As you travel around Japan, you will find that many cities and towns have souvenir shops for the traveler looking to buy something to bring home to remind them of their time spent away from home. Most of the time, these souvenirs are gifts, and believe me when I say that these souvenirs are beyond the level of, “My neighbor went to ____, and all I got was this stupid T-shirt!”
Oh, no, the Japanese are much more thoughtful than that, and it shows in their gift shops. Often, food products are the favorites to go for when purchasing souvenirs for family and friends, and there’s always a theme: what is that city or town most famous for, or what are they the most proud of?
In Hagi, a city in the Yamaguchi prefecture, there are two food products boasted about in their souvenir shops: the natsumikan and the blowfish. Hagi is also famous for their pottery, which is something you can also find touted about in their shops, but for today, let’s focus on the natsumikan, or, literally, the summer tangerine.
What’s so special about the natsumikan, you might ask. Isn’t is just like any other orange or tangerine out there? Well, yes and no. It grows on trees, and you can often find these in backyards. They are citrus, and they do have a flavor that makes it distinctly orange, but there is something particularly different. There’s a slight grapefruit taste to it as well as lemon, and it is more sour than the average orange. Yet, it can be a sweet type of sour or a bitter type of sour.
In Hagi, true to Japanese nature, you can buy all manners of snacks and drink based off the natsumikan. I stayed at a hotel that served us samples of a natsumikan gaufrette, which was my first taste of the fruit and left me wanting for more. At the buffet, we had a small natsumikan cake, and it was beyond exquisite.
Typical souvenir snack boxes look something like this:
It’s marked with the name of the prefecture, in this case, which is Yamaguchi, and the name of the city, and what lies inside. This is the box for a natsumikan cake. Many souvenir boxes are wrapped with fancy packaging like this not only because they want to sell it to you, but so that you will be happy to gift this to your neighbor, family member, or friend.
The quality of the packaging does not degrade when you open the box, either. Each individual cake is wrapped beautifully with special, colored rice paper, and the food is not a “My friend went to Hagi and all I got were these crappy cakes!” quality either. Please, the Japanese are very particular about quality, and especially when it comes to souvenirs that are meant to leave the city as edible representatives. These cakes give you the right amount of natsumikan flavor to invite you back to Hagi for more. Inside are pieces of the natsumikan fruit, ripened just right that you don’t suffer a taste too bitter or sour or sweet. The cake itself is made with the natsumikan flavor, and so you are treated to Hagi’s pride from the other side of the globe.
I brought my friends in America a different treat from Hagi, however: natsumikan mochi.
Once again, these gift boxes make sure to give you the best quality they can provide: these mochi are, obviously, natsumikan flavored, but without the fruit itself inside. Still, they were a big hit with my American friends and they were devoured quickly.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the natsumikan fruit itself, you do have to be careful as it takes some patience and perfect timing to get it to a flavor that is to your tastes. Sometimes it can come off as extremely bitter, or too sour, but if you do it just right, it’ll be a wonderful treat. If, however, something like that is beyond your capabilities (and believe me, it’s beyond mine as I do not have a green thumb), make a trip to Hagi and buy some of these natsumikan snacks for yourself. You’ll have the best possible experience with this fruit if you do!
And, remember, should you travel anywhere in Japan, make a stop in a gift shop to see what the locals have to show off. What they have in abundance is what they’re famous for, and it’s worth buying them to get the full experience of the city or town or village to share with family and friends.