From gas to corn and other basic foodstuffs, it seems like the price of everything is on the rise these days. That's why it seems incomprehensible to most Westerners that last month a pair of cantaloupes sold at a Japanese auction for $23,500 -- and that other fruits which are relatively cheap other places in the world are outrageously expensive in Japan. Of course, the five-figure fruits were bought at a charity auction -- but even the price of non-auction fruit will leave your jaw on the floor. At Senbikiya, at upscale shop in Tokyo, two bunches of grapes will make your wallet about $40 lighter, and the prices only go up from there. And a few weeks ago, a rare black watermelon made headlines around the world by selling for $6,100. So we know the prices are insane -- but why? The Times had one answer:
"Japan is probably the only country in the world where you have fruit as a gift concept," said Ushio Ooshima, a director at Senbikiya, whose main store in Nihonbashi alone sells 40 to 50 high-priced melons a day and as many as 200 a day during the mid-year and end-year gift-giving seasons. At Senbikiya, "99 percent of the purchases here are for gift," Ooshima said. In the culture of gift giving, a melon may be offered as a special present to an important client, to a person to whom a debt of gratitude is owed, or to a sick friend as a get-well gesture.
So there are regular grocery-chain melons and fruits -- which at $5 for a honeydew still sounds pricey to Americans, but is nowhere near the stratospheric range of a $100 melon, which are specially-farmed as high-end gift fruits. So what's the difference?
Most Japanese will tell you that there's no comparison:
"They are definitely different, from the scent of it to the texture of it," said Shigeko Hoshi who lives in Tokyo and occasionally eats the expensive fruit when her family receives one as a gift. "The sweetness is exquisitely balanced with the sourness of it." They also have to look the part: "perfectly round with the mesh-like surface pattern impeccably even," according to Tsuneo Anma, general secretary of a growers' group based in Fukuroi.
Naturally, the most prized melon plants are as fussed over as an ancient Bonsai tree. They're farmed in specially-designed greenhouses in select locations throughout Japan, in which the air is conditioned and the moisture level of the soil is carefully moderated. Melon vines are trimmed to allow only three melons to grow, and when they reach a certain level of maturity, two of the three melons are cut off to allow the supreme melon all the nutrients that the vines have to give.
"People go, 'What a difference does a gift melon make,"' Ooshima said. "People usually don't eat the very best for themselves. They set it aside for others as a gift," which is the very essence of Japanese gift-giving.