Mikan is a variety of mandarin orange that is grown and quite popular in Japan, but originated in China. It's very popular in the winter and is used as part of a traditional decoration (kagami mochi), topping two balls of mochi (rice cake). Around this time of year, they are cheap and available everywhere. I'm pretty sure that most people don't actually have to buy them as they seem to be given away in great quantity. The particular mikan I'm going to write about today were given to me as part of a "first meeting of the new year" gift.
Very few snacks are more common in Japan in winter than mikan. Japanese folks have been known to just sit around the kotatsu (a low heated table) and eat whole bags of them. They're small and relatively mild for a citrus fruit. They're smaller and less fragrant than oranges and less acidic. Usually, they're a little sweet, but there are variations in both juice content and sweetness levels.
Three mikan for size comparison. The biggest one is average in size. The tiny one is about the size of a crab apple or 1.5 strawberries.
The area of Japan most famous for mikan growing is Wakayama and the mikan I was given are from that area. I was actually given two types. Some of them are somewhat smaller than average and the others are absolutely tiny. The tiny ones are the special ones. They were supposedly grown on an 8,000 year old tree in Wakayama or from one of the trees that sprouted from its fallen branches.
How does the fruit of an 8,000 year-old tree taste compared to that of those of a lesser pedigree? It tastes pretty darn good. Of the three mikan above, the tiny one has the least pith and is the sweetest. The largest one has the most pith, is slightly sour, and is the least juicy. (It was not among the fruit I was given as a gift, but part of a bag I bought at a 99 yen shop for comparison.)
The Japanese tend to make a big deal out of the origin of produce or various dishes and how certain foods are a specialty of one area or company or another. I always think that's a bit silly, but I must say that these are very nice little pieces of fruit. I don't know what they cost if you have to buy them, but I'm told you can only buy them at Sembikiya fruit shop in Ginza if you're shopping for them in Tokyo. I'm betting they're not cheap.