Autumn is known as the “season of healthy appetites” in Japan. It is the time of the harvest, and many ingredients are in season.
Satsuma-imo, or sweet potatoes, make their appearance in autumn. Similar to yams, the outside skin is purplish in color and the inside is more yellow than orange. Used in tempura or candied as a dessert, they are often eaten steamed, boiled or baked. They can be purchased from the store or the yaki-imo (baked sweet potato) man, who drives his truck around residential neighborhoods while making his presence known through a taped salespitch he broadcasts that can be heard several streets away.
Kuri, or chestnuts, can be roasted, peeled and eaten as is for a snack or dessert. They can also be boiled or cooked in rice to make kuri gohan (rice with chestnuts), a popular autumn dish.
Sanma, literally “Autumn sword fish,” and which is known in the U.S. as Pacific saury or mackerel pike, can be found in abundance off the coast of Japan in autumn. Grilled sanma is lightly seasoned with a pinch of salt and then served in the skin with soy sauce and grated daikon radish on the side.
Matsutake mushroom, known for its unique aroma, is often eaten in a dish called dobin mushi, which consists of a clear dashi broth, egetables, small shrimp, and other additions. Dobin mushi is traditionally prepared in a teapot, with the broth poured out into a small dish and the rest eaten from the pot with chopsticks.
Ginnan, or ginkgo nuts, are often eaten as an appetizer and accompaniment to beer or Japanese sake. They are also found in chawanmushi, or egg custard, a popular side dish to the main course of an autumn or winter meal.
Kaki, or persimmon, has a brown-orange color that symbolizes autumn. The somewhat hard peeled fruit is eaten as a snack or after-meal dessert.
Rice, Japan’s staple food, also has a seasonal component, because it is autumn when the first of the rice crop is harvested. Called “new rice,” it is softer, whiter and shinier than rice harvested more than a year earlier.
The autumn influence is not restricted to food. Brewers, like Sapporo, introduce special versions of their beers, giving them names like “Colors of Japan” or “Good Fortune of Autumn.”
With all that abundance, it is understandable why autumn is called “the season to eat.”
Shikuwasa, sometimes called a Taiwan tangerine or flat lemon, is a small, green citrus fruit whose sour taste is used to garnish dishes like sashimi and fried foods. It is also used to make jam or juice.
Handama is a distinctly Okinawan leafy vegetable that can be deep fried, stir-fried, or included in a salad.
Urizun mame (winged bean) is a square-shaped bean that must be cooked before being used in dishes like miso soup, salad, or in stir-fries.
Umi budo (sea grape) is a local specialty used in seafood dishes such as sashimi or atop rice.
Atemoya is sometimes called forest ice cream for its sweet creamy fruit.
Shima togarashi is a local hot pepper.
Taman is a fish that grows as large as 30 inches and is often made into tempura.
Kihada maguro is a type of tuna often cut into raw slices and served on rice.
– Stripes Okinawa
Inekari (rice harvesting)
It’s no surprise that in Japan – where more than 8.5 million tons of rice was produced in 2012, alone – much ado is made about harvesting this prized staple food. Its cultivation was once even considered sacred, involving invocations of an “inadama,” or rice spirit. When the grains began maturing in the fall, for example, green sheaves were offered to this deity whose generosity was celebrated at season’s end.
A reflection of this practice can still be found in some traditional performing arts today; and “Inekari,” or rice harvesting, remains a traditional event in farming regions where harvest festivals are held annually. A few farms even allow visitors to join the time-honored tradition of harvesting rice.
Rice harvesting can be done manually with sickles, mechanically with a harvester or by using a combination of both. Regardless of the method, a number of guidelines are followed to preserve quality.
“We need to harvest rice at the right time with the right moisture content,” explains Shigeru Oyama, a rice farmer in Ibaraki Prefecture. “After threshing, we have to clean and dry the grain immediately.”
While most rice is harvested between September and October throughout Japan, Okinawa’s warm temperatures afford two harvests a year.
“In addition to harvesting 2,140 tons of rice from late May to early September,” says Okinawa Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Division’s Seikou Gima, “we also harvested a second, 318-ton crop between late October (2012) and early February.”
Ishigaki Island is famed for its rice. It produces about 1,300 tons of annually – about 60 percent of all the rice grown in Okinawa Prefecture – due to its fertile soil and temperate climate which allow some fields to produce three crops annually. In the true spirit Japanese rice cultivation, Ishigki is also famed for its many “hounensai,” or harvest, festivals that occur island-wide – especially from late July to early September.
Tsukimi (moon viewing)
Tsukimi is a long-held custom observed on the 15th night of eighth month (“jugo-ya”) and the 13th night of the ninth month (“jusan-ya”) of Japan’s old lunar calendar. This year, the dates fall on Sept. 27 and Oct. 25, respectively. On these evenings, many take in the splendor of the Harvest Moon (and the less-famous “Hunters’ Moon” in October) in all its awesome, orangish glory from their homes or yards.
Traditionally, tsukimi ranks with “yukimi” (snow viewing) and “hanami” (cherry-blossom viewing)” as one of the three most favored settings for declarations of love and poetic outpourings of the soul.
This is also considered a time to wish for a rich harvest and prosperity for the coming year. It’s customary to set out “tsukimi dango,” or moon-viewing dumplings, taro, soybeans, chestnuts, persimmons and other round-shaped seasonal foods, along with sake and sprigs of “susuki” grass on a portable table. The table is placed on a porch or in a corridor from which the moon is viewed.
There are a number of other customs that may be observed depending on where you are. As a kind of pre-harvest-fest activity, for example, the sprigs of susuki grass represent rice and are sometimes hung from the eaves of a home to ward off illness after an evening of moon viewing.
One old custom, slightly reminiscent of trick or treating in the States, encourages children to go around the neighborhood “stealing” the dumplings and other offerings on the tables. The stolen offerings are considered to have been accepted by the moon, thus the more stolen, the better.
In Okinawa, the light of the Harvest Moon was once used to divine households’ fortunes for the coming year in some areas. Locals would make rice cakes with sweet beans called “fuchagi,” offer them to the moon, then climb a nearby hill to survey their village by moonlight. It was said that residents of homes that appeared dark would be prosperous, while those whose houses appeared bright would be less fortunate.
Rice Paddy Art
See amazing rice paddy art in Aomori Prefecture through Oct. 12, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. A giant display is created with rice plants at Inakadate Village Hall (6th floor) and Michi-no Eki Inakadate, a 60-minute drive from Aomori City. This year’s theme is Star Wars. The cost is 200 yen adults, 100 yen elementary school students. For details, call 0172-58-2111.
Niinamesai Harvest Ceremony
To give thanks for the harvest, Nov. 23 vegetables and fruit are piled in the shape of boats at Tokyo’s Meji Jingo Shrine, and a Shinto ceremony and the sacred dance, Yoyogi-no-Mai, are performed. 1-1 Yoyogi-Kamizono-cho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; near Sangubashi, Kitasando, Meiji Jingu Mae and Yoyogi train and subway stations. www.meijijingu.or.jp
Okinawan Tug-of-war Festivals
In Okinawa, tug-of-wars are a traditional a way to pray for a good harvest and health. The events include traditional Ryukyu attire, Eisa dances and processions. The public often is encourage to join the tug-of-war. One of the biggest is the Naha Tug-of-war on Oct. 11.
Okinawa Soba Day
Okinawa-style soba noodles, which are made from wheat flour rather than buckwheat flour, were not recognized as soba by Japan’s soba association. On Oct. 17, 1978, they were finally granted official recognition. Look for events and specials commemorating the occasion.
Autumn is the season for picking “mikan,” or mandarin oranges. You can pick mikan at Motobu Village in northern Okinawa. At Mikan no Sato Izumi (Mikan Orange Town), on Route 84.