Why is Yubari King Melon So Expensive? (Top 10 Reasons)
We are often told to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.
They will keep us healthy.
A certain type of cantaloupe grown in Japan costs a fortune.
Buying one may require the unhealthy idea of refinancing a home mortgage to purchase a single melon.
Here are 10 reasons the Yubari King melon is so expensive.
Why Is Yubari King Melon So Expensive? (Top 10 Reasons)
1. Grown In A Limited Area
A cantaloupe cultivar, the Yubari King melon is grown in a very limited area.
Cultivars are plants carefully bred over many generations with the goal of improving their qualities.
The Yubari King has developed as a hybrid of the Burpee’s Spicy cantaloupe and the Earl’s Favourite cantaloupe.
In addition to being known as cantaloupe, the Yubari King is also a muskmelon.
To get a bit technical, all cantaloupes are muskmelons, but not all muskmelons fit within the more narrowly defined species of melons that we call cantaloupes.
This specially-bred cantaloupe has a designation that limits its cultivation to a particular region in Japan.
When purchasing cantaloupes from most groceries today, usually the closest we can get to the origin of the melon is the nation of cultivation.
With the Yubari King, we have a geographical identifier that offers greater exclusivity.
Farmed in Yūbari, a settlement with fewer than 9,000 residents in Hokkaidō, this melon illustrates how a crop can transform a region.
Located in a mountainous area, Yūbari once served as a coal-mining community.
After the mines closed in 1990, the local economy suffered and the area’s population declined.
People needed a new organic material to harvest from the ground.
Fortunately, high rainfall and volcanic soil with very high nutrient content offered new hope for this mountainous region, one known to have harsh winters.
Farmers in this area focused on their melons.
They carefully harvested them, taking the best seeds and carefully improving the crop.
In time, their efforts paid off.
Usually sold at more than $50 per melon, cantaloupes grown in and around Yubari are not the budget melons one buys at the farmer’s market down the road.
Some of these melons sell for more than $200 each.
During auctions and at the beginning of the main melon season, some of the top Yubari melons ascend to the status of melon royalty and command the top fruit prices in the world.
One may think of them as the “caviar” of cantaloupes!
The specific variety that commands the top dollar (or, in this case, the most Japanese yen) is referred to as the “Yubari King.”
Known for their renowned sweet taste, these royal melons have a royal price that is truly a king’s ransom.
Some have been sold at car-like prices, for more than $13,000 at auction.
Why would anyone pay so much for a melon, especially one that they certainly cannot drive?
What drives their prices so high?
Part of the reason for that high price is their protected geographical indication.
These are not generic cantaloupes of uncertain pedigree.
These are world-famous melons.
2. Gift-Giving Culture Plays A Role
With such high-priced melons on the market, another important factor in the expense of these melons involves longstanding Japanese cultural practices.
The practice of gift-giving is ingrained within Japanese culture.
Fruit is a gift commonly offered in this custom.
These gifts are not apples picked from a tree or berries yanked from the ground that may have blemishes or imperfections.
These gifts of fine fruit resemble organic, edible masterpieces.
True works of art patiently grown from the vine, some of these fruits trace their significance back more than 700 years.
In the 13th and 14th centuries, noble members of the samurai demonstrated loyalty to their chief—the shogun—by presenting them with fruit.
Melons were often given in this ceremonial form of honor and respect.
Part of the gift of edibles involved not just the offering of the fruit, but the giving of items of high quality as a form both of respect and building bonds.
This often included an expectation that the favor would be returned by assisting with the harvest.
Although melon cultivation occurs throughout Japan, these fruits are usually viewed as more than just a snack.
Melons, including the Yubari King, have become important commodities in this gift-giving culture.
A high-end store even traces its origins to gift-giving by a samurai.
Benzo Ohshima, a samurai, began peddling discounted fruit in 1834.
Later that century, one of his descendants turned the business model on its head, becoming a fruit purveyor not of discounted varieties, but instead of highly-refined and very expensive specimens.
This represents the birth of Sembikiya, a very elegant store that sells fruits of the highest pedigree for a very high price.
This company has perfected a business model that emphasizes gift-giving of the fanciest fruits.
With two gift-giving seasons in Japan each year—one in summer and one in winter—this company allows families of significant financial means to exchange presents during that time, as well as to share gifts with bosses and others.
This gift-giving tradition is based upon harvesting crops that demonstrate fruit perfection.
During busy shopping periods, Sembikiya may sell upwards of 200 muskmelons per day.
3. Selection Of The “Best” Seeds
In most agricultural operations, an important goal is to have as many seeds as possible.
The more seeds planted, the larger the potential yield.
While mass production and maximum seed potential may represent the common approach used in agribusiness, this does not reflect the practice used when growing Yubari melons.
Farmers who harvest these precious and very expensive fruits take the opposite approach.
During the early phase of the melon’s life cycle, farmers choose only the best seeds.
After doing this, they take this emphasis on selectivity to an even higher level.
They will carefully remove all of the flower buds, except for one, so the melon will not have any competition for nutrients.
They only want a single melon to grow on each vine so that it does not have to compete with any other melons for the nutrients that it needs to grow to perfection.
As the flowering process begins, farmers painstakingly remove any buds that they consider to be subpar.
After discarding buds they deem imperfect, they do something not seen in any other melon farms.
They grab a paintbrush and use it to pollinate the blooms that have the best potential by hand.
The farmers carefully use the paintbrush as a tool.
Similar to a bee, they use the brush to transfer pollen from one bloom to another.
Through these steps, the farmers carefully collect seeds that they consider to be perfect.
Over a long period, they have developed different sub-varieties of the seeds best suited for different seasons.
This effort to extract the best seeds is part of a larger process, one that compels the local farmers to breed a new strain of the melon each year.
Their goal is not just to collect the best seeds.
They also want to correct past imperfections as part of their quest for a perfect melon.
Fostering continuous improvements in their melons is an important goal for these farmers.
On their farms, there is no room for weak seedlings to take root.
Every crop must surpass the ones before it.
When farmers devote such attention to an act as simple as collecting seeds, one can assume that the price of these melons will increase.
4. Efforts Required To Raise Them
These melons carry a premium price due to the time and effort to cultivate, grow, harvest, and prepare these highly aesthetic pieces of produce.
No cheap fertilizer, planters, or mulch will be used for them.
Instead, they are often provided with carefully selected soil with a high proportion of volcanic ash, individualized boxes that serve as their cantaloupe cultivar condo, and comfortable surroundings in a carefully constructed greenhouse.
Farmers who cultivate the Yubari King give these muskmelons incredible care and their full attention.
They require 100 days to grow to marketable maturity.
Knowing the value that these products will bring from the marketplace, many farmers grow these expensive melons throughout the entire year.
Once a melon has made it to the point of getting into the greenhouse, the effort required to raise it and the devotion it receives escalate to an even higher level.
Each melon will have a string attached to its stem so it does not fall from the vine.
They receive a cone-shaped “hat”—usually black in color—that keeps the melon from getting overexposed to the sun.
Fruits with hats to protect them from sunburn are fruits pampered and treated in a royal fashion.
With at least 20 different seed varieties to meet the growing demands of different seasons, farmers can craft melons that grow perfectly regardless of the weather.
This farming process emphasizes precision.
Pruning takes place with great care.
Stalks have strings to help them bear the weight of the growing melon.
These melons, all of equal height, take shape in evenly divided rows that show the attention to detail that farmers devote to the success of their crops.
5. White Glove And Climate-Controlled Treatment
One might say that the Yubari King melons get a true white-glove treatment.
Indeed, to say such a thing would be to state something that is categorically true.
As the melons reach maturity, farmers reach for their pairs of gloves.
They wear gloves as they gently care for these melons.
In some cases, the farmers go through more than one pair of gloves while preparing these melons for the market.
Giving the Yubari King the white-glove treatment is part of the process, one done entirely by hand to ensure not only perfect taste, but also perfect appearance.
In addition to polishing with gloves, the plants are pampered with paper.
As the melons start to mature, farmers wrap them in white paper.
They occasionally hand polish and massage them, creating something that one might call a high-end spa for their melons.
Sembikiya refers to this massage process as “ball wiping,” their phrase to describe the hands-on way that farmers care for their fruits before they are ready to harvest.
The raised beds of these cantaloupe condos where the fruits grow are given precisely managed drinks of water.
With the harsh winter weather outside, these year-round operations even have another enhancement that promotes the growth of these melons.
Much more than a simple greenhouse, these cantaloupes take shape in a climate-controlled facility.
Heating and air conditioning maintain a constant temperature throughout the year.
While the closest that many of us may come to “air conditioning” our melons is to place them in the refrigerator after slicing them open, these cozy greenhouses have better climate control than some homes do.
Some farmers even adjust the temperatures to accommodate for when the sun rises and sets, as well as when higher winds might affect wind chill.
One farmer mentioned using 55 liters (14.5 gallons) of heating oil each day to keep the temperature for growing his melons at an ideal level.
He said his family never leaves the farm at the same time so that someone can adjust the temperature.
Imagine never being able to take a family vacation because someone had to keep the melons at the perfect temperature.
This explains why these melons are so expensive.
6. Harvested With Care
Harvesting these melons is a slow, involved, delicate, and expensive process.
Unlike workers in the fields who pick melons, berries, and other crops with great efficiency, the farmers who cultivate Yubari King melons perform their tasks in a slow, methodical, and gentle manner.
While handling the fruit with white gloves, they inspect the skin for blemishes.
Rather than yanking them from the vine, they harvest them by using a pair of scissors.
The final product has an excellent rind pattern, a perfectly round shape, a very sweet taste, and a decorative stem left intact after the melon is cut.
The peak harvesting season takes place from May to August, though some farmers have used their fancy, climate-controlled greenhouses to cultivate cantaloupes throughout the year to meet the demand for their very expensive product.
As they inspect the fruit, farmers gently tap, flick, and knock the melons to listen for a low, deep sound that indicates their ripeness and assure that they are ready to harvest.
The lattice pattern on the melon should be perfect and perfectly appealing.
The Yubari King should also have a distinctive fragrance.
7. Only The Best Are Selected
Even with all of the care already taken to plant, grow, and harvest them, the melons must go through an additional grading process at many high-end markets.
Melons have four grades.
Any minor defects will relegate a melon to “yuki” status.
After casting melons with slight imperfections aside, the rest are graded on how well they display their perfect appearance and their sugar content.
The majority, or 55%, occupy the third tier, the “shiro” grade.
Approximately 25% ascend to the second tier, the “yama” grade.
The cream of the cantaloupe crop, usually 0.1% of melons, or one in a thousand, receives the “fuji” grade at the top-end markets.
In other stores, “fuji” melons may include up to the top 3%.
At Sembikiya, they will sell only about 3% of any given harvest, so only the most marvelous muskmelons make their grade.
These melons are not barcoded with stickers, scanned, or tossed into a plastic or paper bag.
Instead, they are placed inside individual presentation boxes, usually resting on hay or silk, with a ribbon tied around them.
The boxes are not made of paper or cardboard.
They are usually constructed of wood.
The visual aesthetic is very important since high-quality items should excite the purchaser with their beauty and presentation.
To guide the cantaloupe connoisseur, there is often a full-color brochure with tasting notes about the fruit species sold in the store, similar to documents that offer elaborate details about fine wines.
This allows the purchaser to get an idea of the aroma, sweetness, and aftertaste before taking their melon home.
8. Many Japanese Fruits Are Expensive
Given the elegant treatment Yubari King melons receive, one might consider them to be a unique commodity in the Japanese fruit market.
While Sembikiya is the nation’s oldest and largest provider of high-end fruits, this obsession with carefully harvested, beautifully cultivated, and tastefully expensive fruit goes beyond the melons.
Fruits in Japan are generally more expensive, even if they do not reach the levels of Yubari King melons.
While one can expect to pay $19 for a perfect pear or $24 for an amazing apple at Sembikiya, even a single, regular apple may cost more than $2 at a typical supermarket in Tokyo.
Beyond trying to perfect the melon through carefully crafting the Yubari King, the Japanese have created square-shaped watermelons that fit perfectly in smaller refrigerators, as well as heart-shaped watermelons.
Fruit sold in most Japanese supermarkets lack blemishes of any kind.
This goes back to a cultural mindset found in many areas of Japan.
Fruits are perceived to remain a luxurious item, while vegetables are necessary for daily life.
A person needs vegetables to survive but can live without fruit.
Thus, in many areas of Japan, fruit remains something special to add to the plate.
9. Certain Japanese Foods Are Expensive
Beyond the Yubari King melon and other high-end fruits, certain other Japanese foods have a very expensive cost.
This includes beef from Wagyu cattle.
Wagyu beef production remains a highly regulated practice on the Japanese islands.
The country has even declared Waygu cattle to be a national living treasure.
Kobe beef is a delicacy from Japanese cattle in the Wagyu family.
If a person wants a glass of Nakazawa milk, they should be ready to pay upwards of $40.
Another dish people die for is fugu or pufferfish.
Chefs who serve this must take years to become experts in its preparation.
Only certain parts of the pufferfish can be eaten, and they require intensely focused preparation.
One wrong move will kill the diner.
10. Auction Prices
The last reason involves one of the first steps in the selling process.
One Japanese tradition calls for high auction bids on the first produce harvested during the early season.
When the first muskmelons receive their bids, they sometimes command five-figure prices.
In 2016, a pair sold for more than $27,000 during an auction.
There is no significant difference between a melon costing $200 and one that fetches $10,000.
The first price stimulated the industry and offered an incentive to farmers to harvest their best products.
Both prices are very expensive—indeed, too expensive.