japan nishiuwa mandarin oranges3
CNN  — 

How many mandarin oranges can you buy with one million yen – or roughly $9,600?

For one fruit-loving buyer at an auction this week in Japan, the answer is just 100.

A single, 20-kilogram crate of 100 Japanese mandarins (also called mikan) hit the auction block on Thursday at Tokyo’s central wholesale Ota Market.

It was the year’s first auction of satsuma mandarin oranges, a famous citrus species from Ehime prefecture, on the island of Shikoku in southern Japan.

‘Three suns’

Nishiuwa is one of Ehime’s mikan-producing regions and its semi-seedless citrus species of oranges is known for its good balance of rich and sweet flavors, its easy-to-peel thin skin as well as its melt-in-the-mouth texture.

The highest priced Nishiuwa mandarins are from one of the region’s leading brands – Hinomaru.

“Hinomaru mikan are produced in a limited area on the coast of Yawatahama city in Ehime prefecture,” Shin Asai, from JA Nishiuwa’s sales department, tells CNN. “It’s a mikan that is grown with so-called three suns – the actual sun, the reflected light from the sea and the reflected light from the stone walls of the terraced fields.”

Only about 100 farmers produce this special kind of mikan in the area.

“Hinomaru Mikan this year have been particularly good quality,” Asai adds.

This box of mandarin oranges was auctioned for one million Japanese yen ($9,579).

The high bid at Thursday’s auction was considered “a very celebratory price” to mark the beginning of Japan’s mikan season, according to a representative of Nishiuwa agricultural association.

“Since the quality of the fruit of each year is evaluated at the first auction, it will greatly affect the subsequent sales,” Asai says. “First auction is very important for the fruit industry.”

The typical price of this type of high-end mandarin orange is usually around JPY7,800 (or $75) for 10 kilograms.

It wasn’t the first time the sweet mandarins fetched such a staggering price in an auction – the highest bidding price last year was also in the million range.

“But considering the negative impact in the economy because of Covid-19, we were surprised and also delighted that it was auctioned off for one million yen,” says Asai.

Sweet and expensive

The first auction for Satsuma mandarin oranges marked the beginning of the fruit's season.

The identity of the high bidder remains unknown for now but Asai believes it’ll be revealed within a few days.

“A high-end supermarket purchased it last year and used it for publicity for the store,” says Asai.

Japan has been known for producing sweet and expensive fruits for years. Last year, 24 bunches of ruby red grapes were auctioned for JPY1.2 million ($11,000).

“Fruits are treated differently in Asian culture and in Japanese society especially,” Soyeon Shim, dean of the School of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told CNN in 2019. “Fruit purchase and consumption are tied to social and cultural practices.

Ehime prefecture is famous for its sweet mandarin oranges and Nishiuwa is one of the biggest mandarin producing region in the prefecture.

“It is not only an important part of their diet, but, perhaps more importantly, fruit is considered a luxury item and plays an important and elaborate ritual part in Japan’s extensive gift-giving practices.”

Mandarins are one of the most popular fruits in Japan. According to a report in 2019 by Japan’s Statistic Bureau, mandarins were the country’s highest yielding fruits in 2016 and 2017.

Ehime is only second to Wakayama Prefecture in terms of total mandarin production but is number one in terms of the overall output of over 40 different types of citrus fruits, including satsumas. Its local mascot is a cartoon orange called Mikyan.