are known for their medicinal powers (good for colds, sore throats, etc.) sick people would come far distances to get some leaves from your tree. Naturally you couldn’t let such a visitor from afar go away empty handed. You would have to supply them with plenty of omiyage (gifts) for the road. A procession of such guests would surely bankrupt any kind-hearted farmer!
Boxes of biwa are selling for about 300 yen at local stores, but you can pick up luxury boxes, much juicier-looking specimens usually purchased as an expensive summer gift, at Seibu Department Store for 3000 yen.
One more SHUN product currently available at stores around town is a newcomer. The goya, or bitter gourd is a popular vegetable in Okinawa. One reason it has gained popularity in the main Islands is that Okinawa has the highest life-expectancy in Japan (and in the world?) and the gourd, being a major part of the islanders diet has led to increased interest in its health-giving qualities. It is quite bitter and thus disliked by many, but perseverance will lead to an acquirement of its unique taste. There are many ways to prepare it, including the Okinawan way, in champuru or as chips and fritters.
Since Ibaraki is famous for its melons, you might want to pick one up too, as it is very SHUN at the moment.
Something else that has caught my eye this ye at convenience stores are the advertisements for a type of cherry called SATO-NISHIKI ( 佐藤錦). This very tasty ( sweet and sour) and beautiful variety was apparently developed by a Mr. Sato in Yamagata Prefecture in North-Eastern Japan from where they can now be ordered for about 4000 Yen per 600 grams!. And though imported ( and reasonably priced) cherries can be found at any supermarket it seems that there are still those who prefer fruit that is GROWN IN JAPAN no matter what the price. ( I have once tasted Sato Nishiki cherries I had recieved as a gift from Yamagata and found them delightful. Still, I would never fork out the forty bucks for a small box of them on my own.
As I said you can find plenty of alluring cherries at your local supermarket.
Enjoy your food shopping-and remember — always stay in tune with the season!
And for those interested, I have written a song inspired by the Japanese summer. Its called Mio Mine, and was recorded by The TenGooz. Have a listen here: