One of the highlights to any Japan travel experience is the food and summertime is no exception. Many popular dishes and seasonal produce also come with further benefits, such as giving you an energy boost for all your planned summer adventures.
Whether you are looking for a pure gourmet experience or something to cool you down in the heat, Japanese summer food will satisfy your needs!
BY Karolina Höglind
Japanese summer food is both delicious and packed with nutrients, which can be very helpful to prevent heatstroke and natsu bate—summer fatigue. Food is a big part of the Japanese culture and tradition. Washoku, literally meaning “Japanese food”, was recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2013. When traveling in Japan, exploring the flavors of the season is a big part of the experience.
From Savory to sweet, these are the quintessential dishes and desserts of the Japanese summer!
Japan is famous for its hearty ramen and other steamy noodles, but chilled noodle dishes are equally delicious and a refreshing meal for a hot summer day!
Amongst the many varieties of noodles, soumen is strongly associated with summer. Eaten in Japan since the Nara period (710 – 794), soumen is a thin noodle made from wheat flour. The basic way to serve soumen is chilled, with a katsuobushi-based dipping sauce called tsuyu. Depending on region, or even family, the standard way to serve the noodles varies. Soumen is incredibly versatile with people sharing their new and creative way to serve it every year. Since the noodles are served cold, soumen makes a great base for any cool summer meal. Just add fresh, nutritious toppings for a great dish to beat the heat.
A fun way to enjoy soumen is nagashi soumen—a meal and an experience in one. When eating Nagashi soumen, also known as flowing noodles in English, use your chopsticks to pick up noodles from cold water as they flow down a bamboo pipe. It originated in Kyushu in the 1950s but is now popular all over Japan.
Soba is a healthy noodle enjoyed in Japan all year round. It’s the most famous dish on New Year’s Eve in the form of toshikoshi soba. In the summer, however, chilled zaru soba is the way to go! Zaru soba is easily recognizable by the way it is served: on the bamboo basket from which it also has gotten its name—zaru. Made from buckwheat, soba noodles can help control your blood sugar levels and are high in vitamins.
The Hiyashi-chuuka is a cold dish made using thin noodles, usually used in yakisoba and ramen. Serve the noodles in a light broth and add ham, tomatoes, cucumber, or other toppings to your liking. Not only does the bright pop of color from the toppings make it pleasing to look at, the fresh vegetables give a refreshing vitamin boost.
A noodle-dish that has gained a lot of attention over the past years is sudachi noodles. The noodles can vary from ramen to udon and soba, but the dish’s distinctive trait is the layered topping of sudachi slides. Sudachi is a citrus fruit known to bring out the flavors in a dish, but it is also full of vitamins and antioxidants. Peak season for the sudachi is from late August to September. Kamiya-cho, a small village in Tokushima prefecture, is famous for having the biggest sudachi harvest in Japan.
Very different from the refreshing chilled noodles, but a popular summer food nevertheless, is the grilled freshwater eel ー unagi. Traditionally a winter dish, people say unagi became popular in the summer during the Edo period (mid-18th century) because a man couldn’t sell his steamy, hot unagi in the summer. He started an effective marketing scheme based on two things. Eating unagi is a good way to keep up your stamina in the heat since it is high in vitamin A and E, Omega -3, protein and calcium. Furthermore, for one of the hottest days of the year, doyo no ushi no hi, people believed that eating something starting with a “u” would prevent heat fatigue. This made unagi the perfect summer food and has been considered a typical Japanese summer food since.
The two most common ways to enjoy unagi is the unaju, a luxurious experience with grilled eel served on steamy rice in a lacquer box, and kabayaki, slowly grilled eel on skewers. Unagi is considered to be one the more luxurious foods in Japan and for the best experience you should try it at a sit-down restaurant. However, especially around the Doyo no ushi no hi, which usually falls on one or two days in late July/early August, you can usually find some more affordable unagi bentos at the supermarket.
Just as Japan has dishes typically associated with the summer season, there are sweets and desserts Japanese people long for in the heat. These are some popular chilled treats to try in the Japanese summer.
Kakigori is the go-to sweet in the summer-time. The basic idea of kakigori is incredibly simple, just shave ice into a bowl and add sweet syrup on top. Sometimes when served at restaurants, fresh fruit, sweet beans, or even ice cream is added for extra flavor and luxury. The history of kakigori dates back to the Heian period ( 794 – 1185 ) when a sweet and icy treat in the middle of the summer was the height of luxury. Modern kakigori can be traced back to the late 19th century when people started to use ice machines in Japan. You can find simple shaved ice at summer festivals for a few hundred-yen, while the more luxurious creations often served at famous restaurants and hotels can cost up to a few thousand yen.
Summer in Japan is the time for gelatinous sweets. One example is the traditional warabi-mochi, a sticky and transparent confection made from warabi (bracken) starch. To add sweetness and flavor, cover it in kinako, a sweet roasted soybean flour, and kuromitsu, a brown sugar syrup.
Yokan is a traditional gelatinous sweet which gets its texture from agarーa vegan friendly ingredient obtained from algae. Yokan is simple, made with few ingredients: red bean paste, agar, sugar, and water. Mizu-yokan is a popular summe-timer version. Compared to regular yokan, it is usually served chilled and contains a higher ratio of water. This is also how it got its name; mizu means “water” in Japanese.
For a sophisticated summer treat, try kuzukiri Originally from Kyoto, these jelly-like noodles are made from kuzu starch, which was a common ingredient in medicine because it helped to improve blood circulation and digestion. As with many other traditional sweets, enjoy your kuzukiri with kinako and kuromitsu.
A modern chilled treat is Coffee Jelly, or “edible coffee” as it was marketed as when first sold in Japan in the 1960s. The simple treat—made only using coffee, gelatin, and cream—was first introduced as a recipe in a magazine in 1914, after an increase of coffee imports to Japan. Today coffee jelly is incredibly popular and easy to find at any supermarket or convenience store. At some cafes you can even try coffee jelly incorporated into more lavish creations such as parfaits.
To fully enjoy the summer flavors of Japan try this selection of the summer produce and examples of how you can enjoy them.
Goya is a bitter melon, or bitter gourd, mainly harvested from June to August. When prepared properly, the distinctive bitterness is milder and makes the goya a delicious—and nutritious—addition to a dish. The low-calorie gourd comes with a wide range of health benefits. It contains plant-based insulin which can help maintain blood sugar levels, a high level of potassium which helps improve your blood pressure. It is also full of various antioxidants and vitamins that will give your immune system a real boost! Okinawan food frequently contains goya, and one popular Okinawan dish is goya chanpuru—a stir fry with a variety of ingredients such as goya, pork, tofu, and egg.
Myoga, Japanese ginger, is available all year round, but its peak season is in June and July. This versatile ingredient tastes and looks great as garnish in almost any dish. In addition to the mild ginger flavor, the crispy myoga has a zesty tang. In the summer, you should definitely try it fresh, but you can also find it served pickled or as tempura. Eating myoga is said to boost your appetite, but eating too much can make you forgetful!
Okra is another common ingredient during the summer months. It is packed with vitaminsC and K, as well as magnesium—perfect for combatting summer fatigue. It also contains protein. Boil the mild-flavored okra and enjoy it with katsuobushi and tsuyu, or why not as topping on a bowl of chilled noodles.
When it comes to fruit, watermelon plays a central role in the Japanese summer culture. The refreshing flavor and the high water-content makes it the perfect treat on a hot summer day. When going to the beach, it is popular to bring a watermelon. A blindfolded person tries to hit the watermelon with a baseball bat to break it open instead of cutting it. Something often perplexing to visitors is the Japanese tradition of putting salt on the melon to fully bring out its sweetness and flavor.
The muskmelon, in season from May to August, is another refreshing summer-fruit. In Japan, there are two common types of muskmelon, one with light-yellow and one with orange flesh. It is not only delicious but also low calorie and high in water-content, and high in potassium. Some even say that The sweetness of the melon can help prevent fatigue in the summer!
With their peak season in the late summer months, Japanese peaches are a popular summer fruit. Famous for being large, sweet and extremely juicy, there are plenty of peach varieties grown all over Japan. One of the most popular peaches is the Shimizu White Peach, also known as “The Queen of Peaches” from Okayama. In general, peaches are considered a luxury fruit in Japan. The more popular varieties can cost over JPY1,000 for a single fruit.
Nashi, Japanese pear, is another of Japan’s quintessential summer fruits. In season from August to October, the Japanese pear has a similar shape to the apple but has a yellow-beige color. Tokyo’s neighboring prefectures Chiba, Ibaraki, and Tochigi are the top 3 producers of nashi. The character of Funabashi city in Chiba, called Funassyi, is even based on the fruit.
A popular super-food when it comes to battle heatstroke is tsukemono, Japanese pickles. Often eaten at the end of a meal to help digestion all year round, the high sodium contents of the tsukemono can also have great effects to prevent heatstroke. A staple tsukemono in the Japanese summer is umeboshi, a kind of pickled plum. The sour umeboshi is often served with rice or as an accent flavor in dishes but can also be enjoyed by itself.
A big part of Japanese snacks culture is the limited editions based on local or seasonal flavors. While the local editions make for a great souvenir, the seasonal varieties are a fun way to try new flavors and find new favorites. The only negative side being if you do find something you love, you will have to wait another year before you can get your hands on it again.
The sour umeboshi and hot wasabi are popular flavors for salty snacks between June and mid-September. For a more refreshing snack try Setouchi lemon or Yuzu. The two citrus fruits grow in winter but are common flavors for both sweet and savory snacks in summer. Recent years have also seen a rise in the very divisive flavor combination chocolate mint. Many Japanese strongly associate the flavor with toothpaste, making it difficult to sell chocolate mint products. However, the flavor has found a spot in the yearly flavor rotations from May to August, and the varieties of chocolate mint-flavored snacks increase each year.
No matter what Japanese summer food you eat, it is likely to be both delicious and, in some way, helpful in protecting you from heatstroke. The most important thing is to enjoy the flavors and not be afraid of trying new things. Widen your taste bud horizons with Japanese summer food!
Sweden born and bred Tokyoite. She started her journey to Japan as many others, through watching Sailor Moon on TV from a young age. Now her interest stretches out to culture, food and social issues. While studying at a Japanese university, she worked as an editor for a Tokyo-based culture magazine and as a radio host. She now spends her time as an office worker by day and Tokyo explorer by night.