Whether it be bright red, juicy strawberries, in delicate packaging, or a single cantaloupe perfectly round, creamy and sweet, the reputation of perfect fruit in Japan is far-reaching. From square watermelons, carefully grown in clear glass molds to beautiful, evenly red apples the size of a toddler's head, one thing about Japanese fruit is certain-- quality reigns over quantity, and the quality of Japanese fruit is unsurpassed world-wide. However, a couple of questions remain unanswered in our public consciousness. How did high-quality fruit become a luxury item in Japan? And perhaps moreso, how do these seemingly perfect pieces of produce even come into existence?
It should come as no surprise that the cultural obsession with perfect fruit in Japan stems from their rich culture of gift giving. It is Japanese custom to give gifts to those you are indebted to twice a year-- mid-year, some time around July, and at the end of the year in December. It is also customary for worshippers to leave gifts of food at shrines as tokens of gratitude and appreciation for the gods. Sometime around the Meiji restoration, as the Japanese economy grew and gift-giving culture expanded, the two traditions dovetailed and the custom of giving delicious, high quality food, particularly fruit as it is considered a non-essential food item, as a gift to friends, family, coworkers and other community members was born.
One shop in particular, located in present-day Tokyo, rode the wave of this cultural transformation to become the top seller of premium fruit in Japan, and possibly even the world. Sembikiya Sotohen, with its flagship store in the historic district of Nihonbashi, has a humble beginning in the Edo period as a simple fruit stall. As their clientele evolved to include politicians, business people, and literary figures, Sembikiya Sotonhen ramped up the quality of their products to match the tastes of their upper-crust patrons. The interior of Sembikiya Sotonhen’s flagship store is laid out more like a high end jewelry shop than somewhere you’d think sells produce. Beautifully lit glass cases, situated at about waist height, contain samples of the most beautiful and tasty pieces of fruit Japan has to offer. A single cantaloupe might sell for upwards of $100, but the taste, fragrance, and texture of the fruit is unparalleled. Attached to the fruit shop is their Fruit Cafe, where diners can enjoy the delicious high-quality fruit Sembikiya Sotonhen is known for as part of a selection of drinks, pastry dishes and other sweets.
The amount of labor and care that goes into growing high quality fruit in Japan is nothing to sniff at. Temperature controlled greenhouses equipped with both heating and cooling apparatuses are where these highly prized plants are grown. Plants are carefully situated so the fruit does not touch the ground-- something that is no easy feat when growing vine-bearing plants such as melons or strawberries-- and the humidity levels are carefully monitored to ensure peak sweetness. Some fruits, such as cantaloupes and mangoes are given hat-like shade coverings to protect them from discoloration due to too much sun exposure. After a careful growing process, only the best and most attractive specimens are chosen to be shipped off and sold.
The impact of fruits-as-gifts on even seemingly ordinary produce in Japan is undeniable. Even fruit available for purchase at neighborhood grocery stores has been affected by this cultural milestone. You would be hard pressed to find anything remotely resembling bruised or unripe fruit for sale, as even a typical mom and pop grocery in Japan puts time and consideration into their fruit selection. Not everywhere is as luxurious or expensive as Sembikiya Sotonhen, but as a rule, fruit does generally cost more in Japan than it does here in the United States. However, while the price tags may be higher, the incredible flavor and beautiful appearance of Japanese fruit makes them well worth the cost.