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Why exactly are some Japanese fruits so expensive?

The pursuit of perfection never comes cheap.

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 can buy 36 regular watermelons for the price of a square version at a premium fruit store. One Sekai-Ichi 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 lists below), where it’s not uncommon to see cantaloupes costing as much as a diamond necklace.

HAMMER TIME – These bidders stopped at nothing to get the perfect fruit.

  • Ruby Roman Grapes

    RUBY ROMAN GRAPES: 1.1 MILLION YEN (S$13,000)

    Konishi made another outrageously high bid later that year for a bunch of Ruby Roman grapes at the wholesale market auction in Kanazawa, Ishikawa prefecture. His was the most expensive of 46 batches at the auction, and with only 30 grapes in that bunch, one grape (about the size of a ping pong ball) costs around $430.

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.

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“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.”


Exactly zero Ruby Roman grapes met the “premium class” requirements in 2011.


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.

MUSK HAVE – So what goes into that million-yen melon?

  • Japanese Fruits

    01: FROM THE GROUND UP

    New strains of the best melon seeds are bred every year and planted in soil bedding. These are kept in temperature- and humidity-controlled glass greenhouses. Moisture levels are customised to each plant.

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.”

 

INTENSIVE CARE

It’s not just the musk melon that gets the royal treatment.

  • Sato Nishiki Cherries

    SATO NISHIKI CHERRIES

    The cherries you’re used to are likely American ones, with a deep wine red colour and intense sweetness. While they are also sold in Japan, the country’s most popular variety is the Sato Nishiki. These bright red orbs with creamy white flesh were first cultivated by farmer Eisuke Sato in the 20th century. The cherries are typically grown in high plastic tunnels to protect them from rain (which causes cherry skins to crack). The trees are pollinated and pruned by hand, with only two flower buds and one vegetative bud allowed on each cluster. When the fruit begins to ripen, farmers remove the leaves around them to allow as much exposure to sunlight as possible.

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PHOTOGRAPHY Vernon Wong
ART DIRECTION Jean Yap