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 list below), where it’s not uncommon to see cantaloupes costing as much as a diamond necklace.
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.
Yubari Melons: 3 Million Yen (S$36,000)
The first auction of the 2016 harvest season in Sapporo was for a pair of melons from the Hokkaido city of Yubari. They fetched a record- breaking price, overtaking the 2.5 million yen bid from 2008 and 2014. The melons went to supermarket buyer Takamaru Konishi, who wanted to thank the Yubari farmers for their years of help.
Densuke Watermelon: 650,000 Yen (S$7,900)
The black-skinned densuke watermelon is prized for its sweetness and crunchy texture, and the most expensive one sold was a 7.7kg melon at a 2008 auction. The bid was made by an unnamed marine products dealer who wanted to support local agriculture. An unseasonably warm spring that year helped boost sugar content for the harvest.
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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.
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“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.”
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.
Taiyo no Tamago
With its red-orange hue and smooth oval shape, this variety of mango is fittingly named Taiyo no Tamago, which means “egg of the sun”. Mangoes are a tropical fruit, so farmers from the Miyazaki prefecture have the best chance of growing them in Japan, thanks to the area’s strong sunlight and high humidity. Mango cultivation began in 1986 but it took almost a decade before sweet mangoes without any blemishes could be cultivated. The key was letting mangoes fall off the vine naturally as they ripened, so nets are now placed around each fruit to catch it as it falls. Only mangoes that weigh at least 350g and with a minimum sugar level of 15 per cent can be labelled Taiyo no Tamago.
The first square watermelon was produced by graphic designer Tomoyuki Ono in 1978; he wanted a melon that could fit easily into refrigerators. Farmers soon caught on in the 1980s and started growing them too, as they were also easier to stack and ship. But because of their inhibitive price tag, often costing two to three times more than regular round ones, they have become more popular as ornamental gifts. Luxury fruit shop Shibuya Nishimura in Tokyo sells its cube- shaped melons for 12,960 yen (S$158). As the watermelons simply need to grow in a mould to take on a different shape, numerous variations have since popped up, including pyramid- and calabash- shaped melons. Farmer Hiroichi Kimura from the Kumamoto prefecture spent three years developing his heart- shaped melons, which not only look appealing, but taste delicious as well.
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Story originally appeared on The Peak.
Photography: Vernon Wong
Art Direction: Jean Yap