There’s an art to everything in Japan, and fruit is no exception.
Japan has long been about the pursuit of perfection, almost to the point of mania. It should come as no surprise then that the same obsession would be directed at fruit, even if the prices may still cause some eyes to widen.
You could buy 36 watermelons for the price of a square one at a premium fruit store. One SekaiIchi apple (meaning “world’s best”) can set you back about $25. And these are just the ones that are easily available. Auction prices for the first harvest of the season are staggeringly high (see box), where it’s not uncommon to see cantaloupes costing as much as a diamond necklace.
But unlike jewellery, these fruits are considered valuable gifts by all and will be gratefully received by everyone, from your grandparents to your boss. Not only are they unparalleled in taste and aroma, these fruits are the crown jewels of agriculture.
“In Japan, the attitude towards fruit is different from that towards vegetables,” says Amanda Tan, co-founder of Zairyo Singapore, an online grocer and importer of Japanese produce. “Vegetables are consumed every day and is a necessity, whereas fruit is not. So, if they are going to buy something that isn’t a necessity, they’d rather spend more on something perfect.”
And perfect they must be. Farmer Okuda Nichio spent 15 years developing his Bijin-hime (“beautiful princess”) strawberries, which are grown “scoop-shaped” and up to the size of tennis balls. Sato Nishiki cherries have skin so shiny and shapes so symmetrical, they look like Christmas baubles. Ruby Roman grapes, named for their beautiful red hue, are required to weigh at least 30g per grape to qualify for the “premium class” — none made the cut in 2011.
Luxury fruit store Sembikiya in Tokyo takes credit for this culture of fruit gifting. Back in 1834, the wife of a samurai shrewdly transformed the family’s discount fruit store into a premium one, selecting only the best, blemish-free fruit to peddle to those looking to impress their chiefs.
If you, too, are looking to leave an impression (or just want to ruin the enjoyment of regular old fruit forever), it’s worth doing the homework.
“Price isn’t a reliable indicator as these can fluctuate throughout the year; a good tip is to buy only fruit in season,” Tan advises. “Also check the area they’re from. Aomori, for example, is famous for its apples. Japanese fruit will all look pretty and smell wonderful, so it’s best to make your purchases armed with information.”