How much are you prepared to pay for luxury Japanese fruits?
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 “
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
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-
Growers of giant, juicy, sweet strawberries, similar to Okuda
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.
Japanese apples also occupy a special place in a row of luxury fruit items, with a Sekai-
Rather than being a deterrent, for some