Japanese Fruit: In Pursuit of Sweet Perfection

Japanese Muskmelons: A Cut Above the Ordinary

Society Culture Lifestyle

Whether packed in its own elegant gift box or adorning a fancy pastry, the Japanese muskmelon is fruit at its most opulent. On this muskmelon tour, visit a Tokyo fruit parlor that boasts the ultimate melon dessert and a Shizuoka grower who has dedicated his life to the art of muskmelon cultivation.

Fruit Parfaits Worth Waiting For

In a country with a long tradition of treating fruit as a luxury good, no fruit says “luxury” quite like the Japanese muskmelon. It is not surprising, therefore, that these melons play a starring role at Shinjuku Takano (founded in 1885), one of Japan’s oldest and best-known fancy fruit emporiums.

Muskmelon is the star of this jellied dessert. (© Kodera Kei)

Takano set up its first fruit parlor in 1926, after foreign customers expressed a desire to enjoy the shop’s wares on the spot. A major draw at Takano Fruit Parlor is the muskmelon parfait, meticulously assembled from half of a perfectly ripe melon—selected and cut to order—layered with soft-serve ice cream, whipped cream, and 100% fruit sherbet. Every component of the dessert, down to the specially designed conical parfait glass, is calculated to enhance the taste and beauty of the melon for a truly memorable fruit-eating experience.

Takano Fruit Parlor’s ¥2,160 muskmelon parfait is available year-round, thanks to greenhouse cultivation, but it is especially popular during the summer months, when customers have been known to wait in line two or three hours for a table.

Takano’s best-selling muskmelon parfait. (© Kodera Kei)

A Boutique Just for Melons

In 2006, in honor of its 120th anniversary, Shinjuku Takano opened the Muskmelon Shop, an in-store boutique devoted exclusively to the king of fruit. Here an expert is on hand at all times to advise customers on precisely when a melon will reach peak ripeness. This is no easy task, but it is the key to getting the most from a pricey muskmelon, since even one day too early or late can make a big difference to the fruit’s flavor, texture, and fragrance. Some of the store’s experts double as instructors, teaching such popular classes as Fruit in Season and Fruit Arrangement.

The Muskmelon Shop at Shinjuku Takano (top). An expert taps on the bottom of a melon to gauge its ripeness (bottom left). A ¥16,200 gift melon (bottom right). (© Kodera Kei)

In the spirit of Japan’s kaiseki cuisine, the Muskmelon Shop treats and displays each of its products not as mere food but as a fresh, edible work of art. This is perhaps understandable, given the hours of skilled and painstaking work—backed by decades of breeding and development—that producers pour into each melon.

However, today Shinjuku Takano’s mission is to put that luxury within easier reach and “make fruit a part of daily life.” It offers not only premium fresh fruit but also an extensive line of original fruit products, from cakes and jellied desserts to jams and juices. These days the company insists on equipping each new shop—including those located in department stores—with its own kitchen. The idea is to serve and sell dishes and products using only the freshest fruit. “Our latest obsession is fruit salad,” says Kubo Naoko, head of public information and marketing.

Crowning Achievement

At a specialty fruit shop in central Tokyo, a single muskmelon costs anywhere from ¥13,000 to around ¥30,000. Even at the low end, that’s a good 25 times what most Americans would expect to pay for a nice melon. What can possibly account for such price differentials?

To find out what goes into a premium melon, we traveled 200 kilometers southwest from Tokyo to Fukuroi in Shizuoka Prefecture, where second-generation muskmelon grower Chūjō Fumiyoshi has devoted 40 years to the craft.

In Japan, the name of Fukuroi is synonymous with two things: soccer (it hosted some of the events for the 2002 FIFA World Cup) and Crown melons, one of the top brands of muskmelon. Crown melons are descended from an English variety of netted melon known as Earl’s Favorite, which was first planted in Fukuroi back in 1924. Finding the mild climate well suited to the cultivation of melons, which originally come from Egypt, growers kept improving the variety through selective breeding until they had developed a premium melon designed expressly for gift giving. They continue this process even today, saving seeds from the very best melons and guarding them vigilantly as a trade secret.

Only one pampered Crown melon is permitted to grow on each plant.

Glass-clad greenhouses are carefully designed to make optimum use of solar radiation.

Chūjō grows his melons in 11 glass greenhouses. The growth cycle from planting to harvest takes about 100 days, and by staggering the planting, Chūjō is able to harvest melons throughout the year. To maintain the ideal temperature and humidity in each greenhouse, he uses a computerized climate control system programmed to regulate multiple growing environments. The soil’s moisture—probably the single biggest factor determining a melon’s sweetness and flavor—must be fine-tuned to each plant’s growth, so Chūjō monitors his melons daily and waters them accordingly.

1. After pruning, each plant is left with just one egg-sized baby melon. 2. Each melon is wrapped in paper. 3. Chūjō feels the bottom of the melon to gauge its ripeness. 4. Inspected melons await shipment.

When the vines flower, about 25 days after transplanting, the grower must move quickly to hand-pollinate each blossom using a small brush. After another ten days, when the fruit has grown to the size of an egg, the vines are pruned until each plant is left with just one melon, which is gently wrapped in thin paper to assure a perfectly colored, uniform surface. The culling channels all the nutrients and sugars into the one remaining melon, until it is literally bursting with flavor. The distinctive “netting” that forms on the surface is the result of fissures that emerge and heal as the fruit ripens and swells.

Chūjō gauges a melon’s ripeness from the degree of “give” at the bottom, the blossom end.

Once harvested, the melons are transported to the local cooperative, where they undergo rigorous inspection and grading on the basis of such factors as size, sugar content, and prominence of netting. Crown melons have six grades: Fuji at the top, followed by Yama, Shiro, Yuki, and so on. Only one melon in a thousand or so earns the top grade of Fuji. After inspection, the melons are carefully packed in boxes and shipped to one of Japan’s central wholesale markets.

Chūjō’s greenhouses sometimes serve as classrooms, where horticultural students, fruit sellers, and others can get a firsthand look at the hard work and know-how that goes into each premium muskmelon. “It’s really gratifying to know that fruit retailers are sending their employees here to learn about our production techniques,” says Chūjō.

Melon cultivation is demanding, and the stakes are high. Chūjō still remembers the shock of ruining a crop through underwatering; he could barely eat for days afterward. “Every day I have to adjust the amount of water to the melons’ growth, so I can’t take any time off, not even for Christmas or New Year’s. It’s been hard on my wife, too,” he adds. Indeed, the couple has never gone on a family vacation.

Still, Chūjō would not have had it any other way. “I’m growing delicious melons that delight the eyes, then the nose, and finally the palate. To me, this is as good as it gets.”

The incomparably sweet, juicy, aromatic muskmelons showcased in Japanese fruit shops and parlors are the product of tireless dedication to perfection at every stage of the value chain. That said, a melon is just a melon . . . right? Can a piece of fruit really be worth all that effort? Try one and see.

(Originally written in Japanese and published on August 31, 2016. Banner photo: Muskmelon balls crown slices of layer cake [second from left] at Shinjuku Takano, which features a wide selection of desserts in addition to gifts and other fruit products. © Kodera Kei.)

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