Japanese Fruit Desserts: Then and Now

Japan is a fruit powerhouse, with a myriad of produce available year-round. There are several hundred varieties of citrus alone and it is said that there are over 1,000 varieties of kaki (Japanese persimmon) — with intense research and breeding efforts, these numbers continue to grow.

Senbikiya in the Edo period (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

The tireless efforts of the Japanese people to create more flavorsome and beautiful fruit has also resulted in the production of various kinds of fruit desserts. Let us now take a delicious dive into the world of Japan’s fruit desserts, following them from their ancient beginnings to the Edo Period (1603-1868) and through to today.

Persimmon fruit (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

The origins of fruit as a sweet snack

You can trace the origins of fruit desserts back through the history of fruit itself. Fruit that has been eaten in Japan since ancient times is limited to berries or nuts such as chestnuts, which have been cultivated since the Jomon Period (13,000 to 400 BC), kaki, and nashi pears. Later during the Nara Period (710-794), rice cakes that incorporated tree nuts or berries and beans became favorite indulgences; they were the ancient version of a fruit-based dessert.

The Japanese word kudamono that people now use to refer to fresh fruit for a long time generally referred to any sort of indulgence eaten between meals; rice cakes and dumplings in addition to fresh fruit were all referred to as kudamono, a word written with the characters 菓子 (which can be read as ‘kashi’). The distinction between fresh fruit (nowadays also known as furuutsu) and kashi began to be made from the Edo Period. With the start of sugar production in Japan, sweet snacks came to be called ikashi while fresh fruit was dubbed mizugashi (literally, ‘water snack’). Fruit was becoming a popular luxury item.

Senbikiya's billboard when founded (recovered) (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

The founding of Japan’s oldest fruit specialty store

In 1834, near the end of the Edo Period, Japan’s first fruit specialty store, Sembikiya, was established as a ‘mizugashi shop’. Ushio Oshima, Executive Director at Sembikiya’s main store in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi, looks back on the store’s history and Japan’s ‘fruit culture’ from the Meiji Period (1868-1912) through to the Showa Period (1926-1989).

Oshima executive director of Senbikiya flagship store (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

“The store was founded during the latter part of the Edo Period during a period of years known as the Tempo era when there were many food shortages and fruit was regarded as a luxury item, more than it is today. It was a time when sugar was still unusual to find and sweet foods were rare. In those final days of Tokugawa rule, fruit from Sembikiya was presented as tribute to the shogunate; the fact that high-ranking political figures such as Takamori Saigo (who later went on to help lead the Meiji Restoration) and those of high cultural standing were regular customers tells you how highly-regarded fruit was at the time.”

After diplomatic relations with other countries grew during the Meiji Period that followed, fruit from overseas, such as apples and peaches, began to be brought to Japan. Sembikiya quickly started stocking these unusual foreign fruits, with representatives even going to Yokohama Port to barter with disembarking sailors to get their hands on what was coming off the ships. It soon became known as a luxury fruit store and saw patron numbers climb.

Strawberry Shortcake (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

The evolution of Japanese fruit into a luxury item

By the beginning of the Showa Period, Sembikiya had grown to become purveyor of fruit to the Imperial Household and its name widely known. Those walking along the main street of the downtown area would see the prominent Sembikiya sign and as they passed the showroom window, aspire to one day taste the beautiful fruit on display inside. Many exemplary farmers at the time would devote their resources to explore cultivation techniques in the hope of Sembikiya someday buying their produce; this resulted in furthering breed improvement and research into cultivation methods overall. The Japanese propensity to pursue new technologies and for industriousness fully manifested itself in the world of fruit.

“Even today, the steps being taken in breed improvement and the evolution we are seeing in cultivation methods in Japan are quite something. Compared to back when I was young, the fruit today is tastier and sweeter. For instance, you’d only ever eat strawberries with condensed milk or sugar back then — they were sour if you just ate them without anything else! But nowadays, strawberries are so delicious you don’t need to add anything sweet.”

Senbikiya in the Taisho period (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

A sign of growing westernization: the ‘Fruit Parlor’

Following the increase in quality and diversity of fruit during the Meiji Period, a new culture emerged as a way to enjoy eating it. This came in the form of the ‘fruit parlors’ and in desserts that were made from fruit that they sold. With the introduction of western culture and technology during the push to modernize in the Meiji Period, a longing for all things foreign was born. Against this backdrop, Sembikiya opened its ‘Kudamono shokudo’ (fruit dining hall), the predecessor to its famed ‘Fruit Parlor’.

Fruit Parlour's menu in the beginning of Showa period (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Fruit Punch (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

The Fruit Parlor was a restaurant serving western-style dishes and fruit-based desserts. Gorgeous fruit punches and sorbets lined its showcases and due to its novelty and stylish atmosphere, it became a huge success.

Fruit Sandwich (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Senbikiya Special Parfait (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Soon enough, many imitators started popping up, mainly in urban areas. Fruit desserts were considered cultured and refined — a symbol of a ‘high color’ lifestyle, to use an English loan word from the era that meant ‘fashionable’. The colorful menus that come to mind when people think of Japanese desserts such as fruit sandwiches and fruit parfaits come from these early fruit parlors.

Musk Melon (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Giving the gift of luxury fruit

With society becoming more prosperous during the period of rapid economic growth in the decades following the Second World War, fruit became a more affordable item for the masses. However, the custom of giving luxury fruit as a special gift has persisted down through the generations to today. For example, a gift that has become synonymous with Sembikiya is the beautiful muskmelon sold in its own special box. Despite the high price tag, with a single melon sometimes fetching more than \10,000, this Sembikiya staple is a popular gift item.

Oshima executive director of Senbikiya flagship store (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

“Fruit is an everyday food in Europe,” says Oshima. “However, Japan has a long history of fruit being more of a rare indulgence. This is perhaps why the strong disposition towards a beautiful appearance in addition to taste emerged here.”

“It is a fact that the consumption of fruit and vegetables is decreasing; it takes time and effort to peel and cut fruit. In today’s lifestyle, where tastes are diverse and change rapidly, there is a growing preference for processed fruit, rather than the raw fruit itself. But, the best way to enjoy fruit is to eat them when they are in season just as they are. The way for us to demonstrate the quality of the fruit we stock is by determining when the fruit is just ripe for eating and implementing strict quality controls. We are always devising ways for customers to enjoy fruit according to the times, such as with our fruit desserts, and we would be happy if these can be the gateway for people to get to know just how delicious raw fruit can be.”

kiki harajuku's fruit cuisine (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

The evolution of creative modern fruit dessert ideas

Fruit sweets are now being found in an ever-increasing number of places in Japan. Popular bistro kiki harajuku in the Tokyo neighborhood of Harajuku continually comes up with dishes that incorporate generous amounts of seasonal fruit. Using these ingredients, the restaurant fuses a Japanese essence with a French cuisine base.

Mr. Noda of kiki harajuku (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Owner and chef Yuki Noda trained in France before returning to Japan to open kiki harajuku in 2011. As he uses many seasonal fruits, Noda changes up his menu every one to two months. A glance at past menus shows such original dishes as fig tempura, strawberry and tomato water terrine, and a tartar of cherry, beetroot, and white trevally.

“For our sweets menu, I often like to use jam or fruit that is boiled or processed in some way. But, I want to use fruit that tastes great just the way it is where I can. Fruit grown in Japan in particular has a delicate taste and I feel that so many of them have such a high degree of perfection in the way they taste,” explains Noda.

kiki harajuku's fruit cuisine (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

“I tried combining some weird and wonderful things back when we first started. Fruit can have quite strong sour or sweet flavors, so they have a bold presence when they are incorporated in a dish. That is why it’s a lot of fun to try and combine them with other ingredients to get just the right synergistic effect. It has been almost ten years of repeated trial and error whenever I come across a new fruit I’d like to use. I feel that I now have formed a core style as to how they are used.”

Most of the fruit Chef Noda buys is directly sourced from growers around Japan. He says that in addition to those from the fruit industry, he has made many personal connections with those who produce vegetables and herbs, too.

kiki harajuku's fruit cuisine (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

“These days you are seeing an increase in the number of growers who have backgrounds in art or music, and I often meet many of my own generation who have a creative sensibility. I encounter a lot of really unusual foods through my connections with them. They also have a great sense of speed and dynamism about them, such as wanting to be the first to cultivate some rare variety from overseas that hasn’t been grown in Japan yet.”

kiki harajuku's fruit cuisine (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

kiki harajuku's fruit cuisine (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

“Recently, I’ve been doing some training on my days off at a Japanese restaurant. One day, I’d like to try my hand at running a Japanese restaurant that has Japanese-style dishes that use fruit,” Noda continues. “Japan has so much fruit available at all times of the year and you can see that research into creating new varieties is flourishing. You come across a new fruit every day — the possibilities for creating new dishes are endless.”

Thanks to researchers, growers, sellers, and people in many different fields, Japanese fruit has evolved with the development of society. With a new generation of creative chefs and producers, Japan’s fruit culture is sure to head in exciting and bold new directions in the years ahead.

Credits: Story

Sekizawa, M. (ed.) (2019) Nihon no shokubunka 6 Kashi to kudamono (Japan’s Food Culture 6. Sweets and Fruit). Yoshikawa Kobunkan.
Samurai Benkei mizukuwashi uridashi Hyaku nana-ju go-nen Senbikiya honten shi (A history of 175 years of Sembikiya Main Store). Sembikiya Main Store (2009)
Toishi, S. (2002) Shiki to Shiki no kudamono. Bungeisha.
Toishi, S. (2008) Banzuke de miru kudamono-ya no rekishi. Bungeisha.

Cooperation with:
kiki harajuku

Text & Edit: Masaya Yamawaka
Photos: Yuri Nanasaki
Production: Skyrocket Corporation

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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