One of my favorite winter pastimes growing up was to snuggle under the futon covering a kotatsu (heated table), doing my homework or watching TV, as I methodically worked my way through a big bowl of Satsuma mikan, the little oval-shaped oranges that are known as clementines or tangerines in the West. Few things are as cheering as the bright colors, refreshing fragrance and sweet-sour flavors of citrus fruit on a dull winter's day, and there are many Japanese varieties that may not be that familiar to you.

It's not certain when citrus farming started in Japan, but they are almost certainly one of the oldest types of fruit to be cultivated domestically. They are grown almost all over the country, but they especially thrive in the warm and humid coastal regions. Today the biggest citrus-growing areas include Wakayama, Shizuoka, Tokushima, Kochi, Oita, Miyazaki and Ehime prefectures, depending on the variety. The name Satsuma mikan refers to the old Satsuma region, the western part of present-day Kagoshima Prefecture, which is also still a citrus-growing region.

Domestically grown citrus can be divided into two types: those that are sweet, juicy and easy to peel; and tart and bitter varieties with thick, robust and flavorful peels.