Japan's obsession with perfect fruit

Senbikiya, central Tokyo (Pic:Alfie Goodrich) Senbikiya sells only perfect fruit - with a price tag to match

Giving fruit as a gift is a common custom in Japan. But this fruit is not your normal greengrocers' produce, complete with bumps, bruises and blemishes. The pick of the crop is grown with exquisite care and attention to detail - and commands an eye-watering price when it comes to market.

Classical music plays softly over the speakers in the Senbikiya shop in central Tokyo. The uniformed members of staff are politely attentive, ushering the customers to chairs and crouching down beside them to take their orders.

The ceilings are high, the fittings elegant, the lighting tasteful and the displays are beautiful. But this is not some designer handbag emporium or high-end jewellery store. Senbikiya is a greengrocers.

Ushio Oshima is showing us around. He is a sixth-generation member of the shop's founding family. The business began back in the 19th century, piling fruit high and selling it cheap.

Gift of gratitude

That was until the wife of the second-generation owner astutely realised the real money was to be made by inverting the business model. Now Senbikiya must surely be the most expensive fruit shop in the world.

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There are apples, the size of a child's head, with evenly red, blemish-free skin on sale for 2,100 yen, or $25 (£15.80). That's each, not for a bag. Senbikiya Queen Strawberries come in boxes of twelve perfectly matched fruits at 6,825 yen, $83 (£52.40). Even on a slow day they sell 50 boxes.

Then there are the melons, each perfect, of course, and topped with identical T-shaped green stalks. They're 34,650 yen, or $419 (£264.50), for three.

"We specialise in gift-giving, fruits as gifts," says Mr Oshima. "So it really needs to look good. The appearance is a very important part of it. Then there's the service. The combination is what you pay for."

Japan has two gift-giving seasons a year, one in summer and one in winter. Family members exchange presents but the tradition goes well beyond that. People offer presents to express gratitude, such as to their bosses. Companies often send gifts to customers and business partners.

Senbikiya fruit shop

Senbikiya has carved out a niche for itself at the very top of the market. For the Japanese it is similar to Issey Miyake's status among fashion lovers, or Rolls Royce to car aficionados. But the desire for fruit perfection goes well beyond that.

Visitors to Japan are often surprised by the displays in supermarkets - and the prices. Mis-shapen produce is kept off the shelves, and blemishes are banished. Grapes come in small, heavily-packaged bunches, each fruit the size of a plum and so sweet and flavoursome that Westerners may think they taste fake.

Even run-of-the-mill apples can cost $2 (£1.25) or more each in central Tokyo, and families tend to share one or two around the dinner table, chopped up.

"When it comes to fruit it is still a luxurious item, not like vegetables," says Hiroko Ishikawa, who runs a fruit distribution business. "Vegetables you need for daily life but you can live without eating fruit. So if you are to buy something you might as well buy something that looks good. You don't want scarred or deformed because you are paying for the fruit. It just looks better."

Ms Ishikawa deals in domestically grown fruit as well as imports. But she has no doubt where the money is.

Line of melons in greenhouse (Pic: Alfie Goodrich) The intensive growing process results in one super-sweet melon per plant

"It's the mind of Japanese," she says. "Japanese-made is better."

The willingness to pay more - much more - for Japanese fruit has spawned some unusual industries. In Shizuoka prefecture, an hour-and-a-half by train south-west of Tokyo, 600 farmers strive to grow perfect melons, even when there is snow on the ground.

Masaomi Suzuki has been working in his steamy greenhouses for 50 years, but even after all that time he says he still learns something new every day.

The process begins with the perfect seeds. The local farmers' association breeds a new strain every year, seeking continuous improvements. Weak seedlings are weeded out. Then when the flowers appear, poor specimens are ruthlessly plucked and discarded.

Labour-intensive

By the time the fruits start to develop each vine has been left with just one, so all the nutrients can be concentrated into one lone, sweet, juicy melon.

The pruning is precise and the melons grow in even rows in the greenhouses, all at exactly the same height. Their stalks are helped to bear the weight by strings. And as they mature the fruits are given little plastic hats to wear "to prevent sunburn", a risk Mr Suzuki is keen to avoid even under glass in chilly February.

"I believe this is the most labour-intensive method out of all the melon farming all over Japan," he says. "We call it the Shizuoka method. In other places they do it differently and get multiple melons from each vine. But this takes by far the most effort."

Farmer Masaomi Suzuki and melons (Pic: Alfie Goodrich) Farmer Masaomi Suzuki has to keep the temperature constant to achieve the perfect crop

The ideal is a flawless sphere, pale green with an even, smooth pattern of webbing and of course the all-important T-shaped stalk. The very top grade of Shizuoka melon is classified as the Fuji, something Mr Suzuki estimates that, even with his craftsman's hands, he achieves with only 3% of his produce.

Growing perfect melons to satisfy the Japanese market is a costly business. On Mr Suzuki's farm - just three medium sized greenhouses - he gets through 55 litres of heating oil a day to maintain the ideal growing temperature.

He adjusts the settings when the sun goes in and out and when the wind changes to maintain it precisely, going to the farm day and night, 365 days a year. He says he and his family have never been away together because someone always needs to be on call. If it got too hot or cold in the greenhouses for even a brief period the entire crop could be ruined.

Little wonder Mr Suzuki rejects the idea that $100 (£63) melons are expensive. No way, he says. They're a bargain.

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