I can't think of another fruit that can evoke such memories of life in Japan as the mikan does. Mikan has recently showed up in the United States as "cuties" and Satsuma oranges but none are exactly a real mikan.
Mikans are the perfect fruit, really: small, compact, easy to peel, no seeds, no mess and deliciously sweet and juicy. Mikans can be eaten with or after any meal, on a train, packed in a lunch for school or picked straight from the tree. A small child might eat one mikan whereas I have seen teenagers go through 10 or 15 at a sitting. In fact, a high school friend ate so many mikans that her palms turned orange!
In Japan, mikan gari ( mikan picking) season is in the fall. Every year around November, our little Oshika church members would pack a picnic, pile in the few little Japanese cars owned by members including my dad’s light blue Opel Cadette(well, they weren’t all Japanese cars I guess), and head for the hills. Shizuoka is a city surrounded by hills and mountains and many of them are covered with tea fields and citrus orchards. Once up in the hills, a picnic would be laid out and the picking would begin. I don’t remember picking many mikans to bring home. The joy of the mikan-gari was the camaraderie of being in the beautiful outdoors, often with a stunning view of the ocean, sharing, laughing, and just enjoying a peaceful time.
The mikan-gari that I remember most vividly took place on Nov. 22, 1963. All these years later, I found out talking to my mother yesterday (1/29/2012), that she was not along with us on that particular occasion. Apparently, she stayed home to sew Barbie doll clothes for Christmas presents for my sister and I. So, off went our family sans mom up into the hills with the Oshika members to enjoy the beauty of the day. When we returned to church, I remember a somber looking group of folks standing in front of the church. I remember people crying and such a sadness. I was 7 years old and knew something terrible had happened but I don’t think I really understood what it meant: Kennedy has been assassinated. The sadness of mikans.
The joy of mikans came at New Year’s when we would sit around playing typical Japanese New Year’s games. There were always mikans on the table. We would stack them, juggle them, and eat them. Unlike candies or cakes or cookies, no one would ever tell you to stop eating them!
Debbie’s beautiful etegami reminds me of another aspect of mikans: sharing. Especially on a train, sitting across from strangers but sometimes becoming quite familiar by the end of the trip. No other food is so easy to share as a mikan. No worries about your germs being on the actual fruit. Peel and eat.
All of the sudden, I am craving a mikan. Ah, well. A Satsuma orange from my Houston yard will have to suffice.
Etegami used by permission of Debbie Davidson. For her story of mikans and to see more of her work, go to: http://etegamibydosankodebbie.blogspot.com/