Ikigai Fruits shipping RM420 strawberries, RM566 melons to the US

WHAT does a US$120 (RM566.40) melon taste like? To find out, you used to have to fly to Japan. Now, Americans can stay home and experience what many believe is one of the best pieces of fruit in the world. 
For the first time, Japanese-grown produce, such as strawberries and melons, is being shipped directly to US consumers through Ikigai Fruits, a new online retailer for a collective of small farmers across Japan. 
The effort underscores the country’s attempt to expand the consumer base outside Japan and eventually entice more people in the country to grow produce. Its agriculture industry is declining, as younger generations turn away from farming and businesses close. In 2020, the industry was valued at 8.9 trillion yen (RM267 billion), by 2050, it’s expected to be less than half that, according to a report by the Mitsubishi Research Institute. 
“Domestic consumption of luxury Japanese fruit is shrinking, so the Japanese government is stimulating the exports,” says Takahiro Hiraishi, a food consultant who works with local authorities on native products. 
Ikigai is exporting three kinds of fruit: Strawberries, melons and, when they’re in season, satsuma mandarins. The company plans to add other fruits to the seasonally available options. 
Prices range from US$89 for about 450g of vibrant pink Kotoka strawberries to as much as US$780 for three miniboxes that hold approximately nine Kotokas, light pink Awayukis and pale-coloured Pearl Whites each. 
The hefty price tag reflects the obsessive ways the fruit is grown and harvested. It’s an extension of Japan’s shokunin culture, in which artisans spend their lives mastering a craft such as making furniture or cooking ramen. (In the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which follows master Jiro Ono, aspiring chefs famously spend the first three years of a decade-long apprenticeship just learning how to cook rice.) 
Japanese farmers dedicated to growing crown melons — the electric-green-fleshed fruit that’s often the finale of a high-level omakase meal — typically train for about two years before they can become independent and are known to massage their fruit. They also prune their plants so each one produces a single melon, rather than the usual eight or more. 
The technique is known as ichiboku ikka, which translates to “one tree, one fruit”. The scant output concentrates the nutrients into an explosively sweet, intensely flavoured confection that can get very expensive: In 2019, a pair of Yubari King melons were auctioned off for the equivalent of US$45,000. 
The country even has a national grading system for fruits, based on size, shape, sugar content and related criteria, and prefectures have their own unique scoring structures. 
In Shizuoka, on Japan’s southern coast, the highest score a muskmelon — the overarching species of typically sweet fleshed melons such as cantaloupe and honeydew — can receive is designated as Fuji: Think of it as a Michelin three-star rating for fruit. Only about one in 1,000 melons earns this designation, which usually leads to a price of more than 30,000 yen. 
Strawberries can be even trickier. They’re notoriously sensitive to sunlight, heat, dry air and pests, which is why farmers are constantly adjusting their growing environment in controlled greenhouses. The timing of the harvest is the key to sweetness: The longer strawberries remain on their stems, the sweeter they become, as photosynthesis produces more glucose. 
However, picking a fully ripe strawberry makes it more vulnerable to damage during transportation. Every piece is inspected thoroughly, weighed and carefully wrapped in custom packaging. Even the smallest pinprick can result in mould. 
Ikigai director Asayama Haruyuki says it’s been a “big challenge” logistically to ship delicate, valuable fruits to the US while maintaining freshness. The produce is packed in individual boxes with ice packs on refrigerated planes meant specifically to transport fruit. It typically takes one to two weeks to get from the farm into the hands of US consumers. 
Top-quality, high-priced Japanese-style fruit isn’t foreign to New Yorkers. Inspired by the premium strawberries he experienced growing up in Japan, Hiroki Kogaco co-founded the vertical strawberry farm Oishii in Kearny, New Jersey, in 2017. He embraces Japanese fruit farmers’ practices to replicate a “perfect day” for a strawberry plant, using LED lights for the exact amount of light, air conditioners for the right temperature and humidity, and a combination of farmers, bees and robots to monitor it all. The company sells a 4.2 oz pack of its sweet, low-acid, pink Omakase strawberries for US$10 to US$15 — about US$1 each. 
Japan isn’t the only country seeing growth in America’s luxury fruit market. South Korea’s green-house-grown On Berries hit the US East Coast in January with a plump and crisp variety of strawberries called Gold Berry. Pastry chef Eunji Lee of New York’s French-Korean dessert shop Lysée, who was the first to put it on the menu, describes it as having a “candy-like sweetness”, in addition to its balanced acidity. At Manhattan’s haute Korean restaurant bōm, pastry chef Celia Lee is using On Berries three ways in one dessert: Fresh, blended into cream and frozen into sorbet. 
On Berries co-founder Richard Kang sells packs that hold anywhere from eight to 15 strawberries for US$25 in the Washington DC, area. To expand retail distribution, he’s raising the brand’s awareness by collaborating with other chefs. 
These costs might seem high when local grocery stores sell boxes of Driscoll’s strawberries for US$6. But not if you really value the joy of eating outrageously flavour-fill, exquisitely gorgeous fruit — even when it’s out of season.

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