Beautiful weather is right around the corner, and with it comes all the Japanese spring foods you’ve been waiting for. From fish to fish-shaped cakes and plenty more in between, there are lots of delicious things to try.

When the cherry blossoms begin blooming, it’s time to say goodbye to the bitter cold of winter. While spring is always a great season for fresh produce, there are some specific foods that take Japanese restaurants, kitchens, and picnic blankets by storm. Whether you’re enjoying snacks and drinks under the trees, cooking at home, or checking out the specials board at your local restaurant, here’s what to look out for.

1. Plum-flavored food and drinks

Plum blossoms are the first sign of spring in Japan and you’ll see plum-flavored treats everywhere. Although some are available throughout the year, like umeboshi (pickled plums) or umeshu (plum wine), in spring there are chips flavored with pickled plum, seasonal boozy chūhai, and much more.

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The plum treats are not to everyone’s taste, but can be fun to have at picnics and pass around, as they are often very sour. Also, umeboshi are considered a great hangover cure, along with a banana and a bottle of Pocari Sweat — so keep that in mind if you think your hanami party might get out of hand.

Japanese plums
Japanese plums. | Photo by

During spring, you’ll also find fresh plum products around. Think jams, syrups, and dried plums, amongst others. If you want to make your own umeshu, you need about 1kg plums, 500g-1kg sugar, and 1.8 – 2 litres of shochu. Stick it all in a large airtight bottle, leave it in a dark place for a minimum of three but preferably more than six months, and enjoy!

2. Sakura mochi (cherry blossom rice cakes)

There have to be some cherry blossoms involved in this list, and while there are plenty of sakura lattes to go around, there are some more traditional options too. Although available throughout the year, sakura mochi are a special treat to be eaten for Hinamatsuri (Girls’ Day) on March 3, and often appear at cherry blossom viewing picnics too.

Japanese sakura mochi dessert for spring. | Photo by

A type of wagashi, this traditional Japanese sweet is made of pink-colored mochi stuffed with red-bean paste and wrapped in a pickled sakura leaf. You’ll have no trouble finding them at festival stalls, local shops, and convenience stores.

3. Tai (sea bream)

The inspiration for the delicious treat called taiyaki (a sweet fish-shaped cake filled with red-bean paste), tai is sea bream that spawns in May. That means they are at their heaviest and fattiest in spring, so you’ll see them popping up at your fish stalls and on the nearest sushi conveyor belts.

sea bream
Tai. | Photo by

Aside from being delicious, tai has an auspicious role at this time of year as well. The name tai forms part of the word medetai, which means lucky, and this leads to it being a popular dish for new students and employees in April, as this the start of the school year and the beginning of the employment cycle in Japan. You can try regular tai as sushi or grilled as a whole fish.

4. Takenoko (bamboo shoots)

You may well have been eating this without realizing, as in spring it becomes pretty ubiquitous. While most bamboo is toxic when fully grown, some varieties can be eaten during their sprout phase — often between March and May. The edible bamboo shoots are boiled to ensure the toxins are removed before eating, and need to be cooked soon after picking to avoid developing a bitter flavor. 

Bamboo shoots on rice
Bamboo shoots on rice. | Photo by

Takenoko gohan (bamboo rice) is one of the most popular bamboo-shoot dishes, but you can also enjoy it as tempura. In supermarkets, you might see it pre-boiled and peeled, or in its natural root form; just be sure to cook it thoroughly. If you think the gnarled root looks familiar, it might be that you recognize the small chocolate Takenoko no Sato, which have no actual bamboo in them, but are definitely delicious!

Note: Babies should not be fed takenoko.

5. Ikanago (Japanese sand lance)

These are small Japanese sand eels from the Kansai region, caught between February and March and loved across Japan, but especially in Hyōgo Prefecture. Caramelized with soy sauce, mirin, sugar, and ginger, they are served as ikanago no kugi-ni, meaning “the nails that hit the spot”, reflecting both their appearance and deliciousness.

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sand eel japan
Ikanago sand eels. | Photo by

If you’re looking to make your own, aim for fish that are about an inch long, usually around the end of February and beginning of March. They are usually eaten on top of rice, and make a delicious sticky snack with drinks.

6. Ichigo daifuku rice cakes

Another sweet treat, ichigo are strawberries, and daifuku are small round rice cakes stuffed with red-bean paste. They come together to form a relatively modern wagashi popular between winter and spring. The combination of chewy mochi, sweet red-bean paste, and fresh, juicy strawberry is unique to this unassuming treat and definitely wins you over.

Ichigo Daifuku
Ichigo daifuku. | Photo by

You’ll have no trouble finding ichigo daifuku in sweet shops, convenience stores, and supermarkets, as well as at food stalls in parks and festivals during the season.

7. Spring cabbage

This leafy green is a staple throughout the year, but in spring it is sweeter, crisper, and infinitely more delicious. Filled with more vitamins, spring cabbages are smaller and softer than in other seasons and can be enjoyed raw with a simple dipping sauce. It’s a common otoshi (a small dish given at the start of a meal), but also a great side dish to fried meals like pork cutlets or kushikatsu.

Spring foods Japan
Tonkatsu (pork cutlet) served with shredded cabbage. | Photo by

You’ll often find cabbage in izakaya. As cabbage is the main ingredient in okonomiyaki, you can also make a spring greens version and even add other seasonal greens like Japanese asparagus and spring onions.

8. Asari clams

As the coastal waters begin to warm, clams are fished out by keen fishermen and children alike. One of the most versatile ingredients, the bottleneck clams are fresh, sweet, and affordable too. You might find them in your miso soup, steamed with spring onions, or just fried in butter.

Asari clams
Asari clams. | Photo by

A more unusual choice is to steam them in sake, which definitely provides an extra level of Japanese flavor. Keep an eye out at izakayas for this dish — it might be on the specials or seasonal boards too.

9. Sakura taiyaki

Ok, so it isn’t the most traditional of foods, but if you want to get two seasonal themes in one sweet hit, then this seasonal fish-shaped cake should be next on your list. Taiyaki are modeled after spring speciality tai (seabream), and are grilled (that’s the yaki part).

sakura taiyaki
Sakura taiyaki. | Photo by

Although they are usually filled with red-bean paste, there are versions with custard, chocolate, and strawberry sometimes, but the best is sakura. A sweet, pink, scented custard, you may not be having any actual sakura, but some do have dried petals and cherry bits in too!

10. Hanami dango rice cakes

Hanami dango are named for hanami (cherry blossom viewing) parties, where they are often eaten. Another, equally logical name for them is sanshoku dango meaning three-colored dango, because of, well, their three colors.

Three-colored hanami dango. | Photo by Getty Images.

Each color has a different meaning — pink is for the cherry blossom buds, white is for the flowers in full bloom, and green is the leaves after flowering is over. Usually though, the three colors are the same sweet rice flavor. Hanami dango can be found at supermarkets and convenience stores throughout the year, but they’re more prominent in spring.

While we do our best to ensure it’s correct, information is subject to change. Post first published in February 2018. Last updated: February 2024, by Maria Danuco.

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