Posts Tagged ‘gifts’

Strawberries: The gift that keeps on growing

Friday, February 4th, 2011

When a Japanese person visits another person’s home, he or she traditionally brings a gift. The most common gift in such a situation is fruit. Recently, a friend came to our apartment for lunch and we bought strawberries, which was a dumb thing to do because it was more than likely that our friend was going to uphold this tradition and bring strawberries herself, since, right now, strawberries are the only fruit “in season,” basically because modern farming technology has made it possible for strawberries to be never out of season.

Fruit on steroids: amaou vs. otome

And, of course, she did bring strawberries; massive ones, in fact, which made the strawberries we purchased look puny in comparison. We had bought a package of the most popular type, otome from Tochigi Prefecture, which cost ¥398 for 300 grams. Our friend, however, had brought the more extravagant and topical amaou strain, grown in Fukuoka. We didn’t ask how much she paid, but we did ask if she ever bought this particular type of strawberry to eat at home. She said, “Of course not.” Later we went by the supermarket and checked out the price. Six amaou berries cost ¥680, about 300 grams. Further research uncovered organic strains of amaou  for ¥888 (300 grams) and ¥598 (200 grams). Though strawberries are grown in 40 prefectures, mainly because it is almost always a guaranteed money maker (thanks, in part, to Chinese tourists who buy up a lot of expensive stawberries), Tochigi and Fukuoka are currently the two heavyweights, battling it out for berry dominance.

However, the king of luxury (kokyu) strawberries is a brand called Aiberry, which retails for ¥500 a pop. Aiberry is being touted as the 21st century equivalent of the cantaloupe, or “musk melon,” which was typically the go-to fruit when foreign media wanted to demonstrate the utter ridiculousness of high-priced Japanese food culture. And it is ridiculous, as illustrated by an online primer for potential Aiberry aficionados (presumably people who received them as gifts) on how best to appreciate the delights of this rare fruit, which is grown with fertilizer that utilizes decayed strawberries. (Does that count as cannibalism?) The instructions say you shouldn’t even wash the berries with water, since it might deplete the aroma. Just “blow on it” to get ride of any residue. Then you smell it, hold it up to the light to “enjoy the color,” say goodbye, and then slowly eat the berry one bite at a time (two to four mouthfuls), savoring not only the flavor (each part of the strawberry has a different grade of “sweetness”) but also the “structure.” When it’s over, you can even appreciate the aftertaste. And keep the box. You never know when it might come in handy for gift-giving.

Winter tale: Do oseibo have a future?

Friday, December 4th, 2009

Can I help you?: Matsuzakaya's oseibo section

Can I help you?: Matsuzakaya’s oseibo section

Winter gifts, or oseibo, are one of those Japanese customs that few Western residents of Japan get behind, no matter how assimilated they think they are. The basic idea may contradict principles many of us grew up with. Though the gifts are ostensibly thank-you gestures to people who have helped you during the past year, the fact that they tend to be given to people who are above you in social station or from whom you have something to gain in terms of business or education opportunities makes some people uncomfortable.

Maybe that’s reading too much into it, but the oseibo tradition seems to be undergoing a paradigm shift that is influenced by more than just current economic realities. A reporter for the Asahi Shimbun wrote a short essay about how it seems that suddenly oseibo counters in supermarkets are becoming quite busy. Normally, oseibo sales of everything from fine fish roe to laundry detergents are the bailiwick of department stores. In fact, the department store you buy your gift from says more about your sincerity as a gift-giver than the gift itself. The more reputable the depato, the more impressed the recipient is, which is why the outside wrapping paper is probably the most important part of the gift.

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