Expensive food in Japan: Why the Japanese are willing to pay so much

Would you pay $60,000 for a rockmelon? Of course you wouldn't. Maybe $1 million for a bottle of whisky? Not a chance.

And yet in Japan, where high value is placed on the very finest produce – particularly when it's rare, or the first of the season – these eye-watering transactions take place regularly.

So, what are Japan's most sought-after items? And why do they cost so much money? (Note, the prices below are in Australian dollars, believe it or not)

Yubari King Melon: up to $60,000

Remember when there were a few cyclones up north in Australia and the price of bananas skyrocketed and everyone freaked out? Well, prepare yourself for a proper brain explosion, because the world's most expensive fruit is not, in fact, Queensland bananas, but Japan's Yubari king melon, which has been known to sell for up to 5 million yen, or about $60,000. A piece. These rock melons are grown in the small city of Yubari in Hokkaido, and are known for their high sugar content and perfect roundness. They normally sell for about $250 each; however, auctions of special melons can bring insane prices.

Yamazaki 55-year-old whisky: $1.09 million

Japan has long produced some of the world's finest and most sought-after whisky, which of course come at a price. The brand Karuizawa is said to be the world's rarest whisky, with bottles regularly selling for about $120,000. The Hibiki 35 is another standout, and retails for around $70,000 a bottle. However, the most expensive Japanese whisky ever produced is the Yamazaki 55 – only 100 bottles were ever released, retailing for about $38,000. Last year, one of those bottles sold at auction in Hong Kong for $1.09 million.

Bluefin tuna: $4.15 million

Kiyomura Corp. owner Kiyoshi Kimura, right, poses with the bluefin tuna he made a winning bid at the annual New Year auction, in front of his Sushi Zanmai restaurant in Tokyo Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019. The 278 kg bluefin tuna sold for a record 333.6 million yen ($3 million) in the first auction of 2019.

Kiyomura owner Kiyoshi Kimura, right, poses with the bluefin tuna he made a winning bid at the annual New Year auction in 2019, in front of his Sushi Zanmai restaurant in Tokyo. The 278 kg bluefin tuna sold for a record $4.15 million (yes, that's in Aussie dollars). Photo: AP

And you thought prawns at Christmas time were pricey. The Japanese love of tuna has never been a secret – however, people were still stunned when local businessman Kiyoshi Kimura, self-styled as the "Tuna King", paid $2.4 million for a 276-kilogram bluefin tuna at Tokyo's Toyosu market last year. And that wasn't even the record! A year before that, Kimura threw down a colossal $4.15 million for a 277kg fish. That's some expensive sushi.

Densuke watermelon: $8000

TORONTO, ON - AUGUST 20: A $200 Densuke watermelon from Japan. The Japanese watermelon is being sold for $199.99 at select Loblaws stores.  August 20, 2014.        (Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images) Getty image for Traveller. Single use only. traxx-online-food

A Densuke watermelon.  Photo: iStock

Though the king melons are the top of the tree, so to speak, there are plenty of other fruits that Japanese people will spend huge amounts of money on. Take, for example, the Densuke watermelon, grown in the volcanic soil of Hokkaido. These melons are known for their jet-black skins – seriously, they look like bowling balls – and their sweet, sweet flesh. They normally go for around $300 a pop, though have sold for up to $8000 at auction.


Premium Matsusaka wagyu: $410,000

Fresh raw beef brisket slice set on the black marble dish rock. healthy and raw food concept iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted. traxx-online-food

Matsusaka premium beef sashimi. Photo: iStock

Fortunately, that price up there isn't for a steak: it's for a cow. Matsusaka is considered the best region for wagyu in Japan, better even than Kobe, and each November a contest is held in the region to decide the "Queen of Matsusaka": the absolute finest of the premium cattle. An auction is then held, and the year's queen usually sells for between 25 million and 30 million yen. One steak of Matsusaka premium beef, at a restaurant in Japan, will likely set you back about $500.

Ruby Roman Grape: $530

That's right, $530. And that's not per bunch. That's per grape. Grown in the Ishikawa prefecture, Ruby Red grapes are known as the world's finest, and to be sold as such they have to adhere to a strict set of parameters: every grape in the bunch must weigh more than 20 grams and have at least 18 per cent sugar content. "Premium class" grapes must be at least 30 grams each. In 2016, a bunch of Ruby Reds sold in Japan for 1.1 million yen, or about $530 per grape.

Juyondai sake: $5000

As you would expect, there is no shortage of high-end sake producers in Japan. Pick up a bottle from the likes of Isojiman, Hokusetsu or Kikisui and you will be parting with some serious cash – literally thousands of dollars. If you still want to step things up, however, try super-premium producer Juyondai, whose exceptional sakes, made by a 15th-generation sake brewer in the Yamagata prefecture, can sell for up to $5000 a bottle.

Hokkaido sea urchin: $600

Hokkaido sea urchin sushi from Xuan Sushi on Wyndham Street in Central. 12OCT11 (Photo by Jonathan Wong/South China Morning Post via Getty Images) Getty image for Traveller. Single use only. traxx-online-food

Hokkaido sea urchin sushi. Photo: Getty Images

Sea urchin roe – or "uni" in Japan – is a strange thing, an absolute delicacy in the Land of the Rising Sun that is still not particularly appreciated in the rest of the world. However, once you've tasted the finest, premium uni from the cold waters of Hokkaido, you will understand the fascination. The only downside is that a 100g box of that uni will set you back about $60 at a market, and far more at a restaurant.

Taiyo no Tamago mango: $3000

Most of us have winced at the cash register when we're forced to pay $4 or even $5 for a single mango in summer. That's outrageous, we mutter. Spare a thought, then, for the buyer who purchased a set of two perfectly egg-shaped "Taiyo no Tamago" mangoes from the Miyasaki prefecture for 500,000 yen, or around $6000. These mangoes, whose name means "egg of the sun", are known for their shape, colour and sweetness, and usually sell in stores for around $70, though early-season auctions fetch far higher prices.

Sekai Ichi apples: $20

Sekai Ichi apples on checked cloth iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted. traxx-online-food

$20 a pop: Sekai Ichi apples. Photo: iStock

As the Taiyo no Tamago is to the mango world, so is the Sekai Ichi to apples. These are the best of the best – the name means "world's number one" – originally from Iwate prefecture but now mostly grown in Aomori, in the north of Japan's main island. The Sekai Ichi is a cross between a golden delicious apple and a red delicious, and it usually sells in stores in Japan for about $20 each. Pricey, but tasty.