Say Tokyo and what comes to mind are dazzling neon signs, ultramodern skyscrapers, and outlandish street fashion. At first glance, it may seem very different from my home in Hiroshima where the mountains and oceans beckon you to soak in the great outdoors.
But venture deeper and you will discover a side to my adopted city that is as contemplative and gentle as my home town, a side which reveals majestic mountains, ancient shrines and flourishing flora. One of the best ways to savour this quieter aspect of the capital is to go on a fruit safari. So, let me take you on a road less travelled but no less sweet.
Yamanashi Prefecture is a must-go stop for anyone on a fruit pilgrimage in Tokyo. You can sign up on any number of tours that will take you on a day trip there to pluck and sample the fruits in the orchards, and even pack a punnet or two home.
My favourite in the prefecture is the Ogiwara Fruit Farm. About two hours from the city, the journey will be well worth your while. The ride itself promises to be a picturesque one since the Yamanashi is surrounded by many of Japan’s highest mountains including the famous Mount Fuji. The fertile valley is a fruit paradise. Known as the Kingdom of Fruits because of its many fruit farms and vineyards, it is the country’s top producer of grapes, peaches, plums and wine.
The wonderful thing about Yamanashi is that there are fruits ready to be harvested at any time of the year. In October, grapes, pears and persimmon will be ripe for the picking. The most delicious grapes are Kyoho grapes which have a wonderful aroma. When I brought my three-year-old son there, the farm provided us with a long step ladder so he could cut the grapes off the vines on his own. He was so proud of himself. When we were done, we ate our freshly plucked grapes at the Yamakiya café while enjoying breathtaking views of the prefecture.
Apples, being autumn fruits, will also be available this season. Most of the apples grown in Japan are Fuji apples which have gorgeous bright skins and are typically sweet and crunchy. Go a little later and you will be in time for strawberries which can be in season till May. In the middle of the year, cherries and peaches will be in abundance.
Many of the tours also throw in yummy lunches such as barbeque meals and snow crab and sushi buffets, photo stops at scenic spots such as Lake Kawaguchi, one of the five famous lakes around Mount Fuji, and visits to factories that make confectionery, sauces, beer or wine.
Once in the city, if you need a fruit fix, visit Sembikiya. Established in 1834, it is Japan’s oldest fruit store with 14 outlets mostly in the Tokyo area. Its flagship store at Nihonbashi Mitsui Tower, about 20 minutes away from Citadines Shinjuku Tokyo, is as good a place to start as any.
Step into Sembikiya and you will know that this is more a fruit boutique than an ordinary fruit shop. The exquisite produce are beautifully packaged and displayed in glass cases much like at a jewellery store. The luxe treatment is understandable when you see the price tags that accompany these luscious fruits. ¥2,100 (S$24) for a Senkai-ichi (world’s best) apple, ¥6,825 (S$79) for a dozen perfectly-shaped Queen strawberries, ¥21,000 (S$243) for a square water melon, ¥15,750 (S$182) for a box of impossibly glossy cherries, ¥63,000 (S$73) for a bunch of plump grapes, ¥12,600 (S$146) for a stripe-less Desuke watermelon, and ¥15,750 (S$182) for a Yubari muskmelon.
Of course, these are no regular fruits. They are the best the good earth has to offer, grown under special conditions to ensure the best quality and taste. The star of the fruit parlour, the Yubari muskmelon, for example, comes only from the Shizuoka prefecture where they get optimal sunshine. They are cultivated in air-conditioned greenhouses and protected by specially crafted paper hats during the summer, and kept nice and warm with heaters during the winter. The less-than-perfect melons are pruned early so that just the healthy ones get all the nutrients, ensuring the best possible flavour. When you buy one of these precious produce, the store assistant will even give you advice on how to store the fruit and when to eat it to enjoy the best flavour.
Another place to shop at for fresh fruits is the Farmer’s Market outside the United Nations University in Aoyama, 15 minutes from Citadines Shinjuku. I love to go to this weekend market because beyond the wonderful stalls selling the freshest produce from neighbouring farms, there are always different events going on. Just last month, there was a grapes festival where farmers presented grapes of different species so shoppers could learn and taste the difference.
Another way to enjoy fruits is through desserts. Shiseido Parlour Salonde Café at Ginza, about 20 minutes from Citadines Shinjuku, has a wonderful Strawberry Fait that I love. It has two types of rich, creamy vanilla ice-cream covered with fresh strawberries, granola, and strawberry sauce. Juicy, tart fruit with cool, velvety smooth ice cream could not taste lovelier.
Sembikiya’s Nihonbashi store also has an adjoining café. Here, you can buy jams as well as cakes, ice cream and fruit parfaits made with the pristine fruits from the fruit parlour. The parfait is worth every bit of its ¥1,785 (S$20), with its layers of strawberry sauce, ice cream and fruit topped with a mountain of whipped cream. There are few better ways to enjoy fruits.
The café also has an all-you-can-eat fruits buffet that comes with a main, the eatery’s special pineapple-hashed beef curry. I brought my aunt who had come to Tokyo for visit. She balked at the ¥6,480 (S$77) price tag at first but the extensive selection of mouth-watering fruits - muskmelon, house-orange, grapefruit, papaya, mango, grapes, peach and pear – soon won her over.
When you visit Tokyo, take the time to look past the glitz and glamour to unearth some of its natural (and naturally sweet) attractions. I guarantee you a fruitful discovery.
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