Monozumi details the journey these pampered melons undertake before arriving at the store. First, the best melon seeds, new strains of which are bred every year, are planted in soil-bedding—not the ground—and kept cozy inside greenhouses outfitted with air conditioners and heaters to ensure the melons stay warm, but not too warm, year-round. When the vines begin to bud, scrawny flowers are ruthlessly removed, and champion farmers hand-pollinate the flowers, using a tiny paintbrush to move pollen between the blooms, like overgrown humanoid bees. Yet another culling happens once the baby melons reach fist-size: Farmers pluck all but the most-promising fruit, leaving only a single melon per vine to concentrate the plant's nutrients in one uber-juicy fruit. These remaining muskmelons each get an outfit: a string tied around their stems to prevent them from falling as they ripen, plus their signature "hat"—black, cone-shaped—to prevent sunburn. As the melon grows, cracks develop in its exterior—think melon stretch marks, caused by insides expanding faster than the skin—and sugary juices flow into the cracks, creating elegant reticulation that makes it look as though the fruit has been caught in a khaki-colored net. (The finer the reticulation, the sweeter and juicier the melon, experts say.) To make the melons even sweeter, farmers don white cotton gloves and give each individual fruit a vigorous "melon massage"—what Sembikiya's website refers to as a "ball wiping"—by rubbing the outside of the fruit. (Champion growers are so enthusiastic with this "ball wiping" they get holes in their gloves and go through multiple pairs per crop.)
When at last the melons are picked, they will be graded on their shape (ideally perfectly spherical), sweetness (high), reticulation (preferably tiny and delicate), and scent (intoxicating). The best will be awarded the top "Fuji" designation, but only 3 percent of a crop might qualify. The fruit travels to Tokyo's Ota market, where middlemen hired by Sembikiya purchase the finest specimens for the company, which in turn selects the best of the bunch. "For example, if Sembikiya orders one case of apples, the middleman will look for three cases of apples, they will pick the best ones to make one case, and then they will give it to the Sembikiya," explains Monozumi. "And then Sembikiya will pick the best apple from that one case to their store." The apple rejects get returned to the middleman, or, if their imperfections are merely superficial, they are cooked into the sauces and jams that Sembikiya also sells.
Sauces and jams at Sembikiya.
Later, I wait in line for a seat at the Sembikiya fruit parlor, which at 4 p.m. on a Wednesday is packed with little old ladies in flowered cardigans and mother-daughter duos weighed down with designer shopping bags. When I'm finally shown to a table, I order Sembikiya's signature $22 fruit plate. It comes with one-third of a banana; three slices each of persimmon, orange, pineapple, kiwi, and mango; three partially peeled grapes; and one inch-and-a-half–wide rind of muskmelon. I began with a taste of what Monozumi referred to as "more like a commoner's fruit": the banana. It has a rich, nutty flavor, with the most concentrated banana essence I've ever tasted. The mango is melt-in-your-mouth delicious. The grapes, a revelation. I save the muskmelon for last, giddy to try it after hearing about all the melons that had been sacrificed to bring me this bite. It has a vague pumpkin odor and is served properly chilled. But it is a disappointment. It tastes like melon. Sweet, yes, but not especially so. Even a little watery.
It wasn't until later, back home in New York, that I fully appreciated the fruit I'd been served. I was at the grocery store, standing in front of a pile of lumpy, gray, misshapen orbs that, according to the sign in front of me, were cantaloupe—the closest most Americans will get to a muskmelon. They were scratched and asymmetrical, and looked borderline grotesque in a way I'd never considered before. I thought back to Sembikiya's stand of muskmelons; the spheres' skin—a soft, tan mesh over a mint-green smooth surface—reminded me of needlepoint, and I could understand why the French described them as "embroidered." Like so much in Japan, something that initially seemed nonsensical, even trivial, had altered my definition of beauty. Even fruit could become art. Later, back home, I enviously watched YouTube videos of bloggers and TV hosts slicing into muskmelons, or interviewing growers on raising the monarch of melons. "I think only about melons," said one farmer, grinning. "I'm a melon fool." I can relate.
Alex Thomas is a photographer based in Tokyo. Follow her on Instagram.