Guide to Seasonal Japanese Foods and Ingredients

by Dallas Ernst

Seasonality, or the use of fresh, seasonal ingredients, is very important in Japanese cuisine and culture. Shun is a Japanese word referring to seasonal ingredients as well as the time of year when a certain food is at its freshest and most flavorful. By following harvest times, produce is utilized when it’s at its peak.

Shun ingredients are used for kaiseki, or kaiseki-ryōri, a traditional, multi-course meal served in Japan. Originally enjoyed only by the noble classes, kaiseki first consisted of foods like meshi (cooked/steamed rice) and shiru (soup). These were meant to warm the stomach before saké and sashimi were served.

A picture of kaiseki, a traditional meal in Japan

Today, kaiseki is a bit more complex, but seasonality is still an important aspect. Modern kaiseki is artfully prepared and presented; dishes are not only visually appealing, but the tastes and textures are also perfectly balanced. To create such amazing food, only shun ingredients are used.

Shun ingredients change with Japan’s four distinct seasons, and people celebrate these seasons with their food. Here’s a guide to Japan’s different shun foods by season.

Ichigo Daifuku, mochi filled with strawberry and red bean paste

Japanese Spring Foods

Celebrating hanami, the springtime tradition of cherry blossom (sakura) viewing, with seasonal food is popular in Japan. Some people bring their own meals in bento boxes, though foods are also often for sale during sakura festivals.

In Japan, spring is when vegetables like snow peas (saya endou), eggplant (nasu), and turnips (kabu) are in season. Many other shun foods come from the ocean. The freshest Japanese seafood includes clams like asari and hamaguri as well as fish like baby sardines (shirasu), cuttlefish (koika), herring (nishin), and rockfish (mebaru). Clear broth soups with clams, mussels, and sardines are popular dishes during spring months.

Strawberry (ichigo) and sakura-themed sweets are also popular in Japan during the spring—though these flavors can be used in savory applications too. One seasonal treat is a strawberry rice cake called ichigo daifuku, which are fresh strawberries coated in a sweet red bean paste and then a chewy mochi outside.

eel being broiled

Japanese Summer Foods

In Japan, summer is a time for matsuri (festivals). At these festivals, yatai or stalls sell food to festival-goers, and cold/chilled foods are popular for helping people beat the heat. Shaved ice and slices of fresh watermelon (suika) are tasty summertime snacks.

Other fresh, juicy fruits like peaches (momo), cherries (sakuranbo), citrus (yuzu, mikan, etc. ), and grapes are also popular and in season during the summer. Seafood like unagi (eel) and uni (sea urchin) are also seasonal, while cucumbers (kyuri) and edamame are shun vegetables. Grilled unagi and cold noodle dishes with seasonal vegetables are popular summer dishes in Japan.

white dango served with sake

Japanese Fall Foods

Koyo or “colorful leaves” are one of many things enjoyed in Japan during the fall. Again, people often bring bento boxes of food when going out to view autumn foliage, but seasonal foods are also available during special occasions, like moon viewing festivals, where rice cakes are the food of choice.

A variety of fruits and vegetables are in season during the fall, like chestnuts (kuri), figs (ichijiku), and pears (nashi), as well as sweet potatoes (satsumaimo), mushrooms (matsutake is a seasonal favorite), and kabocha, a kind of winter squash/Japanese pumpkin. Fresh autumn seafood includes salmon (sake), salmon roe (iruka), and octopus (tako).

Popular Japanese dishes served during the fall are candied sweet potatoes, chestnut rice (kuri gohan), and matsutake chawanmushi, a savory egg custard and mushroom dish known for its unique taste and smell.

a pot of Japanese hot pot filled with mushroom, meat, tofu and vegetables

Japanese Winter Foods

Nabe or “hot pot dishes” are popular in Japan during the winter, because they help people stay warm. Nabe can come in the form of soups or stews and can feature a variety of proteins and a mix of seasonal vegetables.

A wide array of Japanese seafood is in season during the winter, including yellowtail (hamachi), sweet shrimp (amaebi), tuna (tsuna), and oysters (kaki). In winter, hardy vegetables like radishes (daikon), cabbage (kyabetsu), and lotus root (renkon) are in season, while fruits like apples (ringo) and strawberries (ichigo) are ripe for the picking this time of year.

Strawberries are an essential shun ingredient for Japanese Christmas Cake (kurisumasu keki), which is essentially a strawberry shortcake/angel food cake hybrid and a holiday must-have.

Seasonality is important to Japanese culture and cuisine. Each of Japan’s seasons presents its own shun ingredients that are used in both traditional and original culinary creations. Thanks to the country’s attention to harvest times, Japanese food is fresh, flavorful, and delicious throughout the year.

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