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Japan’s Fruit Fetish

Second in a four-part series on Japan’s unexpected wine scene. See Japan’s Zen Winemakers, the first story in the series.

What’s wrong with $200 melons, $100 mangoes and $50 clusters of grapes? The answer to such an absurd question is less obvious if you are Japanese. The custom of giving expensive fruit as a business gift is a cultural absurdity all their own.

But for Japan’s fine wine producers, this national obsession with perfect produce is as challenging as downpours during harvest and the country’s perpetually overcast skies. The demand for upscale fruit warps the grape economy, making it nearly impossible to improve the quality of Japanese wine.

Designer fruit at astronomical prices

At the high-end of the fruit market, the scene is surreal. In the gift section on a top floor of Isetan, a leading Tokyo department store in the Shinjuku district, plastic fruit gets the royal treatment in silk-lined boxes on backlit shelves where almost nothing is priced below $100 per piece of fruit. Like the plastic food on display in Japanese restaurant windows, these “stand-in” fruits never spoil.

A steady stream of middle-aged men and women cruise the floor, talking in whispers as they fill out order slips for what is literally the world’s most expensive fruit. They never inspect anything “real” beyond the packaging.

Things are rowdier in Isetan’s basement food court, where the fruit is real, prices are lower — by half — and the crowds are swarming. But half of $200 is still $100. There are no bargains here either.

At an open-air market in Kyoto where grandmothers are buying their weekly groceries, prices remain stunning. A green softball-sized melon with rough skin is $5; the green flesh is soft and sweet all of the way through to the half-inch thick outer skin and fills the room with luscious melon smells. A $24 mango turns into a puddle of sticky, sweet juice when it is sliced; the aroma is intoxicating.

But a $10 handful of blemish-free dark red cherries are soft and mealy. Half of the cherries were sweet and the rest were bland or tart. And a single loose cluster of dark purple grapes costs $15. The individual grapes are soft, sugary orbs of Concord grapey juice encased in thick bitter skins.

(This $54 fruit feast was devoured in 15 minutes after two weeks in Japan where our diet, despite many elegant meals, had contained a small fraction of the fruit we are accustomed to eating.)

With so much financial incentive to produce flawless table fruit, successful farmers take extreme measures. Drive through Yamanashi, the prefecture at the base of Mt. Fuji known for its grapes and stone fruit, and you see greenhouses custom-built around as few as two prized cherry trees. Walk under the grapevine canopy in a pergola vineyard and each grape cluster has been painstakingly outfitted with a white wax paper “hat” to shield it from the rain.


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Table grapes for sale at Isetan Food Court. Corie Brown.

Japanese agriculture is made up of a patchwork of small farms each covering less than three or four acres. Only established farmers can own farmland. And, until very recently, vintners could not even lease land.

Winemakers have little choice but to contract with independent farmers for fruit. So when they want to make changes in the vineyard to improve the quality of their wine, it is a tough negotiation.

The challenge: Convincing farmers to grow wine grapes

Imagine being a winemaker and going to a farmer and asking him to take labor-intensive measures to reduce the number of clusters of grapes, minimize pesticides and fungicides (which will lead to more spoilage), and pick as late as possible, which means using the same little paper umbrellas for wine grapes that they use to protect their table grapes.

But since Japanese consumers rarely pay more than $20 even for an exceptional bottle of Japanese wine, the winemaker can pay only one-tenth as much for this fruit. It is the exact opposite of what happens in Europe and the United States, where wine grapes are the treasured fruit and table grapes are taken for granted.

The problem is particularly serious for Koshu producers. A push is on to make high-class Koshu in Yamanashi Prefecture near Mt. Fuji. But even though demand for wine produced from this indigenous grape is rising, fewer and fewer Koshu grapes are being grown.

“The volume of Koshu is declining because they are worth less money to farmers than table grapes,” says Shunji Suzuki, associate professor of enology and viticulture, University of Yamanashi.

At a vineyard with a contract to grow grapes for the Sadoya Winery that also grows table grapes, the grower, Kichinosuke Imai, laughed when asked whether he spends as much time caring for his wine grapes as he does for his table grapes. “Of course not,” he says. Taking out a pair of tiny scissors, he demonstrates how he trims the green buds of his table grapes so that, when they mature, they will have exactly 50 grapes per cluster. These loose, perfectly formed clusters sell for a premium.

Imai’s wine grapes grow on pergolas that sprawl untrained for 50 feet from the mother vine. He says he needs a heavy crop to make up for the low price.

The president of Sadoya, Kenichi Hagiwara, shrugs his shoulders. There is nothing he can do. The market has spoken.

Corie Brown, the co-founder and general manager of Zester Daily, is an award-winning food writer at work on a book about climate change and wine.

Photos: Top, fruit on display at the Isetan food court. Credit: Corie Brown.

Corie Brown, the co-founder and general manager of Zester Daily, is an award-winning food and wine writer. "Start Your Own Microbrewery, Distillery, or Cidery," a book she wrote with reporting from Zester Daily's network of contributors, was released by Entrepreneur Books in June 2015.