Natsumikan is a bitter Japanese citrus fruit in season during the summer months. Several wagashi confection stores in Kyoto are quite famous for their chilled natsumikan jellies, in which the jelly is usually inside the hollowed out whole natsumikan fruit peel. They are a bit expensive but are quite a dramatic presentation so are often given as gifts. Natsumikan (lit. summer tangerine) is a bitter citrus fruit making it especially suited to quenching summer thirsts.
Oimatsu is a famous shinise confectionary in the Kamishichiken geisha quarter (hanamachi) near Kitano Tenmagu Shrine in the Nishijin area of Kyoto and their natsumikan jelly is perhaps the most famous of all in Kyoto. I like the Kamishichiken neighborhood very much, it is more friendly and humane than the Gion area hanamachi. I like several of Oimatsu’s other famous confections, so I decided to give their jelly a try and I enjoyed it very much!
Oimatsu’s Natsukanto 老松 夏柑糖
Oimatsu, the shop name means ‘old 老 pine 松’.
The product is called natsukanto; natsu 夏 means summer, kan 柑 means citrus and to 糖 literally means sugar. Natsukanto had a surprising amount of sweetness to it, it was very well balanced between bitter and sweet. I had expected more bitter than sweet, but this is Kyoto, something unexpected is expected!
The package consists of a simple paper bag and inside that is the jelly enclosed in this plastic bag.
The natsumikan always seems like a fruit that time forget. It is not a very handsome citrus, it is deformed and uneven in shape, the peel is pockmarked and discolored and the peel seems needlessly thick. This seems like citrus must have been like in centuries past, before modern agriculture. The rustic quality of the fruit comes through in the honest and straightforward presentation of the jelly.
How Did Natsukanto Taste? Refreshing!
In addition to taste, in Kyoto the look and feel, the full sensory aspect of a dish must be considered. The point of this jelly confection is respite from the sultry summer heat. Japanese love kanten jelly in summer as its translucence makes one think of ice.
I put the natsukanto in the freezer for about an hour until it was as close to frozen as it could be with out being frozen. More than this, I put the serving plates in the freezer for about 3 hours. Ideally the plate would be like one of those frosty beer mugs, I thought. I like the idea that the plate is intensely cold to the touch. Kaiseki restaurants in Kyoto would serve this dessert on a bed of crushed or shaved ice.
Also on the visual, the natsukanto comes with a fresh, deep green natsumikan leaf. This also plays on the idea of freshness and to Japanese refreshes the heart.
Ingredients for natsukanto are just three: natsumikan juice, sugar and kanten (agar).
There is no pulp in the juice used to make the jelly so it is translucent and though yellow, not cloudy.
The taste is pleasantly bitter yet is balanced and filled out with a good dose of sugar. Being in the peel, with the pith, adds a great deal of zing to the flavor and fragrance. The citrus bitterness is the perfect antidote to the hot, muggy Kyoto summer and this confection really does refresh body and soul!
My only complaint is that the opening on the top is quite roughly cut and lacks the kind of finish and attention to detail that is expected to be authentically ‘Kyoto’. I would think that this could be improved quite easily.
Availability and Price
Natsukanto is available from April until mid to late August. Availability depends on the season. This is handmade and not made with just any old natsumikan. The price is 1,250 yen which is not too expensive for this ‘in the peel’ jelly.
Oimatsu has two locations in Kyoto, Arashiyama and Kitano (Kamichiken). There are also small stores in two Kyoto department store food courts: Daimaru and Isetan.
In each of the hanamachi geisha quarters of Kyoto, the maiko (training geisha) give fans with their hanamachi name and the maiko’s name on it to restaurants that they like and frequent. The maiko fans are a source of pride and displayed prominently, usually in the entry area. From the number of fans, it looks like Oimatsu did a (These fans are usually, but not always, an indication that the place is good.)
These are the wooden forms and molds used to make some varieties of wagashi.
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English menu/signage: none
English website: none
Price: 800 – 2,000 yen
Location and Access: Oimatsu is located just east of the gate on the east side of Kitano Tenmagu Shrine. The nearest municipal bus stops are Kitano Tenmagu-mae and Kamishichiken.
Address: Kyoto-shi Kamigyo-ku, Kitano, Kamishichiken (京都市上京区北野上七軒)
Near Sightseeing Spot: Kitano Tenmagu Shrine
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