In my (much) younger years, I lived in a rural japanese farming town surrounded by rice fields and ubiquitous backyard gardens. During that time, and in travels across the country, I grew to deeply appreciate Japanese cuisine’s treatment of vegetables. A sentiment I think a lot of people can agree with considering the food’s international popularity.

In our new urban homestead, we are doing our best to begin incorporating some favorites from that time into our garden. Which is how this list was born!

And it was a hard list to narrow down. While the temptation was strong to include a laundry list of Japanese veggies and varieties, we tried to stick with the ones that really make sense in the context of a small-scale home garden. You won’t for instance see Japanese Negi onion, red Azuki bean, or soybean because we think those make more sense to grab at the market (at least for our family and limited growing space).

And while some of these are considered Dento Yasai - a class of traditional and highly localized heirloom Japanese vegetables - many are simply variations of familiar favorites or newer hybrid lines. I’ve tried to link out to a convenient place to buy each item in case you’re interested in trying them, so I’d just like to note that I am not affiliated with any of these seed companies. I simply think they provide good selection and value.

I sincerely hope one or more catches your eye! Happy planting.

  1. Daikon - This Japanese radish snags the top spot on our list because it performs double duty in the garden. It’s not only a prolific producer and delicious raw, pickled, or (my favorite) grated, it’s also one of the best cover crops out there. That’s because the daikon plant sends its tap roots down deep, helping to aerate and loosen dense, clay-heavy soil like mine. As for the variety, I’ve linked out to the Mino Early daikon for its heat tolerance and relatively short maturation time.

  2. Mizuna - A leafy green member of the Kyo Yasai (Kyoto Vegetables) heirloom vegetable category. Mizuna is a delicious and extremely versatile vegetable appropriate for salads, soups, pickling, and more. It makes our list as it’s fast-growing, slow to bolt, and a good cool weather crop for fall gardens. Mizuna tolerates continuous harvesting and will continue to produce so long as conditions remain appropriate.

  3. Nagasaki Long Eggplant - Japanese eggplants are often synonymous with the long, thin, low-seed varieties like Ichiban. Nagasaki Long is one such eggplant that we’ve chosen due to its natural heat tolerance, owing from Nagasaki’s more southerly location. There are actually many excellent round varieties of Japanese eggplants to consider though, including another member of the Kyo Yasai: Kamo Nasu. I’ve yet to taste eggplants that can rival the sweetness and texture of the Japanese varieties.

  4. Black Futsu Squash - While you can’t go wrong with the much more popular Japanese Kabocha squash, we’re growing the dark, bumpy Black Futsu variety this year. I’d be lying if I said the fruit’s interesting look had nothing to do with it, but we mostly chose this one for its purported heat tolerance.

  5. Shiso - An herb, but a mighty one. If you’ve never had shiso, you’re in for a real treat - especially if you like strong flavors. Shiso is another highly versatile ingredient, lending a citrusy punch to everything from sushi wraps to soup to cocktails. Start with a single plant or two in your herb section as Shiso isn’t everyone’s favorite and does better with regular harvesting anyways.

  6. Komatsuna - This spinach-like leafy green may be the most exciting veggie out of the whole list. Why? Well, in addition to being delicious, it’s relatively heat and cold tolerant, fast-growing, and overall hardy. In many ways, it reminds me of another spinach alternative favorite: Malabar Spinach.

  7. Shishito Pepper - These delectable morsels are ubiquitous across Japan and bring back fond memories of late nights at an izakaya (a Japanese style bar/pub) for me. They’re sweet and occasionally just a little spicy, but most importantly they’re my absolute favorite grilling pepper. Put them over some fire and you have an incredible snack on your hands.

  8. AONAGA JIBAI CUCUMBER - It takes a lot to convince me to take space away from my longtime favorite Marketmore 76 and Chicago Pickling cucumbers, but Japanese varieties are worth a spot in the garden. To my taste, they’re milder and more delicate in flavor and can be sweeter. They can also be hardy in conditions where other cucumbers fail to thrive, so I think they’re a prudent backup if nothing else. And that’s why I’ve selected this specific variety - hardiness!