Japan’s fixation with perfect, expensive fruit

square watermelons

Among the benefits of living in an agriculture-rich area is the ability during much of the year to drive along most any stretch of back road for no more than a few miles without coming upon someone selling produce from the bed of a pickup.

Not only are the fruit and vegetables invariably fresh, but the price is almost always less than what comparable items sell for in a supermarket.

Nice ripe watermelons, for example, tend to go for $3 or $4 each, while a basket of peaches can be had for between $5 and $7.

One imagines there aren’t a lot of roadside vendors in Japan. The country, in fact, appears to have a fixation with perfectly formed fruit, to the point musk melons can sell for as much $18,000 and cantaloupes for $16,000.

And this past July, a single bunch of “Ruby Roman” grapes reportedly sold for $4,000, meaning each individual grape was worth $110.

While the above are unusual cases, top-grade fruit is a valuable commodity in the Japanese world of business and as a seasonal gift. It is used to indicate how much importance the giver attaches to a relationship, according to an Agence France-Presse report.

The boutique fruit industry has remained strong in the face of Japan’s sluggish economy, according to the wire service.

“Most of our products are for gift purposes, so we collect large and high-grade products from all around Japan,” said Yoshinobu Ishiyama, manager of a branch of Sun Fruits at Tokyo Midtown. “We offer rare products. Above all, they have to be delicious. You never forget the experience.”

Presentation is key in the high-end fruit markets: serried ranks of cherries are lined up in boxes, their stalks all facing in the same direction; strawberries sit nestled in soft packaging, their highly shined, deep red surface uniformly patinated by seeds, according to Agence France-Presse.

“It goes without saying that there are no blemishes,” the wire service adds. “Nothing is bruised, everything is exactly the right shape, as if each fruit has been cast in wax by a master craftsman working off the original blueprints.”

For those without $18,000 to spend on a single melon, there are bunches of Muscat of Alexandria grapes that go for $73.50, square watermelons, grown in plastic boxes, that start at $50 each and peaches that sell for a mere $26.

So why does upper-end Japanese fruit cost so much? Because Japanese consumers are willing to pay for it. They believe home-grown produce is safer than imports, and the former is often raised with special care that drives up costs.

Toshiaki Nishihara, described as a master musk melon grower, raises his fruit in a computer-controlled greenhouse southwest of Tokyo.

“He hand-pollinates his crop and selects only one melon on each plant so that all the nutrients, sugar and juice are concentrated in the chosen fruit,” according to the wire service.

With all due respect to Mr. Nishihara, I can’t imagine his $18,000 musk melon tastes 6,000 times better than the $3 equivalent I can buy from the local farmer down the road from my house. It may not be perfectly shaped but I bet it’s just about as tasty, and that’s good enough for me.

(Top: Japanese grocers put out square-shaped watermelons.)

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