Winter in Tokyo averages between 2 and 10 degrees Celsius. You've been out and about, enjoying the crisp air or taking refuge in a museum. But it's time for lunch or dinner, and you're hungry. Don't stand out in the cold and wonder what to eat; read on for a list of seasonal Japanese foods that will warm you up.
Need a more comprehensive introduction to winter in Japan? Check out our seasonal guide.
Winter's most representative ingredient is undoubtedly kani (crab). The year's first crab and highest-earning specimen (the crab highest valued for the season) are celebrated on national news. Hokkaido has excellent crab, but it's the Hokuriku region that boasts the most delicious varieties, including barrel crab and snow crab.
In fact, the region's prefectures host annual PR campaigns inviting people from around the country to visit. The city of Echizen in Fukui Prefecture hosts a kani matsuri every winter, where visitors can eat crab and other fresh catch. Kanazawa's Omicho Market is flush with people trying to grab a great set of legs for the holidays. Crab-filled street food like croquettes is also a must-try. In addition to crab, you'll likely see ikura (salmon eggs), another seasonal delight, hotate (scallops) and kaki (oysters).
2. Buri (Amberjack)
Buri, the fattier, more mature cut of amberjack, is one of the season's most delicious fish. Enjoyed as shabu-shabu, the fish's fat melts away, leaving behind supple, sweet white meat. As sashimi or sushi, the rich meat coats the tongue. Leaner cuts of buri are usually stewed.
Like a crab, Buri is one of the most fished products in Toyama Bay, and the Western coast of Japan has especially delicious cuts.
3. Fugu (Pufferfish)
Famous worldwide (in no small part thanks to its harrowing reputation), fugu is a winter staple in Japan. Poets have waxed, well, poetic, about its dauphinoise meat, light-as-air texture and faint sweetness. Fugu is also tasty fish for karaage or swish in shabu-shabu broth. Osaka's Dotonbori Street was once home to a giant fugu lantern, and while the lantern is no more, it's still a great place to try this Japanese classic.
4. Root Vegetables (Daikon, Lotus Root, Turnip & Gobo)
Root vegetables are all the rage in winter. In Japan, daikon (often used in oden and served with raw fish for its antioxidant properties), lotus roots, turnips and gobo (burdock) are winter stapes. You'll find these vegetables in soups and stews (including oden) or pickled.
Kabocha, a Japanese variety of winter squash, are sometimes labeled as "pumpkins," but the flavor of kabocha is quite different. It's milder and more savory than a North American pumpkin. In the winter especially, you'll find kabocha prepared in all sorts of ways, including fired, frilled, or simmered. In some places, you'll even find desserts made with kabocha.
Yuzu is unique to Japan. You can find it in everything from desserts to bathwater during winter. This citrus's flavor is bitter and less sour than a standard lemon, with floral notes and a particular quality found in no other member of the citrus family. In the winter, hot yuzu drinks are available at convenience stores and are a great way to warm up, while yuzu kosho pepper seasoning can add bright heat to your favorite soup dishes, like nabe and ramen.
Nabe covers all hot pot-style foods. A prevalent Japanese winter food, it's the perfect season to whip out the nabe pot and eat together around the kotatsu (heated table). A few nabe dishes make excellent winter lunches or dinners, but the most popular are shabu-shabu and motsunabe. No matter what nabe you opt for, the longer your nabe cooks, the more intensely the soup flavors develop.
A hot bowl of ramen will undoubtedly fill and warm you up at the same time. Wheat noodles, meat and vegetables come together in a hearty broth. It's the perfect meal for colder weather. Basic broths, such as miso or tonkotsu, are always a safe bet; usually, you can add some condiments like garlic and pepper to spice it up even further.
Hokkaido ramen becomes especially popular during the colder months. Asahikawa ramen is the most famous, featuring the acidic tang of pickled plum to cut through the oil. Sapporo's renowned ramen features corn and a pat of butter to boot.
While you can eat oden in the fall, the comforting Japanese stew is more strongly associated with winter. Like nabe, oden is a soup-based traditional Japanese food. Instead of being enjoyed by adding ingredients to the hot broth, yakitori-style skewers are simmered in a light dashi stock flavored with soy sauce or regional ingredients. Different areas of Japan will have their own spin on oden. Kanazawa's light broth is known for having little sweetness, while in Tokyo, oden tends to be quite soy sauce-forward.
Finally, grab some mochi, more specifically, yakimochi. In the winter, pounded rice cakes are grilled over a charcoal fire, puffing as they warm and developing a crunchy outer texture but still have a familiar chewiness inside. Yakimochi is easy to find at matsuri, but you can make them in the microwave or over a grill at home.