My journey to the heart of the muskmelon cult started with a strawberry. A few years ago, I was in a dimly lit Tokyo restaurant that served more courses than it had seats, where I dined on anatomical selections I couldn’t name belonging to species I didn’t know existed, prepared by a chef whose elegance with a knife resembled ballet more than cooking. Back home, an American version of this feast might have ended with a procession of desserts: a palate cleanser of grapefruit semi-freddo; a heftier dessert entrée of coffee buttercream with dark chocolate ganache; then a post-dessert dessert of truffles and sugar-coated jellies, plus a pastry to take home for later. But at my dinner in Tokyo, when the chef presented my dessert, I found a single, sliced strawberry, served alone on a plate.
Biting into one sliver of the fruit, I had the sense I was tasting in color for the first time. The strawberry was perfumed. It tasted of roses, honey, and a kiss. And it made absolutely no sense. Where did it come from? What made it special? Why only one?
I discovered my strawberry was both more special than I’d thought and less unique. In Tokyo’s department stores, just a few floors down from Dior dresses, I stumbled on shrink-wrapped boxes of strawberries, presented in soft lighting and on pedestals, being sold for $5 apiece—a bargain when I realized the best command $500 each. And it wasn’t just the strawberries: Japan had elevated all kinds of fruit to Birkin-bag status. In the subway, I spent $12 on fewer than a dozen grapes (again, cheap considering a bunch sold for $11,000 in 2016). I stared dumbfounded at YouTube fruit porn showing juicy hunks of yellow flesh being sliced from rare “egg of the sun” mangoes ($2,700 each for top specimens).
And then I learned about the “king of fruit”: muskmelons, reticulated spheres of “melting sweetness” that could command $27,000 a pair, earned TV specials in Japan, and wore tiny “hats” while ripening to save their pale flesh from sunburn. But … why? Did the world need melons that cost as much as a car? “It’s like asking in America, ‘Why do you high-five?’ ” said a Japanese friend, one of many I hounded for answers, and one of many who shrugged in response. “We have never questioned why the fruit is so expensive.” But, she added, “Since you asked about it, I started to realize, ‘Hmm … why, why, why?’”
Each fruit species boasts its own full-color brochure
By all accounts, Japan’s obsession with luxury fruits begins with Sembikiya, the country’s largest and oldest high-end fruit provider. So, ahead of a trip to Japan last fall, I emailed Sembikiya to see about arranging an interview at their flagship store in Nihonbashi, a tony part of downtown Tokyo that’s home to luxury hotels, lacquer bowl purveyors, and washi paper boutiques.
When I arrive in the marble lobby of the high-rise to which I’d been directed, I pass back and forth in front of what appears to be a jewelry store before finally realizing it is Sembikiya. Dark, polished wood and sheer curtains line the walls, and sparkling chandeliers shaped like exploding snowflakes twinkle overhead. Glass display cases hold meticulous rows of fruit tended by prim women in starched black uniforms and berets ready to share anecdotes about the sweetness of the pears ($19 each), or Sekai-ichi apples ($24 each). Middle-aged women with Chanel bags and teased up-dos inspect plump, jade-colored Seto grapes swaddled in crisp white paper, while their husbands admire the altarlike case of muskmelons at the center of the floor, each one perched on its own wooden box lined with mint-colored paper ($125 each).
Each fruit species boasts its own full-color brochure with tasting notes to rival those for first-growth Bordeaux. “The skin is thin, while the seedless pulp is moderately firm,” reads the card for the Suiho grape. Eaters can savor a “delicate sweetness and aroma with a refreshing aftertaste.”