Tokyo (AFP) – With melons that sell for the price of a new car and grapes that go for more than $100 a pop, Japan is a country where perfectly-formed fruit can fetch a fortune.
An industry of fruit boutiques has defied Japan's sluggish economy to consistently offer luscious and lavishly tended produce for hefty prices -- and it is always in demand.
In July, a single bunch of "Ruby Roman" grapes reportedly sold for 400,000 yen ($4,000), making the plump, crimson berries worth a staggering 11,000 yen each.
Every May, a pair of canteloupe melons grown in the north of Hokkaido is auctioned off. They regularly fetch the price of a modest new car.
The hammer fell on this year's pair at a cool 1.6 million yen.
While such cases are at the extreme end, top-notch fruit is a valuable commodity in the world of business and as a seasonal gift, signifying just how much importance the giver attaches to the relationship.
"Most of our products are for gift purposes, so we collect large and high-grade products from all around Japan," says Yoshinobu Ishiyama, manager of a branch of Sun Fruits at Tokyo Midtown, a glitzy office-commercial complex that is also home to a Ritz Carlton Hotel.
"We offer rare products. Above all, they have to be delicious," he says.
'You never forget the experience'
Inside his bright, white-tiled emporium, an array of mouth-watering fruits gives off a heady, brain-tingling aroma as soothing music lulls his well-heeled customers.
While Ishiyama doesn't have anything you could trade for a mid-range auto, he does have a slightly more affordable example of the "Ruby Roman" grapes -- a snip at 31,500 yen for a bunch.
A single white peach -- flavourful, perfectly round and about the size of a newborn baby's head -- goes for 2,625 yen. A bunch of Muscat of Alexandria grapes has a 7,350 yen price tag.
Then, there is the unrivalled symbol of expensive gifts in Japan: musk melons.
Sitting in individual wooden boxes on the top shelf of a glass-door refrigerator at the back of the shop, they will set you back as much as 16,000 yen.
There are also square watermelons -- grown in plastic boxes and usually for decoration -- which start at 5,000 yen.
As with everything in Japan, presentation is key: serried ranks of cherries line up in boxes, their stalks all facing in the same direction; strawberries nestle in soft packaging, their highly-shined, deep red surface uniformly patinated by seeds.
It goes without saying that there are no blemishes. Nothing is bruised, everything is exactly the right shape, as if each fruit has been cast in wax by a master craftsman working off the original blueprints.
Of course, not everyone buys their bananas at places like Sun Fruits; much more affordable offerings are on display in the average supermarket.
But to lubricate the wheels of social exchange in a country that has a deeply ingrained culture of gift-giving, nothing matches high-end fruit.
At summer and year-end, households send packaged gifts to relatives, business associates and bosses to express their gratitude.
If the two sides of the exchange are of a broadly similar social standing the gift is reciprocated. A 4,000 yen box of cherries might be given in exchange for a 5,000 yen presentation pack of mangoes.
If the giver owes for social favours dispensed through the year, there could be no change from that 16,000 yen musk melon. But the boss who receives it will understand how grateful you are.
The giving of high-end fruits creates a lasting impression on Japanese clients, says Tokyo-based corporate trainer Farhad Kardan, who was strolling through Sun Fruits choosing possible gifts.
"You buy these delicious things and share a great time with people who are close to you," he told AFP.
"You never forget the experience of having eaten something so delicious. What you pay for is for the quality and the value."
How can fruit cost so much?
Despite more than a decade of deflation, prices for fresh food in Japan are considered high by world standards, partially as a result of farming practices and import preferences. Consumers are accustomed to paying a premium on Japanese-grown produce, with many believing it to be safer and better quality than imports.
But even so, many open-mouthed visitors to Japan wonder: how can a piece of fruit cost so much?
Ishiyama says his master musk melon grower Toshiaki Nishihara puts a whole lot of love into each fruit he raises in his computer-controlled greenhouse in Shizuoka prefecture, southwest of Tokyo.
He hand-pollinates his crop and selects only one melon on each plant so that all the nutrients, sugar and juice are concentrated in the chosen fruit.
Like their $16,000 cousins from Hokkaido, the best-quality melons are perfect spheres with a smooth, evenly patterned rind.
"The prices are very high because of the care and cost that go into the fruits," Ishiyama said.
The AFP team who visited Sun Fruits was about to walk away empty-handed when they spotted two regular apples by the door -- a bargain at a little over $4 for the pair.