When I first visited Japan, I was amazed at the prices of some of their fruit. A cantaloupe could cost $150 each, when it was beautifully packed in a gift presentation box. What was puzzling was ostensibly the same size cantaloupe on the next shelf could be 10 times cheaper!
There seemed to be no rhyme nor reason for this phenomenon. The mystery continued even when I was living in Tokyo and frequenting various branches of the Sembikiya Fruit Shops and Parlours.
Sembikiya Fruit Parlours
Established in 1834, Sembikiya is Japan’s oldest fruit shop. It currently operates 14 stores, many of them concentrated in the Tokyo area, with its flagship store located in Nihonbashi Mitsui Tower, which also houses the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo hotel. The sparkling glass display cases in any Sembikiya evoke the appearance of a jewellery store.
Therein, wondrous treasures are to be found; from heart-shaped watermelons to “Ruby Roman” grapes the size of ping pong balls, Sembikiya specializes in selling the most expensive fruit in the world. The Sembikiya-owner family helped start the tradition of fruit gift giving decades ago.
Farmers take extreme measures to cultivate the fruits and ensure faultless presentation: Whole orchards are hand-pollinated with tiny wands, fruits grow within individual protective boxes, and lucky words stencilled on apples.
Expensive, expertly-cultivated fruit, is not unique to Sembikiya’s stores.
Anywhere in Japan, such fruit sell for thousands of dollars at auction. In 2016, a pair of Hokkaido cantaloupes sold for a record $27,240 (3 million yen).
The Fruit Records
Seki-ichi Apple: $21 each.
“Seki-ichi” means “world’s best”.
Square Watermelon: $212 each in Japan but up to $800 in Russia.
Invented by a clever farmer in Kagawa Prefecture, perfect square watermelons are easier to pack and ship. These Japanese-grown square watermelons are sold for around $200 in Tokyo but Sembikiya also purveys heart-shaped watermelons for around $300 each.
Wealthy Russians are buying square-shaped watermelons for $800 each from high-end Moscow supermarkets. They can’t even eat them because the fruit is harvested and exported to Russia before ripening. Now, that’s Luxury….
Sembikiya Queen Strawberry: $70 – 83 for a twelve excruciatingly well packed fruit.
Bijin-hime Strawberry: $4,400 each
“It’s hard getting the shape of these strawberries right — they can sometimes turn out like globes,” says Nichio Okuda, of his highly-prized Bijin-hime (beautiful princess) strawberries, which he tries to grow ‘scoop-shaped’. “It’s taken me 15 years to reach this level of perfection.”
His largest tennis-ball sized strawberries, of which he only produces around 500 a year, usually sell for more than 500,000 yen ($4,400) each.
Sembikiya Cherry: $160 per box ($4 per cherry)
These equally sized and evenly coloured cherries are labouriously molly-coddled in climate-controlled greenhouses.
Japanese Ruby Roman Grapes: Up to $6,400 per bunch but usually $100 per bunch in Sembikiya.
Only cultivated in Ishikawa Prefecture, these ruby red grapes are the most expensive variety in the world. Each Ruby Roman grape weighs 20 grams, has an intense ruby colour, and a sugar content of about 18%. These grapes are about the size of a table tennis ball. The first Ruby Roman grapes were sold in 2008 for $910 per bunch weighing 700 grams. There are only 2,400 bunches per annum available.
“Regular” Ruby Roman grapes cost around $100 a bunch. Taking it to the next level, “Premium” Ruby Roman grapes must weigh at least 30 grams each and the bunch must weigh at least 700 grams. These are very rare, as only six bunches qualified in 2010 and a single bunch made the grade in 2011. Last year, a supermarket paid 1.1 million yen ($9,700) for a first-harvest bunch of “Ruby Roman” at auction. With only 30 grapes in total, that record-breaking bunch sold for $320 per grape! We don’t know what the final retail price was…..
Japanese Densuke Watermelon: Up to $6,300 per fruit.
Created in Japan, Densuke watermelons are harvested only in Hokkaido. Distinguished by its stripeless, intense black colour and aromatic taste, it is supremely rare. Only 1,000 Densuke watermelons are available for sale each year, each weighing around 25 pounds (11 kg). Each Densuke watermelon usually costs $250 – $400, but rare and flawless specimens command a $4,000 price. In 2008, one of the first Densuke watermelons was sold for $6,300.
Muskmelon — king of fruits with a rich musk-like scent: Up to $275 each
Sembikiya stores only offer muskmelons farmed in Shizuoka, which generally gets more sun than other areas in Japan and where the weather is warm. In order to thoroughly manage the water content, each melon is suspended away from the ground and the air temperature is controlled year-round by heaters during the winter and air conditioners during the summer.
Please enjoy the “look of the spherical shape with the beautiful net” around it, which was created by a special “massage” called ‘ball wiping’, individually performed on each melon, as well as the “scent of musk” and the “melting sweetness and rich taste”. They usually cost between $120 – $275 each and even the cheapest ones are about $30 each.
Yubari King Melon or cantaloupe: Up to $27,000 a pair.
They are the most expensive fruits on earth; usually $160 for one and $265 for a matched pair. A golden orange melon was once auctioned for $23,500 but that may just have been exuberant bidding.
They’re grown in perfectly climate-controlled greenhouses and wear hats to prevent sun damage. By careful pruning, each plant is only allowed to mature one fruit, that receives the whole plant’s sweetness. A hybrid of two melon varieties, with juicy orange fruit, it is often sold in pairs and offered as a gift. A pair of perfectly shaped Yubari Melons recently sold for $27,000 (3 million yen). A top-grade melon must be perfectly round and have an exceptionally smooth rind. A portion of the stem, which is snipped with scissors, is left on top for aesthetic appeal.
Gifts of Perfection
Why are Japanese consumers willing to pay so much for their fruit?
Japanese see fruit in spiritual terms, as offerings to the gods. High-end fruit is viewed as an important symbol of respect. Expensive fruit as gifts honour the recipients, for special occasions or for someone socially important, like your boss. This is particularly during gift-giving seasons of Ochugen and Oseibo, as a show of respect.
Each year is divided in half, the first half being Bon and the second half is called Kure. Around 15th July, gifts are sent to the people who have helped you or shown you kindness, such as your boss, parents or relatives. The appropriate time to send Ochugen is said to be between the end of June and 15th July in East Japan (Tokyo) and between early July and 15th August in West Japan (Osaka/Kyoto).
Oseibo means the end of the year. The origin of giving gifts at the end of the year was the tradition of offerings to your ancestors at the end of the year, to welcome back their spirits for the New Year. Later, this became the word Oseibo, which now means “a gift to be sent at the end of the year to the people who have shown you kindness.” The appropriate time to send Oseibo is said to be between the beginning of December and 31st December in East Japan and between 13th – 31st December in West Japan.
“The eye of the beholder,” or “The Japanese eat with their eyes.”
Great thought and execution goes into even the smallest of fruit gifts. Single, flawless, strawberries are often sold in containers that resemble a jewelry box, while melons are individually wrapped and presented in elaborate wooden boxes.
Regardless of size or shape, Japan’s luxury fruit always comes carefully packaged. Fine packaging and good marketing may influence opinion on the taste. Your perceptions may be affected by the fruit’s beautiful appearance and presentation as well as its more appealing taste.
The high prices are not a deterrent to the buyer; in fact, that is the point; Respect is shown by the true cost of luxury.
Finally, even if you cannot afford the top-end whole fruit, Sembikiya Fruit Parlours can be found in many Tokyo department store basements, where you can try the luxurious fruit in small aliquots and almost affordable prices….
Author’s Biography: Melvyn Teillol-Foo (MTF)
Dr Melvyn Teillol-Foo is a contributor on AlphaLuxe web-zine.
He is also a moderator on PuristSPro.com horology discussion fora. He blends his scientific medical objectivity from the pharmaceutical industry with purist passion, in his musings about watches, travel, wine, food and other epicurean delights.
His travelogue ‘Lazing’ and feasting ‘Grazing’ series of articles have now passed into “mythic legend” on the original ‘ThePuristS.com’ website. Those were the halcyon days when he was “rich and famous” that he remembers with bittersweet fondness.
Dr Teillol-Foo is a quoted enthusiast on the watch industry, appearing in feature articles and interviews by Wall Street Journal, International Herald Tribune, Sunday Times (London), Chronos (Japan), Citizen Hedonist (France) and other publications. He has authored articles for magazines like International Watch (iW) – both U.S. & Chinese editions, ICON (Singapore), August Man (Singapore), Comfort (China) and The Watch (Hong Kong).