Growers are vying to become the nation’s top strawberry brand as demand rises at home and abroad, and amid efforts to promote local produce and stimulate prefectural economies.
Often bought as a gift for weddings, birthdays or parties, strawberries can command high prices in Japan: One perfect strawberry can fetch as much as ¥50,000 ($419) on an online shopping site.
Reflecting heated competition, some 50 new varieties of strawberry have been registered in Japan since 2011, bringing the total number of recognized strains to 253 as of March, according to the farm ministry.
Brightly colored, succulent strawberries are usually sold at Japanese department stores or specialty fruiterers, providing strawberry-lovers with a feast for the eyes and stomach.
In the race for the highest quality, Amao strawberries from Fukuoka Prefecture are a front-runner among domestic producers, boasting the highest average sales price: about ¥1,200 per kilogram in 2013.
The brand name is a kind of acronym for the Japanese words akai (red), marui (round), okii (big) and umai (delicious).
One recent day on a visit to Mitsukoshi department store in Tokyo’s upscale Ginza shopping district, a reporter found Amao strawberries prominently displayed with price tags ranging from ¥1,620 to ¥5,400 for a box of 10 to 12.
“The taste of Fukuoka’s Amao is an amazing balance of sweet and acid, that’s why the variety attracts so many customers,” said 47-year-old Toyoharu Komine, head of a Sun Fruits Co. outlet within the department store. Komine added, the product also attracts tourists from elsewhere in Asia and the Middle East.
Hong Kong resident Leung Kwai-kuen, 42, who was visiting Japan with his father and bought two boxes of Amao strawberries. “Japan’s strawberries look so juicy and cute, so we want to buy some for our relatives,” Leung said.
Closing in on Amao are the newly developed Skyberry strawberries from Tochigi Prefecture, where the strawberry yield is the highest among Japan’s 47 prefectures. Tochigi farmers spent 17 years to produce Skyberry strawberries, which have a nice aroma and weigh roughly 25 grams each.
Shipping has just begun. At the flagship store of fruit specialty retailer Takano Co. in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, Skyberry strawberries were selling for ¥500 apiece.
The cone-shaped, bright red Skyberry was also used to make strawberry parfaits at the Takano fruits parlor, which became one of the most popular items on the menu.
“We sold a record 320 strawberry parfaits priced at around ¥1,700 each in one day when we launched the product in February,” said Naoko Kubo, an official of the Shinjuku Takano.
At a Skyberry farm in Sano, Tochigi, owner Kohei Shinozaki said he is happy that consumers are satisfied with his produce, but says the work is so intensive it does not allow him to take time off. Great care is needed to grow the strawberries, he said.
Other prefectures are also working hard to grow high-quality strawberries, with the aim of boosting their profile as well as the regional economy.
Yamanashi Prefecture has created white strawberries with the romantic name Hatsukoi no Kaori (Scent of First Love) that are juicy and sweet tasting. The skin and flesh is white, but the seeds are red.
Ehime Prefecture, which is known as Japan’s leading producer of citrus fruit, spent around 10 years to develop the Akai Shizuku (Red Drop) brand of strawberries, which have a slightly sour taste that appeals to grown-up consumers.
Shizuoka Prefecture has developed the Kirapika (Glitter) strawberries as a successor to its Beni Hoppe (Red Cheek) brand. The product has a jewel-like glitter and its growers are eager to beat rival Amao.
Strawberry exports from Japan have also surged in recent years, with the total reaching 204,580 kg, worth some ¥435.59 million, in 2014. That’s more than 45 times the volume and 60 times the value compared with 2002 levels. The largest export market is Hong Kong, followed by Taiwan and Thailand, according to 2014 government data.
Outside Japan, strawberries are often used as an ingredient for jam and other processed foods. But Hikaru Matsuzawa, a senior researcher at the Ehime Research Institute of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, said Japanese strawberries are special, in that they tend to be larger and sweeter.
Matsuzawa attributed the difference to crop improvements pursued by strawberry-producing prefectures.
Strawberries have become more and more popular among Japanese over the past 20 years, Takano’s Kubo said.
“With more varieties being developed, the popularity of strawberries won’t fade in the near future,” she added.
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