Expensive melons Japan
Photo: Eq Roy/Dreamstime

Tokyo Q&A: Why is fruit so expensive in Japan?

Fruits such as Japanese melon and grapes are not so much a snack in Japan but a luxury item cultivated for gifting

Written by
Jessica Thompson

Any visitor to Tokyo has likely ogled over a ¥20,000 musk melon that costs more than a Michelin-starred meal, posted Instagram shots of gold-lined boxes of ¥3,000 a pop peaches, and tried to personally justify ¥5,000 for a bunch of shine muscat grapes. Shopping for fruit in Japan is more like shopping for jewellery.

But why is it so? It’s a combination of factors.

For starters, fruit plays a very different role in Japan. In many parts of the world, fruit is eaten as an everyday snack, but for Japan, it is regarded as a precious gift given to someone you want to impress, show your gratitude to, or wish well. It’s also common to be served a few slices of fruit at the end of a high-end, multi-course kaiseki meal.

Japanese grapes, shine muscat grapes
Photo: Elianna Friedman/UnsplashShine muscat, a premium grape variety in Japan

This regal status means the fruit must be a premium product worthy of gifting. In other words, it should be perfect and blemish-free: elegantly round and rosy peaches; gleaming scarlet strawberries; plump, juicy grapes; perfectly spherical and fragrant melons.

Aside from this luxury status, there are regulations on size, colour and taste set by JA (Japan Agricultural Cooperative), the national regulatory body, when buying produce from farmers for resale. The landmass of Japan is also almost 80 percent mountains, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for fruit crops. Many fruit farms in Japan are run by family-run or small-scale businesses, for whom fruit cultivation remains a labour-intensive process, and one that is undertaken with a typically Japanese sense of tenacity and pride.

Japanese melons
Photo: Pigprox/DreamstimeThe precise and hyper-controlled environment in which prized Japanese melons are cultivated

For an example of the lengths fruit farmers will go to, take the famous crown musk melons of Shizuoka: they are grown just one melon per vine in uniform rows in climate-controlled greenhouses; donned little plastic hats to avoid sun damage; and given gentle rubs by the farmers in cotton gloves to stimulates sweetness.

Cheap(ish) fruit is available in Japan. Look for it when visiting rural regions, where it doesn’t bear the logistical costs of transportation to the city. Go for local varieties that are in season: strawberries and native citrus like amanatsu in spring; peaches and anzu (native apricots) in summer; figs, nashi (Asian pear), grapes and persimmons in autumn; mandarins and apples in winter. Also, shop at farmers' markets to buy fruit directly from farmers, who can sell their less ‘perfect’ fruit.

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