Would you pay HK$3,500 for ONE strawberry? In Japan they do
Speciality producers of the berries are vying to offer the most sought after of several high-end brands
Growers of giant, juicy, sweet strawberries are competing to be Japan's top strawberry brand, reflecting an increase in demand both at home and abroad, as well as efforts to promote local produce and stimulate prefectural economies.
Often bought as a gift item for weddings, birthdays or parties, strawberries can command high prices in Japan where one strawberry can fetch as much as 50,000 yen (HK$3,254) on an online shopping site.
Reflecting heated competition for quality improvement, some 50 new strawberry varieties have been registered in Japan since 2011, bringing the total number of brands to 253 as of March.
Brightly coloured, succulent strawberries are usually sold at Japanese department stores or fruit specialty retailers. Amaou strawberries from Fukuoka Prefecture in southwestern Japan are a front-runner, boasting the highest average sales price per kilogram of about 1,200 yen in 2013 among major domestic producers.
The brand name is a kind of acronym for the Japanese words "akai" (red), "marui" (round), "ookii" (big) and "umai" (delicious).
At Mitsukoshi department store in Tokyo's upscale Ginza shopping district, Amaou strawberries were prominently displayed with price tags ranging from 1,620 yen to 5,400 yen for a box of 10 to 12.
"The taste of Fukuoka's Amaou is an amazing balance of sweet and acid, that's why the variety attracts so many customers," said 47-year-old Toyoharu Komine, head of a Sun Fruits Co shop in the department store, adding the product also attracts tourists from the rest of Asia and Middle Eastern countries.
Leung Kwai-kuen, a 42-year-old Hong Kong traveller who came to Japan with his father, bought two boxes of Amaou strawberries, saying: "Japan's strawberries looks so juicy and cute, so we want to buy some for our relatives."
Closing in on Amaou are the newly developed Skyberry strawberries from Tochigi Prefecture, north of Tokyo, where the yield of strawberries is the highest among Japan's 47 prefectures. Tochigi farmers spent 17 years to produce Skyberry strawberries.
Shipping has just begun. At the flagship store of fruits specialty retailer Takano Co in Tokyo's Shinjuku district, Skyberry strawberries were selling for 500 yen apiece.
The cone-shaped, bright red Skyberry was also used to make strawberry parfaits at the Takano fruits parlour, becoming one of the most popular items on the menu.
"We sold a record 320 strawberry parfaits priced at around 1,700 yen each in one day when we launched the product in February," said Naoko Kubo, an official of the Shinjuku Takano.
At a Skyberry farm in Sano, Tochigi, farm owner Kohei Shinozaki said he is happy that consumers are satisfied with his produce, but says he cannot take time off and that great care is needed to grow the strawberries.
Other prefectures are also working hard to grow high-quality strawberries, with the aim of boosting their profile and as well as the regional economy.
Yamanashi Prefecture, west of Tokyo, has created white strawberries with the romantic brand name Hatsukoi no Kaori 'Scent of First Love' that are juicy and sweet tasting. The colour on the surface and inside is white, but the seeds are red.