The Quest for the Perfect Melon in Tokyo

The varied cultures of the globe each have their own unique way of commemorating special occasions, whether personal, religious, or national in nature. Typically accompanying such events are expressions of love, gratitude and kinship between people in the forms of traditional gifts, feasts, and festivals. In Japan, it is customary to give the gift of meticulously crafted and painstakingly cultivated fresh fruits. Tokyo’s Sembikiya is one of the premier examples of a luxury fruit vendor, selling pristine and peerless fruits in Ginza to be given as gifts to citizens of Tokyo.

Sembikiya began its business of selling fruits in the 19th century and was a traditional fruit vendor in Tokyo. Now Sembikiya is akin to a luxury boutique store, playing classical music over loudspeakers with uniformed attendants taking care of customers’ needs. This inversion of the traditional business model has sustained Sembikiya for six generations and has helped give rise to the particularly Japanese custom of giving fresh fruits as gifts.

Appearance, color, and a peerless taste all contribute to making Sembikiya’s fruits the finest in not only Japan but also the world. Any fruit that is imperfect in the slightest way never makes it to the shelves, and the prices the produce fetches are mind-boggling: apples can be $2 per apple and melons for $100. Ushio Oshima, 6th generation proprietor of Sembikiya, attributes much of the success of stores like Sembikiya to the Japanese preference for the domestic. Additionally, fruit is a luxury item in Japan, unlike vegetables, and is often regarded as a status symbol.

Shizuoka prefecture west of Tokyo hosts a team of 600 melon farmers that spend their entire year growing the most pristine melons money can buy. Each melon begins its life inside of one of many greenhouses and starts as a seed chosen from among all others for its flawless genetics. The techniques employed in caring for the melon during the course of its growth are both obscure and time tested. Each stalk is allowed to grow only one melon and the maturing melon is protected from sunburn with the addition of a plastic hat.

The end product is the ideal picture of a melon, smooth skin with symmetrical webbing, a fleshy pale skin and a T-shaped stalk at the top. The top class melon from the Shizuoka method is called the ‘Fuji’ melon and Masaomi Suzuki, longtime member of the 600 person team responsible for the Shizuoka melons, estimates that only 3% of all melons meet the criteria to be classified as a ‘Fuji’ melon. Suzuki jokes that, at $100, his melons are a bargain. Given the labor intensive method employed in their creation, there is little reason to doubt his word.