The idea of doing a homestay during a study abroad program is appealing to me now that I’m past my college years. Back when I actually studied here, I was far more interested in running around Tokyo than sitting around talking with old people who probably would have lived really far from campus. I’m happy with the experience I had, but I was forced to discover a lot of things on my own. Host parents would have been the most effective way to improve my Japanese while also learning a lot about Japanese customs.
I lived in a dorm out in Edogawa-ku on the Tozai Line. The dorm provided breakfast and dinner, but I would occasionally get tired of Japanese style food every morning, so every now and then I’d buy yogurt, granola, and some fruit at the supermarket and eat in my tiny room. I remember eating bananas a lot and maybe some other fruit. I also have my first memories of mikan. I was hesitant to buy them at first, not really knowing what they were, and while I remember enjoying them, I never really understood their place in Japanese culture.
Mikan are often translated as “mandarin orange” or “tangerine,” but they’re actually the fruit called satsuma. They get that name because they were first exported to the US from Satsuma Province, which is the old name for part of Kagoshima Prefecture. Ehime, Wakayama, Nagasaki, and Shizuoka are all famous for mikan, which thrive in cold weather like other citrus fruit, but most areas in southern Japan are rife with the fruit between November and February. Along the southwestern coast of Kyushu there’s a private train line called the Hisatsu Orange Line, in part because you can see groves from the windows of the train.
They are sold in sizes ranging from SS, S, and M up through LL. I am of the opinion that mikan, when eaten, should be consumed in tremendous quantities, so I invariably buy S. The smaller ones also seem to be sweeter and tangier. For a bag of eight to ten, you should expect to pay between 200 to 600 yen depending on the quality. I err on the cheap side for the same reason I buy small. Recently I discovered that an anonymous, home-run convenience store near my apartment sells eight for 180 yen. If you’re really lucky, you can buy a 5kg box for 1000-1500 yen.
In terms of a cultural symbol, mikan are a winter comfort food and strongly associated with kotatsu, the short Japanese table equipped with a heater and a heavy quilt to keep the heat trapped underneath. In the winter, people sit on the floor with the lower half of their body tucked into the warm space under the kotatsu and snack on mikan and other winter foods like nabe, Japanese hotpot. I eat about four to five a day on average, sometimes more. I’m naturally nice and brown, but Japanese who eat too many take on a orange tint.
Mikan are Japan, but unfortunately they don’t penetrate the filter to foreign countries. (Not cute or cool enough?) They are highly underrated abroad and are therefore Volume 2 in the Underrated Japan video series. (You can see Vol. 1 here.) Enjoy: