‘Can cost more than bluefin tuna’: how Japan’s most expensive foods – from wasabi to pufferfish to mangoes – are produced
- Communities around Japan harvest some of the most expensive fruit, vegetables and seafood, including crown melons, matsutake mushrooms and sea urchins
- The harvesting processes increase these items’ prices, since they can be lengthy, risky, and costly
Communities throughout Japan harvest some of the most exquisite fruit, vegetables, and seafood. Despite the high prices, there’s still significant demand around the world.
These high price tags are the result of lengthy, risky or costly cultivation processes.
Here are eight Japanese products that don’t come cheap.
Wasabi is known for being incredibly difficult to grow commercially, and the process of growing real wasabi in Japan contributes to its hefty price tag.
The only place it can be found growing naturally is along Japanese mountain streams.
Specific conditions such as amount of shade, temperature, and soil minerals must be met for these plants to thrive. They need a constant supply of running spring water and can only tolerate temperatures between eight degrees and 20 degrees Celsius.
Although wasabi grows mainly in Japan, The Wasabi Company, in Europe, is among the first to grow it commercially.
Wasabi must grow for about 18 months before it can be harvested. Harvesting is a time-consuming process, it has to be done completely by hand. The plant is broken and cleaned up to get to the stem. A special grater with very fine teeth is used to turn it into a paste.
Unagi, or freshwater Japanese eel, can cost more than bluefin tuna. It has been a delicacy for thousands of years, but overfishing has led to a decline in eel populations, contributing to high prices.
Young eels are caught and raised on farms, and require daily monitoring. If disease spreads or accidents happen, the whole batch can be lost.
Feeding the eels two or three times a day is also expensive. They eat a mixture of fish meal, wheat, soybean meal and fish oil. After six to 12 months, the eels are big enough to be sold.
3. Puffer fish
The careful preparation process and overfishing are causing it to become more expensive.
Sweet mangoes, known as Taiyo no Tamago [egg of the sun], are farmed in Miyazaki prefecture. Market auctions sell these mangoes for as much as US$4,000 for a pair.
Plenty of sunlight is needed to make them plump and red. Their skin must be unblemished with no hints of green, and they must weigh more than 350 grams and have at least 15 per cent sugar content.
5. Ruby Roman grapes
The grapes are cultivated in greenhouses, so farmers can have better control of their growth. They’re monitored to ensure each grape in the bunch is identical.
6. Sea urchin
Sea urchin, or uni, is prized in several parts of the world for its flavour. The spiky shells of sea urchins are cracked open for the gonads, which are the sex organs that produce roe.
One 200-gram tray can cost up to US$100. In Japan, some can sell for five times that. Red sea urchins are hand-harvested by divers.
The amount of kelp in the water affects how many good-quality urchins can be harvested. When there is a lack of kelp, the urchins are less marketable.
Farming uni hasn’t been perfected yet, so it remains a highly sought-after food.
Japanese melons are largely grown in central Japan, and can cost over US$200. In 2019, two melons from Hokkaido in northern Japan sold for just over US$45,000 at auction.
It takes 100 days for one of these crown melons to fully grow, and it requires constant attention and care. Its outside pattern and sugar content determine which grade it falls into.
The melons are grown in raised beds and kept separated from the ground. This allows the farmers to control the exact amount of water. Air-conditioning and heating keep the temperatures constant so the melons can be harvested year-round.
Despite the cost, there is high demand for the fruit across Japan. They are a luxury that plays a big part in Japan’s gift-giving culture.
8. Matsutake mushrooms
Matsutake mushrooms are harvested once a year in Japan. If the harvest is low, they can cost up to US$500 per kilogram.
These mushrooms grow in the ground connected to the roots of red pine trees. They are hand-picked and can be difficult to find because they blend into the forest floor.
Changing habitats caused by drought, high temperatures and insect damage can affect the quality of each harvest. When there is a bad harvest, the prices substantially increase.
Today, Japan imports a majority of its matsutake mushrooms from places like China and South Korea.