How much are you prepared to pay for luxury Japanese fruits?

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Konstantin Sheiko
February 6, 2018

The land of the rising sun has often puzzled and impressed its many visitors with elaborate traditions and attention to minute detail in everything. Reaching ultimate perfection in everything seems to be an everyday slogan for the Japanese, and it is applied to everything, including food production and consumption. But while many of us have heard about the complexities of Japanese tea ceremonies, or indulged in eating the elaborately rolled sushi served on traditional plates, few would even suspect that fruit has the cult food status in Japan.

A high-end looking shop that can easily trade in luxury jewelry with its expensive exterior is one of ‘Sembikiya’s Tokyo outlets, presents to the customers its sparkling glass display cases containing expensive treasures of a surprising kind. From heart-shaped watermelons to "Ruby Roman" grapes, which are the size of a ping-pong ball, this retailer specializes in selling mouth-watering produce at eye-watering prices.

Expensive, carefully cultivated fruit, however, is not unique to this chain of stores. For example, ‘Amaou Strawberries’ is a front-runner, boasting the highest average sales price per kilogram. The brand name is a kind of acronym for the Japanese words “akai” (red), “marui” (round), “ookii” (big) and “umai” (delicious). The taste of Fukuoka's Amaou is an amazing balance of sweet and acid, and that's why the variety attracts so many customers. 

Closing in on Amaou are the newly developed Skyberry strawberries from Tochigi Prefecture, north of Tokyo, where the yield of strawberries is the highest among Japan's 47 prefectures. Tochigi farmers spent 17 years to produce Skyberry strawberries. The cone-shaped, bright red Skyberry was also used to make strawberry parfaits at the Takano fruits parlor, becoming one of the most popular items on the menu. 

Yamanashi Prefecture, west of Tokyo, has created white strawberries with the romantic brand name Hatsukoi no Kaori ‘Scent of First Love’ that are juicy and sweet tasting. The color on the surface and inside is white, but the seeds are red. Across Japan, such products regularly sell for tens of thousands of dollars at auction. For example, in 2016, a pair of choice Hokkaido rockmelons went for a record $27,240 to the highest bidder.

So why are Japanese consumers willing to pay so much for their fruit? Whereas in many Western cultures apples and oranges are prized for their nutritional value, the Japanese see fruit in almost spiritual terms, regularly offering it to the gods on their home altars and Buddhist steps. For this reason, high-end fruit has come to be viewed as an important symbol of respect. According to expert opinion, people purchase these expensive fruits to demonstrate how special their gifts are to the recipients, for special occasions or for someone socially important. 

Ken Gehrt, a professor of marketing at San Jose State University, in California, says the fruit is of particular importance during the gift-giving seasons of Ochugen and Oseibo, when presents are bestowed on people as a show of respect. Fruit is not only an important part of the Japanese diet but perhaps, more importantly, fruit is considered a luxury item and plays an important and elaborate ritual part in Japan's extensive gift-giving practices. According to Gehrt, “Fine fruit is also given as part of the elaborately nuanced process of relationship cultivation in Japan. Fruits are treated differently in Asian culture and in Japanese society especially”.

As such single flawless strawberries are often sold in containers that resemble a jewelry box, while melons are individually wrapped and presented in ornate wooden boxes. It is said that the Japanese eat with their eyes. Certainly, high-end fruit stands apart in terms of its beautiful appearance and the lovely way it is packaged and presented. Cultivating high-end, expensive luxury produce usually involves meticulous, labor-intensive practices developed by Japanese farmers. For example, it is hard getting the shape of Japanese premium strawberries right. 

According to Okuda Nichio, the producer highly-prized Bijin-hime (beautiful princess) strawberries, which he tries to grow “scoop-shaped”, they can sometimes turn out like globes. Nichio stated, ”It's taken me 15 years to reach this level of perfection”. Nichio's strawberries each take 45 days to grow at his Okuda farm in Gifu prefecture, and although he won't go into detail about how they are produced, he believes it is time well spent. His largest tennis-ball sized strawberries, of which he only produces around 500 a year, usually sell for more than $4,395 each.

Growers of giant, juicy, sweet strawberries, similar to Okuda Nichio’s, are competing to be Japan's top strawberry brand, reflecting an increase in demand both at home and abroad, as well as efforts to promote local produce and stimulate prefectural economies. Needless to say, this competitive streak only adds to expectations of perfection, but it also is adding to the hype, driving the prices up. Reflecting heated competition for quality improvement, some 50 new strawberry varieties have been registered in Japan since 2011, bringing the total number of brands to 253 as of March. 

Rarity is another tactic also employed by the producers of Japan's “Ruby Roman” grapes, who offer just 2,400 bunches of the large red fruit each year. The grapes were cultivated to fill a gap in the Japanese luxury fruit market, according to Ruby Roman spokesman Hirano Keisuke. “These grapes look big and red, like a ruby. It's been a painstaking process to achieve that red color,” he says. First released in 2008, today individual bunches can sell for over $880 each, but that price can go much higher. In southwest Japan, a supermarket paid $9,700 for a first-harvest bunch of “Ruby Roman” at auction. Holding just 30 grapes in total, that record-breaking bunch essentially sold for $320 per grape. 

Japanese fruit luxury market is not exclusively limited to strawberries and grapes only. For example, Densuke watermelons are black-skinned, stripeless, and reported to have a special type of sweetness. Grown exclusively on Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido, only 100 Densuke are farmed each year. The most expensive one ever sold was a whopping 17 pounds and went for $6,100 at an auction in 2008. 

Ybari king melon is another product of the island of Hokkaido. The hybrid, orange-fleshed melon is highly prized for its sweetness and beautiful proportions. The melons are grown in greenhouses and even given “hats” to prevent sunburn. A pair of Yubari King Melons once went for $23,500, making them the most expensive fruits in the world. 

Japanese apples also occupy a special place in a row of luxury fruit items, with a Sekai-ichi apple priced at $21 per piece. Translating as “the best in the world,” Sekai-ichi are washed with honey and branded by hand to ensure they are blemish-free. The orchards where they are grown are pollinated by hand using a tiny wand, a treatment not uncommon in Japan’s fruit-obsessed culture. 

Rather than being a deterrent, for some consumers a high price tag adds prestige and signifies quality. According to Cecilia Smith Fujishima, a lecturer in comparative culture at Shirayuri University in Tokyo, “In some ways, it's like luxury chocolate, but giving it as a gift conveys status and regard for the other person”. Although not all Japanese consumers buy expensive fruit to gift, many appreciate its rarefied taste. But while many Japanese extol the exceptional flavors of these fruit, Smith Fujishima says it is often too sweet for the Western palettes in general. Without a doubt, fine packaging, good marketing and the fruit’s beautiful appearance and presentation, as well as its more appealing texture, also influence people’s opinion on the taste.

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