- Communities harvest some of the most expensive Japanese fruits, vegetables, and seafood.
- The harvesting process increases these items’ prices, since it can be lengthy, risky, and costly.
- Here’s how some of Japan’s most expensive foods are harvested.
Narrator: Communities throughout Japan harvest some of the most exquisite fruits, vegetables, and seafood. Despite the high prices, there’s still significant demand all around the world.
These high price tags are the result of lengthy, risky, and costly cultivation processes. Real wasabi is a rarity, and it can cost up to $250 per kilo.
The process of growing real wasabi in Japan contributes to its hefty price tag. Wasabi is known for being the hardest plant to grow commercially in the world. The only place in the world where it can be found growing naturally is along Japanese mountain streams. Specific conditions such as amount of shade, temperature, and soil minerals are necessary for these plants to thrive. They need a constant supply of running spring water and can only tolerate temperatures between 8 and 20 degrees Celsius all year round. Although wasabi grows mainly in Japan, The Wasabi Company, located in Europe, is among the first to grow it commercially. Wasabi grows for about 18 months before it can be harvested. Not only is harvesting a time-consuming process, but it has to be done completely by hand. The farmer breaks apart the plant and cleans it 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 over time, overfishing has led to a decline in eel populations, contributing to high prices. In January 2018, young eels, also called glass eels, cost around $35,000 per kilogram. Young eels are caught and raised on farms like this, which requires daily monitoring by eel farmers. And if disease spreads or accidents happen, the whole pond can be lost. Feeding the eels two to three times a day is also an expensive task. Their diets consist of a mixture of fish meal, wheat, soybean meal, and fish oil. The farmers have to make enough food to feed all 150,000 baby eels. After six to 12 months, the eels are big enough to be sold.
3. Puffer Fish
Fugu, or puffer fish, is a delicacy served across Japan. The most prized and poisonous is the torafugu, or tiger puffer fish. In Japan’s Haedomari Market, it’s auctioned off using secret bids. The tetrodotoxin found in fugu is more toxic than cyanide. People can be poisoned by badly prepared fish. The Japanese government places strict regulations on who can prepare fugu, and chefs go through extensive training to achieve this skill set. This careful preparation process and overfishing are causing it to become more and more expensive.
These sweet mangoes, known as Taiyo no Tamago, are farmed in the Miyazaki Prefecture of Japan. Market auctions sell these mangoes for as much as $4,000 for a pair. Bees are released to help the mangoes grow and ripen. Plenty of sunlight is needed to make these mangoes plump, red, and perfectly unscratched. For a mango to be considered for auction, its skin must have no hints of green and it has to weigh more than 350 grams and have at least 15% sugar content.
5. Ruby Roman grapes
Ruby Roman grapes are a delicacy grown in Japan. One bunch of these grapes can sell for $90 to $450. They stand out in their size, uniform color, and taste. All of these qualities impact the grade Ruby Roman grapes are categorized in and determine exactly what their final value will be. 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. Light and temperature are essential for the grape bunches to ripen into the right color and shape.
6. Sea Urchin
Sea urchin, or uni in Japanese, is prized for its unique flavor in several parts of the world. When the spiky shells of sea urchins are cracked open, the gonads, which are the sex organs that produce roe, are found inside. One 200-gram tray of gonads can cost up to $100. And in Japan, some can even sell for five times that. Red sea urchins are hand-harvested individually by divers. They can be found on seabeds in Santa Barbara, California. 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. Once all of the urchins have been collected, they’re sent to a processing facility. Here, the intestines and the gonads are carefully removed to preserve their freshness. It is crucial not to rip any part of the gonad, or they drop in value and grade. Farming uni hasn’t been perfected yet, so it remains a highly sought-after seafood.
This Japanese melon is grown in central Japan, and it can cost over $200. In 2019, two melons from Hokkaido sold for just over $45,000 at auction. It takes 100 days for one of these crown melons to fully grow, and it requires a farmer’s constant attention and care. A melon’s outside pattern and its sugar content determine which grade it’ll fall into. They’re grown in raised beds and kept separated from the ground. This allows the farmers to control the exact amount of water each plant gets. The air-conditioning and heating keep the temperatures constant so that the melons can be harvested year-round. Despite the cost, there is a high demand for these fruits across Japan. They are a luxury that plays a big part in Japan’s gift-giving culture.
8. Matsutake mushrooms
Matsutake mushrooms are hunted and harvested once a year in Japan. If the harvest is low, they can cost up to $500 per kilogram. These mushrooms grow in the ground connected to the roots of red pine trees. They are handpicked and can be difficult to find because they blend into the forest floor. Changing habitats caused by drought years, high temperatures, and insect damage can affect the quality of the harvest each year. When there is a bad harvest, the prices of the matsutake mushrooms substantially increase. Today, Japan imports a majority of its matsutake mushrooms from places like China and South Korea.