Masters of luxury fruit grow money on trees

Giving expensive produce as gifts undimmed by economic doldrums

by Hiroshi Hiyama

AFP-JIJI

With melons that sell for the price of a new car — admittedly a small one — and grapes that go for more than ¥10,000 a pop, Japan has long been a country where a perfectly formed piece of fruit can fetch a fortune.

An industry of fruit boutiques has defied the sluggish economy to consistently offer luscious and lavishly tended produce for hefty prices — and it is always in demand.

In July, a single bunch of Ruby Roman grapes — the pride of Ishikawa Prefecture — reportedly sold for ¥400,000, making the plump, crimson berries worth a staggering ¥11,000 each.

Every May, a pair of cantaloupes grown in Hokkaido are auctioned off. They regularly fetch the price of a modest new car.

The hammer fell on this year’s pair at a cool ¥1.6 million.

While such cases are at the extreme end, top-notch fruit is a valuable commodity in the world of business and as a seasonal gift, signifying just how much importance the giver attaches to the relationship.

“Most of our products are for gift purposes, so we collect large and high-grade products from all around Japan,” says Yoshinobu Ishiyama, manager of a branch of Sun Fruits at Tokyo Midtown, the glitzy office-commercial complex in Akasaka that is also home to a Ritz Carlton Hotel.

“We offer rare products. Above all, they have to be delicious,” he says.

Inside his bright, white-tiled emporium, an array of mouth-watering fruit gives off a heady, brain-tingling aroma as soothing music lulls his well-heeled customers.

While Ishiyama doesn’t have anything you could trade for a midrange automobile, he does have a slightly more affordable example of the Ruby Roman grapes — a bargain at ¥31,500 for a bunch.

A single white peach — flavorful, perfectly round and about the size of a newborn baby’s head — goes for ¥2,625.

A bunch of Muscat of Alexandria grapes has a ¥7,350 price tag.

Then, there is the unrivaled symbol of expensive gifts: the muskmelon.

Sitting in individual wooden boxes on the top shelf of a glass-door refrigerator at the back of the shop, they will set you back as much as ¥16,000.

There are also cubic watermelons — grown in plastic boxes and usually for decoration — that start at ¥5,000.

As with everything in Japan, presentation is key: serried ranks of cherries line up in charming boxes, their stalks all facing in the same direction; strawberries nestle in soft packaging, their highly shined, deep red surface uniformly punctuated by tiny seeds.

It goes without saying that there are no blemishes. 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.

Of course, not everyone buys their bananas at places like Sun Fruits; much more affordable offerings are on display in the average supermarket.

But to lubricate the wheels of social exchange in a country that has a deeply ingrained culture of gift-giving, nothing matches high-end fruit.

During the summer and at the end of the year, people all around the nation send packaged gifts to relatives, business associates and bosses to express their gratitude.

If the two sides of the exchange are of a broadly similar social standing, the gift is reciprocated. A ¥4,000 box of cherries might be given in exchange for a ¥5,000 presentation pack of mangoes.

If the giver owes for social favors dispensed through the year, there could be no change from that ¥16,000 muskmelon. But the boss who receives it will understand how grateful you are.

The giving of high-end fruit creates a lasting impression on Japanese clients, says Tokyo-based corporate trainer Farhad Kardan, who recently was strolling through Sun Fruits choosing possible gifts.

“You buy these delicious things and share a great time with people who are close to you,” he said.

“You never forget the experience of having eaten something so delicious. What you pay for is for the quality and the value.”

Despite more than a decade of deflation, prices for fresh food here are considered high by world standards, partially as a result of farming practices and import preferences.

Consumers are accustomed to paying a premium on domestically grown produce, with many believing it to be safer and better quality than food brought in from overseas.

But even so, many open-mouthed visitors to Japan wonder: How can a piece of fruit cost so much?

Ishiyama says his master muskmelon grower, Toshiaki Nishihara, puts a tremendous amount of love into each fruit he raises in his computer-controlled greenhouse in Shizuoka Prefecture.

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 piece.

Like their ¥1.6 million cousins from Hokkaido, the best-quality melons are perfect spheres with a smooth and evenly patterned rind.

“The prices are very high because of the care and cost that go into the fruits,” Ishiyama said.

Some recent visitors to the Sun Fruits outlet in Tokyo Midtown were about to walk away empty-handed when they spotted two regular apples by the door — a bargain at ¥400 for the pair.