In Ryunosuke Akutagawa's (1892-1927) "Mikan" (Mandarins), a short story told in the first person, the protagonist feels an instant aversion to a young woman who comes rushing onto a train and sits across from him.

Her ruddy cheeks are badly chapped, and her wool scarf is grimy.

But the protagonist starts to view her in a new light as she removes mikan from her pocket.

Waving her arm vigorously from the window of the moving train, she tosses the fruits to young boys standing at a railroad crossing.

Surmising that they must be her younger brothers seeing her off to her place of employment in the big city, the protagonist notes how the mikan, "dyed the color of the warm sun," shower down on the boys.

From this passage, the reader can readily visualize the color of the fruit and even imagine its fragrance.

When the weather turns cool, it's mikan season.

According to the 72 divisions of the solar year under Japan's traditional lunisolar calendar, early December is "Tachibana Hajimete Kibamu," which literally means "the time when citrus starts yellowing."

Around this time, I take pleasure in gazing at ripening citrus fruits in people's gardens on my way to the train station each morning.

Even though mikan was always considered the iconic winter fruit in Japan, it seems to have become less so in recent years. This year's shipment is a mere one-fifth of the peak level in 1975.

"Kotatsu de mikan" (sitting around the "kotasu" heated table and eating mikan), once a typical winter scene in any home, appears to be a vanishing custom. In fact, the kotatsu has ceased to be the main source of warmth in many homes today.

The Japan Produce Alliance for Better Health, a nonprofit organization promoting healthy eating, is trying to promote mikan consumption in the workplace.

This can be done, according to Takashi Kondo of this NPO, by collaborating with local mikan farmers to keep piles of the fruit in front of company cafeterias.

"Instead of a coffee break, have a mikan break," Kondo said. "This will create a genial atmosphere."

A poem by Teruko Kajimoto goes to the effect: "Peeling a mikan/ Like meeting an old friend."

Whether at a table or while traveling or during a break at work, it may be a good idea to find an occasion that perfectly matches the mikan's warm color and tangy sweetness.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 4

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.