In Japan's only bankrupt city, the world's most expensive fruit spreads seeds of hope

Kiyomichi Noda, CEO of Hokuyupack, looking elated after winning the season's first auction on May 25, 2023. - PHOTO: COURTESY OF HOKUYUPACK

Yubari is a city only in name, with few of the modern amenities associated with urban living: There are no train services, no shopping malls, and just a few clinics in an area the size of Singapore.

It is Japan’s only bankrupt municipality among the country’s 1,741 precincts, having declared insolvency in 2007 after raking up more than 35 billion yen (S$315 million) in debt.

But it also lends its name to what is arguably the world’s most expensive fruit.

The fragrantly sweet Yubari King, more commonly referred to as the Yubari melon, fetches eye-watering sums at the season’s first auction every May.

On May 25, 2023, a pair of melons sold for 3.5 million yen – the second-highest bid on record. The 5 million yen fetched in May 2019 – about S$63,000 at the time – still stands unmatched.

Beyond the inflated “celebratory pricing” during such headline auctions in Japan, regardless of harvest or catch, a melon can easily sell for at least 5,000 yen in stores.

The fruit is permitted to be grown only in Yubari – its geographical indication status is a form of trademark protection to prevent counterfeits, and restricts cultivation of the Yubari King to within the city’s borders. The seeds are kept under strictest protection, and have never been transported out of the city.

But Yubari is also a ghost town whose population of 6,464 people as at Oct 31 is just 5.6 per cent of the peak in its heyday, when it was a prosperous coal-mining region.

Relics of the past – a forgotten theme park, dilapidated train tracks, the shells of old buildings, blocked entrances to shuttered mines – still litter the city.

But there are reasons for hope.

Yubari is expected to clear its debts by March 2027, Mayor Tsukasa Atsuya, who was born in the city, tells The Straits Times.

“When I was young, this city had everything,” says the 58-year-old Mr Atsuya, who was first elected in 2019. “It may now be a ghost town, but this fuels us to do our best to stem the decline.”

Noting that there are few fruits with the place of origin in their names, he adds: “The Yubari King is a treasure that we must protect at all costs.”

It is not easy to cultivate the Yubari King melons, says veteran melon farmer Hiroki Takeoka as he checks his crop in his greenhouse. - ST PHOTO: WALTER SIMIt is not easy to cultivate the Yubari King melons, says veteran melon farmer Hiroki Takeoka as he checks his crop in his greenhouse. - ST PHOTO: WALTER SIM

The vulnerable King

Yubari’s attempts to grow melons began around 1923. But it was only in 1960 when farmers succeeded in growing the Yubari King, a first-generation cross-breed hybrid of two melon varieties named “spicy cantaloupe” and “earl’s favourite” that draws out their respective best qualities.

The spicy cantaloupe was successfully grown in Yubari in 1957, but it was not sweet. The juicy orange pulp of the cross-bred Yubari King, on the other hand, is nectar-sweet.

What makes the Yubari King so expensive – aside from its unfailing deliciousness – locals say, is the extreme level of agricultural and technical expertise required to cultivate the fragile melons.

The premium fruit is rare – in season only from June to August – while its short shelf life of about three days at room temperature from harvest to ripening means logistics must be taken into account even when sending the fruit within Japan.

Given overseas demand, the city is currently experimenting with ways to ship the Yubari King abroad using a mixture of refrigerated and room-temperature cargo transport. In June, the fruit was shipped to Malaysia for the first time.

Melon production has been suffering from Yubari’s severely declining and ageing population, which has resulted in a lack of successors for many farms.

The shrinking supply, coupled with a surge in media attention with the festivities of the season’s first auction, means that melons now cost an average of 40 per cent more than a decade ago.

In 1990, a total of 7,598 tonnes of Yubari King were harvested by 216 farms. This shrank to 2,344 tonnes from just 92 farms in 2023.

And among these, only 10 farms took on the challenge of growing the Yubari King in time for the first auction.

The fruit is typically harvested about 75 days after the seeds are planted. To make it for the first auction in May, farmers must sow in February.

This means clearing snow by January, then managing the delicate balancing act of heating and lighting their greenhouses while managing humidity levels in the cold of a brutal winter when the sunlight hours are few.

This is a very costly and labour-intensive process, says farmer Hiroki Takeoka, 48, who decided not to make the attempt. The major technical challenges are daunting even for a second-generation melon farmer with 30 years of experience like himself.

Mr Takeoka’s first harvest was five days after the season’s first auction.

Most farms are handed down within family, and Mr Naohiro Fujimoto of the Yubari agricultural cooperative (JA Yubari) recognises that for newcomers, the skill and investment involved may be insurmountably high barriers to entry.

Noting that it costs millions of dollars in investment just to get started, the 40-year-old says: “This is a huge risk. Newcomers will incur debt they cannot immediately pay off. It also takes at least 10 years to perfect the skill, and even then, there is no guarantee that they will succeed.”

This includes mastering the right balance in temperature, lighting and humidity, as well as when to use water and fertiliser and how much.

Mayor Atsuya says that on his priority list, after the city fulfils its debt obligations, is exploring ways to help aspiring Yubari King farmers enter the trade.

Melons in pairs are lined up in boxes on auction day at the Sapporo Central Wholesale Market on May 25, 2023. - PHOTO: COURTESY OF HOKUYUPACKMelons in pairs are lined up in boxes on auction day at the Sapporo Central Wholesale Market on May 25, 2023. - PHOTO: COURTESY OF HOKUYUPACK

Sharing fruits of their labour

Nobody knows which farm harvested the melons that fetch astronomical prices during the season’s first auction.

Upon harvest, the Yubari melons are pooled together under the management of JA Yubari, which oversees a blind inspection process on the premises of Hokuyupack, a home-grown company that, among other things, is in the business of food packaging and export.

The process, involving a team of 80 to 100 inspectors, is unbiased.

Each melon is weighed and inspected to determine its sugar content and the intricacy of the mesh patterns of the fruit, before they are classified into four grades: exceptional, superior, excellent and good.

Top-grade melons are perfectly round and have the highest sugar content, at 13 per cent or above, with the mesh pattern at least 90 per cent “complete”.

Sensors are used to determine the fruit’s sweetness levels, while inspectors also tap and smell the melons to sniff out what, to an ordinary consumer, would be the minutest of differences.

They are then authenticated with a “Yubari melon” sticker before being packed into boxes.

“While I strive for as high a grade as possible, it’s not something that can be easily achieved,” Mr Takeoka says, estimating that only 0.2 per cent of all melons in Yubari are given the top grade.

Only eight people work on his expansive farm of 60 greenhouses, including his 23-year-old son, who returned earlier in 2023 to pick up the ropes.

“First of all, it depends on the pollination and flowering of the melon fruit. If it flowers properly, expectations can be raised,” he said, noting that the activity of the bees used in pollination is heavily dependent on factors such as the weather.

Fruits that fail to make the cut for even the “good” grade, for reasons such as blemishes on their skin or if the craquelure mesh pattern does not cover 40 per cent of the surface, are used instead to make processed items such as Yubari melon-flavoured Pocky snacks, beverages and even alcohol.

The melon is also used at a chocolate factory – it opened in 2022 in Yubari – that makes products under the Cacaocat brand, which is sold in Singapore. It is run by Dadaca Holdings, parent company of the chain of Chocolate Origin cafes in the Republic.

Melon farmers are paid on a per-kilogram basis for their harvests. JA Yubari sells the fruit through wholesale market auctions or direct-order sales and, in turn, pays the farmers.

This means it is not a question of who won, Mr Fujimoto says, adding: “Yubari farmers have always had a spirit of looking out for one another.”

The Yubari King auctions are held at the Sapporo Central Wholesale Market, about an hour’s drive from Yubari.

Mr Kazuo Watarai, 60, of intermediate wholesaler Kurashige Shoten, tells ST that the best pair of melons are typically auctioned off first.

A total of 262 melons were put up for auction on the Yubari King’s first auction day in 2023.

Mr Watarai says the atmosphere has become a lot more festive over the decades, with more media coverage as the melons drew higher bids.

Hokuyupack founder Kiyomichi Noda, 76, who has won the first auction three times, including the 3.5 million yen bid in May, says: “The price of the first auction sets the mood of the city for the entire year.”

Mr Watarai concurs, noting that how the first auction pans out is reflective of societal events.

In May 2007, two months after Yubari filed for insolvency, the winning bid in the first auction breached the 1 million yen mark for the first time to reach 2 million yen.The sun shines down on Yubari as its residents look forward to the day that their home city’s fortunes can rise again. - ST PHOTO: WALTER SIM

It was made by a Sapporo department store that hoped to deliver a ray of light to a city besieged by financial woes.

Since then, the winning bid for the first auction has fallen below seven digits only twice.

This was in 2009, when Japan was mired in a recession after the Lehman Brothers crisis, and in 2020, when Japan came under a nationwide Covid-19 state of emergency, with attendance at the wholesale market severely curtailed.

In 2019, Sapporo-based drinks manufacturer Pokka bid a record 5 million yen to mark both the 10th anniversary of its Yubari melon soda beverage drink, and the dawn of Japan’s Reiwa era under a new emperor.

As for Mr Noda, who says he “loves melons more than anything else”, he sliced and gave away the melons he won for free at a celebratory event in early June.

The sun shines down on Yubari as its residents look forward to the day that their home city’s fortunes can rise again. - ST PHOTO: WALTER SIMOnly 0.2 per cent of all the melons make the cut for the top grade. - ST PHOTO: WALTER SIM

Using NFTs to win new fans

Despite strong brand recognition for Yubari King nationwide, most Japanese have never eaten the fruit as it is deemed a luxury item that is too indulgent for personal consumption. It is hence typically given as gifts, says JA Yubari’s Mr Fujimoto.

“I myself had never tried the Yubari melon before I joined the cooperative,” he says. Born in the neighbouring city of Eniwa, he moved to Yubari after graduating from an agricultural university.

His strategy is to tap unconventional ways to broaden the appeal of the fruit.

JA Yubari teamed up with local-born voice artist Chihiro Ishiguro, who lends her voice to the popular voice synthesis software Vocaloid character Yuzuki Yukari, to promote the fruit to a different audience.

It hosted fan events with exclusive merchandise featuring designs that could be found only in Yubari. Fans came in droves from across the country.

In 2023, JA Yubari released 888 Yubari King non-fungible tokens (NFTs) – a first in the agricultural industry in Japan and causing a stir. In total, 300 NFTs were sold over several sales periods.

Each NFT cost 0.07 Ethereum (worth about 295,000 yen now), while a limited number was made available for 14,000 yen in cash.

Buyers gained the status of a “Yubari melon digital ambassador”, a unique online digital artwork and a melon that was physically delivered to their homes. They were also invited to Yubari to meet melon producers, and visited their farms and the melon sorting facility.

Mr Fujimoto wants to sow the seeds of appreciation for Yubari, gathering users in the metaverse to grow melons on a virtual farm, from planting to harvest.

Only 0.2 per cent of all the melons make the cut for the top grade. - ST PHOTO: WALTER SIM

Rising from the gloom

This spirit of positivity, looking ahead to the opportunities that abound after the cloud of bankruptcy is lifted, is omnipresent in Yubari.

The Yubari King may be the city’s main asset, but farmer Hiroshi Motozawa, 51, believes there is room to grow more than one variety in the city.

“The King should, of course, be at the top of the pyramid,” the owner of Ono Farm tells ST. “But without support, the pyramid will collapse. I want to grow different varieties of melons and make Yubari a city of melons.”

Ono Farm specialises in a melon variety known as Rupiah Red, which is more commonly grown in other Hokkaido regions such as Furano. It also grows crops such as pumpkin, watermelon and Chinese yam, and makes buckwheat soba noodles, with curry soba a Yubari delicacy.

The farm is also working with Yubari High School to come up with product ideas to promote Chinese yam in a region known only for its melons.

“It may not be the politically correct thing to say, but Yubari as a city has a gloomy image and has many problems,” third-year student Rio Tanaka, 18, says.

“It’s a matter of perception, and there are ways we can change negative impressions. It was especially rewarding working with local companies to come up with ideas,” she adds.

She is among only 46 students in her school.

Yubari’s plight of bankruptcy and advanced depopulation can serve as a case study for students nationwide, says the school’s principal, Mr Takayasu Hamamura.

From 2024, Yubari High School hopes to draw enrolment from students across Japan, who can study the city’s problems, think up solutions and bring what they learn back home to contribute to their home towns, he adds.

Mr Masaru Noda – of no relation to Hokuyupack’s Mr Noda – is hoping to tackle Yubari’s problems one at a time through his “Restart Yubari” project.

The 39-year-old former personal trainer’s gym in Sapporo folded during the Covid-19 pandemic.

He uprooted his wife and five children, aged six, five, four, three and one, to Yubari in 2021. His big family is a rarity in Japan, which is blighted with low birth rates as couples have few children, if at all.

“I thought I would be happier if my life could centre around my children, living in my dream home with a backyard and a garden,” he says.

Tapping heavy government subsidies, he managed to acquire a plot of land for free.

He now runs a Web marketing company and is concurrently working on his Yubari project, through which he aims to solve the city’s challenges while also promoting its assets such as the Yubari melon.

For now, given the lack of accommodation in the city for visitors, he is crowdfunding to buy up akiya (vacant homes) that can be refurbished into short-stay facilities.

“Yubari’s story is similar to mine. I had to start from zero after my business folded and was saddled with 40 million yen in debt,” he says. “Yubari can be a business model, an inspiration if it is successfully revitalised. This can be applied to other municipalities in the same boat.” - The Straits Times/ANN

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