Yubari: Japan's Melon Kingdom

By Brett Bull

Over the course of a year there are three main vacation periods in Japan (all centered around major national holidays) with spring, summer and winter getting roughly one weeklong break apiece. For many industrious Japanese, they are the only relief from the rigors of the working world. Come vacation, families leave their big-city confines for the countryside - often to visit their ancestral homes. It is a time to see the relatives and relax.

The Captain, though as dedicated to his work as the next guy, also likes to escape life in the city. But instead of returning to his ancestral home, during the recent Golden-Week vacation he braved the throngs and traveled to the inner regions of Japan's northern island of Hokkaido. There, he discovered a town whose hopes rest on its melon industry. Why not tag along with him? He won't help you with your bags, but he might extend his cigarette pack.

It is midmorning at the rest area outside the entrance gate of Yubari's coal-mine amusement park. The seating hall is long and wide. Japanese noodle dishes, curry, and drinks are served up by the staff behind the counter to tourists arriving by bus, perhaps to enjoy such attractions as the coal-miner exhibition hall, the coal museum, or one of the two roller coasters. "We have a lot of customers when the tour buses come," says one female worker.

Today, however, there are none. Yubari, once a thriving center for coal mining, is now a mountain town left behind by time. The 2,500 car capacity parking lot is nearly empty. The steady rain on this day might be a reason for the lack of visitors. But after a quick look around the area, located one and a half hours from Sapporo by train, one gets the impression that this might not be so unusual. A large grocery store closes at 3PM. A man working at a printing shop rushes to his window at the sound of passersby, perhaps the only ones of the day. Many homes and shops are boarded up all along the main road. The restaurants that are still in business sit mostly empty at noon.

Times are tough. Still, people here keep their chins up - pinning their hopes on the cultivation of one very special fruit. The Yubari brand, as the melon is known across Japan, began in the early 1950s and today accounts for 97 percent of Yubari's agricultural income. In Japan, the red-fleshed Yubari, similar to the common cantaloupe, is a favorite gift of thanks to friends or bosses during summer. In the food section of large department stores, Yubari melons are often sold for as much as 15,000 yen. Shape, skin-netting pattern, sweetness, and texture determine the price. A perfectly round number with a smooth skin can fetch over 20,000 yen. "This is our main industry now that the mines have closed," says Katsuhide Totsuka, a manager with the Yubari branch of the Japan Agriculture Cooperative Association.

The presentation in the stores is always immaculate, nearly shrine-like. The melon is perched on a pedestal with green tissue paper carefully bunched beneath it. Sometimes a wood box sits nearby, perfect for packaging up that gift for someone special. The business doesn't stop with just the sales of the fruit itself. In Yubari (and every tourist shop in Hokkaido), melon products - all with the distinctive red-flesh tint and the Yubari Chinese kanji characters on the packaging - are readily available: brandy, crackers, cakes, gum, caramel, pudding, and even Pocky. Need an omiyage for the trip home? You'll find what you're looking for at Yubari's Melon Dome, a cylindrically-shaped souvenir stand with a large green orb - presumably a melon - on its roof.

Last year, 170 farms in Yubari produced 3.4 million melons using a carefully orchestrated process. The farms are lined with a series of vinyl greenhouses, each slightly longer and wider than a lane at a bowling alley. Melon seeds, hybrids of forebears imported from the United States and the United Kingdom, are planted in rows. Years ago, efforts were made to use seeds from the Japanese mainland, but the resulting melons were far too fibrous.

The first seeds of the year are planted in early February. A full Yubari King, the brand name for melons from Yubari, takes 105 days to go from seed to ripe melon. Warm water is run through pipes buried just below the soil surface to provide the desired warmth. The vinyl tenting ensures that Hokkaido's harsh elements are held at bay. Sweetness, says Totsuka, is the King's main selling point over its main upper-echelon fruit rival, the musk melon. Farmers credit Yubari's native soil, which contains a high concentration of volcanic ash that allow soil temperatures to be kept high with the network of water pipes. Also, water permeates such soil easily. These characteristics make Yubari's soil, as Totsuka says, "perfect for growing sweet melons."

Even though Yubari is drifting away from its mining past, the distribution system for these fruity jewels has something in common with the controlled market of the coal days. After ripening on the vine, every Yubari melon is hand harvested and brought to a trading center operated by the Japan Agriculture Association. The melon is then run through a strict quality check where it receives one of four grades. Only after this can they be sent to the customers. "The farmers cannot sell the melons directly like peach or strawberry farmers. This way the price is controlled and only high-quality melons are delivered," Totsuka explains. Even such a lucrative business does have its downsides. "Once the last melons are delivered to the customers in August," Totsuka says, "there is nothing for the farmers to do during the cold Hokkaido winter until the following January." Perhaps melon brandy helps pass the time.

Note: Hanako Ito contributed to this report.

For a more complete list of The Captain's stories visit www.bigempire.com/sake!

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