Fruit You Won’t Find Outside Of Japan

The Japanese have a different relationship with fruit than most cultures. Fruit, especially melons, are given as gifts, and some fruits are even cultivated as luxury items.

A while back, I stumbled upon a photo essay about an apple orchard in Japan that kind of gives a good example of the kind of hard work that people put into growing luxury fruit.

Blossoms are pollinated by hand, using tiny wands; every apple is placed in its own, individual paper bag to protect it from the elements; and little stencils are applied to each apple so they bear little kanji.

Stencil peeled off an apple

Photo by Jane Alden Stevens.

And this particular orchard isn’t some sort of anomaly. Both The New York Times and the BBC have covered Japanese farms that cultivate high-end fruit.

As a result of the great care people put into cultivating fruit, the price tag can sometimes be a bit of a shock. High-end melons can sell for outrageous prices (as expensive as $6,000 for a single melon).

But beyond Japan’s luxury fruit market, there’s also a lot of common, everyday fruit in Japan that you’ll be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. Some are rarities that occur naturally in Japan; others, specifically engineered to taste delicious or look just the right way.

Akebi

The Akebi might look almost like an eggplant, but it’s actually a pretty curious fruit. Native to the northern Tohoku region of Japan, people didn’t start seriously cultivating the akebi until pretty recently.

An open akebi fruit

Beneath the purple skin (which opens naturally when wild akebi are ripe) is the strange fruit. It looks like a small, milky-white banana.

(“Small, milky-white banana,” by the way, is a phrase I hope I never write again.)

Bowl of akebi fruit

The taste is sadly, apparently unremarkable. And the texture is a bit strange, as Kyoto Foodie explains:

The look and feel is similar to the flesh of lychee, but is much softer. And, it is full of tiny seeds that are essentially impossible to separate from the flesh…The flesh is best slurped up seeds and all. If the seeds are chewed, the taste becomes bitter. Just eat it like you would yogurt or thick fruit smoothie.

Sure, the akebi might not taste incredible, but I still think it’s pretty cool that akebi are so distinctive and hard to find outside of Japan.

Dekopon

On its surface, the dekopon is a pretty boring fruit – it basically just looks like an orange. But there’s more to it than that. Dekopon is uniquely Japanese – it’s actually a hybrid of two other citrus fruits engineered in Japan during the 70s. And while it looks like a regular ol’ orange, it’s larger and sweeter than your everyday Florida-grown citrus.

Probably the coolest thing about the dekopon, oddly enough, is its etymology – where the name came from. The kanji for deko is 凸. With the little bump at the top, it looks like a miniature picture of a dekopon, doesn’t it?

Dekopon

Sadly for those of us in the United States, the dekopon wasn’t available in the US until just last year. As it turns out, importing a fruit from abroad is a fiasco when it comes to obtaining the rights and making sure the fruit doesn’t completely annihilate the native ecosystem.

And, even more unfortunately, dekopon is basically only available in California for the time being (under the new name “sumo”), meaning I haven’t had a chance to taste one yet. Will I make the eight hour drive down to the Golden State for a sample? Time will tell.

Square Watermelon

There’s probably no more famous fruit in Japan than the square (technically, cubic) watermelon. Developed in the 70s by Japanese farmers who were hoping to create an easier way to store and ship melons, these melons are placed in cubic, glass containers and grow to fill the space.

Square watermelon

While the goal of these watermelons was to make them more convenient, it turns out that growing cubic watermelons is harder than growing regular melons. On the upside, these novelty fruits are really popular, and farmers can charge out the rear for them. Sure, they taste the same, but they’re cubic!

Hyuganatsu

The hyuganatsu has kind of a weird history. Unlike other fruit, which have either been around for as long as people remember of have been actively engineered, the hyuganatsu was just sort of discovered. In 1820, people found a tree with a fruit that had never been seen before.

People now speculate that hyuganatsu is a naturally occurring hybrid of yuzu and pomelo. As Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park says, “life finds a way.”

Hyuganatsu fruit

As with dekopon, hyuganatsu is, for the most part, simply another citrus fruit. It’s yellow with a slightly sour taste – in fact, people recommend that you eat hyuganatsu with some sugar just so it isn’t too sour.

But, as far as I could tell, hyunganatsu is uniquely Japanese. There aren’t names for it in other languages and I don’t think that it’s grown anywhere else. It might not be the tastiest thing in the world, but it is very Japanese.

Have you tried any of these fruits? What did you think of them? Let me know in the comments!

[Header image source.]

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Cody-Dalton/27704471 Cody Dalton

    Hmm, dekopon are alright, but I prefer just plain ol’ fashion mikan to them. 
    And also, while not being uniquely Japanese, I really enjoy the flavor of yuzu (and it’s something I never had in America).  Especially when it’s combined with alcohol.  I still have vid from a karaoke session that included about 30 yuzu chuhai between 4 people.  After I stumbled upon it no one ordered anything else. 

  • Gralola

    I ate an akebi & liked it, but it wasn’t really worth the effort it took to avoid the nasty, aspirin-like seeds. Let’s hope someone invents an akebi-seeder, cuz that white flesh is nice.

  • Stroopwafel

    Wow, those kanji-apples are really cool. How ’bout them apples ey?
    Does anyone know what kanji that is?

    Also, gotta love the cubic -not square- watermelons.

  • IndigoSelvedge

    Canadian convenience-store chain Mac’s was selling Yuzu-flavoured Slurpees last summer. They were a decent approximation.

    Also, Yuzu Chuhai are amazing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/artista.oscura artista.oscura

    Nice post Hashi!  The Akebi reminded me of the plant from Little Shop of Horrors.
    “Feed me, Seymour!”

  • http://www.facebook.com/kate.k.s.andersen Kate Andersen

    I had to laugh when I saw the watermelon!! :D

  • Thomas Hjelm

    It was hard to tell with only the top half of the kanji, but I guessed it was 寿 (ことぶき) and a quick google image search of “林檎 寿” confirms it.

  • Thomas Hjelm

    Are hassaku available outside Japan?  Those are my favorite.

  • Joie Brannan

    I live in Washington, and I just bought some “sumo” oranges that look just like that a couple weeks ago, so they’re not only available in California. They were delicious, too. 

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Really? I’ve been misinformed :x I should see if they’re available in Oregon too

  • Lily Li

    A question about a square watermelon and its uses showed up on the Ohio Graduation Test :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Britt-Olinder-Stevens/100001695518468 Britt Olinder-Stevens

    I have tried all the Asian markets we have here in Denver and I can’t get a yuzo. When I ask for one, they look at me like I’m speaking English.

  • Stroopwafel

    I wonder if farmers could also do that to other fruits besides watermelon, you know. Cubic banana’s or apples in the shape of a pyramid.

  • Stroopwafel

    Thank you!
    So apparently, upon eating those apples one will enjoy a long life, right?

  • Jobarcas

    When I was growing up in Liverpool, I can remember my Grandad bringing Sumo Oranges home every once in a while. Not sure where he bought them, but Liverpool had a large Asian population. 

  • Kurone Shizuhi

    The Kanji apples are also grown in some parts of China :]

  • Lenz

    Im not sure if its the same fruit but here in australia we have citrus fruits called tangelos that look identical to the sumo fruit. Wondering if its the same…

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Tangelos and dekopon/sumo look a lot alike, but they’re different in origin and taste.

  • http://twitter.com/kokodokokoko サラ

    Akebi looks terrifying, i don’t think I could bring myself to eat it.  Being described as a “small, milky white banana” doesn’t really help its case either. 

    the hyuganatsu look like they have adorable little sweaters on, though.

  • Hanakirei

     Yeah, we have them here in New York too, at Whole Foods.

  • Eric Rouleau

    Hey I just bought some dekopon today at Loblaws in Montreal!  they were from California!  great taste!  I never taster them when I lived in japan (1 year)  or maybe I did thinking they were oranges lol

  • http://mistersanity.blogspot.com Jonadab

    Tangelos are available worldwide, and have been for decades.

  • Mariana Bentivoglio Vieira dos

    Here in Brazil is quite easy to find Dekopon… It is nice, looks like a more dry and hard type of tangerine. It doesn’t have  seeds, and is easier to peel that the average mikan.

  • Sandra03

     *makes note to order yuzu chuhai when in Japan next year*

  • Sandra03

    I think the only one I’d go out of my way to try would be the hyuganatsu, but i’d try dekopon if it was in front of me. i’ve never liked watermelon and the akebi looks and sounds kind of gross =/

  • Meagan

    I am looking forward to trying Hyuganatsu as they are grown in the neighboring prefecture Hyuga-city in Miyazaki-ken. : D
    Yuzu are delicious! My town grows them. Everything is flavored with them.

  • jess

    eggplant is a fruit!  since it is the “fruit” of a flowering plant, just like tomatoe and cucumbers.

  • rich herold

    I’m looking for a small fruit that looks like a pear but the skin is like a peach and the inside is sweet like a melon and has about two or three large seeds. Can you give me a name or picture?

  • pasindu

    im sri lankan, i whould like to supply watermelon. i can supply one watermelon fro 1000yen, any one interest about this please send me a email to this email electroech2u@gmail.com

  • G Takei

    Maybe because it’s yuzu and not yuzo…..?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Cody-Dalton/27704471 Cody Dalton

    Hyuganatsu. Just recently (this year) noticed them in my grocery.
    They’re freaking delicious. And anyone who thinks you need to put sugar on them is absolutely bonkers. Worst part is the giant seeds and extremely thick skin.

  • Dave

    I used to eat these all the time when I lived in Miyazaki and remember with great fondness. Where is your grocery? Would love to get them again.

  • thesunisup

    The world of wonderful SUMOS! Whole Foods, Sonoma, California carries the ‘ Sumo ‘. Sumo says Japanese and they’re rotund like the wrestlers, “Orange” doesn’t fit, the color is orange but the similarities wane away. The flavor is rich, intense, naturally sweet, a noticeable absence of sour. The fruit is the size of a large navel orange but Sumos have lots of ‘give’ when you handle them, virtually no firmness when ripe, the almost loose skin is pulled away very easily, sections are fatter, plumper and juicier then oranges. Eat Sumo’s at room temperature or cool I like them room temperature, when the flavor is deep, and they seem more like ‘ a quiet moment in time ‘ then the pizazz of a cold orange. They weight more because of their density. They cost more, I tend to buy by the piece then the pound. You will very happily get what you pay for. Buy the special tea or chocolate or cookies, Macadamia’s or the something dusted with cinnamon. You’ll need at least one Sumo per person. Two if you forget the main meal. They’re too full flavored to eat with other fruits. Don’t put them in a fruit salad, like the Baritone, they’ll drown out the children’s choir.

    I’d bet a good friend near a Whole Foods, an Oliver’s, a Sonoma Market, or any Calif. specialty markets would ship you some if it’s not under 50 f or above 80 f outside

    about fruit temperature: temperature regulates the sugar = flavor. Cold storage gets fruit from farm to boat to truck to table. but cold destroys flavor permanently, it also preserves color and firmness. You look, you handle, you buy, you own. But you don’t eat those things.

    Hormones now produce great color and colossal sized fruits that grow rapidly to market size to please your eyes. They’ve studied why you buy. First to market gets highest price. Pay for flavor not size and color. Flavor is nutrition. Hormone fed fruit doesn’t have flavor. Close your eyes. None. It won’t develop flavor in your home. The finest wines are from grapes that had a long growing season called ‘ hang time’. I know Americans like iced everything and chilled fruit. But cold fruit, fruit fed hormones, or picked before it’s protective acid bends to sugar is not able to deliver it’s flavor. Good fruits are only full flavor at room temperature, just above warm or eaten in front of a breeze.

  • CrackingTheOyster

    Thanks for posting Hashi! I hope I will be able to try all of them soon :)