Every summer, a purple monster comes down from the mountains to wreak havoc on frugivores’ wallets throughout the land. This giant’s name is Kyoho (巨峰ぶどう kyoho budo) and it’s a grape of epic proportions. Fans of “Attack on Titan” (進撃の巨人）may recognize the first kanji of kyoho as meaning “big” or “giant”. The second character is mine (峰), which can be translated as “peak” or “mountain”. And that is exactly what Kyoho grapes are: big mountain grapes. These Deep Purple rockstars are irrefutable proof of the saying, “bigger is better.”
The Frankenstein of this tale was Yasushi Oinoue, who first created the Kyoto grape in 1937. Instead of the basement of a castle, the grape was brought to life in the Southern Alps of Shizuoka Prefecture. The Kyoho grape was the product of cross-breeding Ishiharawase and Centennial grape varieties. The resulting fruit was similar to a Concord grape, but blown up to Andre-the-Giant proportions (1 grape averages 20-40grams!). In 1942, the grape was officially selected for breeding and it was given the name “Kyoho” in 1946.
Since then, the Kyoho variety has grown to dominate Eastern Asian markets as well as gaining a strong foothold in California and Chile. In Japan, the production of Kyoho grapes is highly controlled to maintain quality (and demand). It is said that if a cluster has too many grapes (more than about 450 grams), the individual grapes won’t receive as much nutrients and thus they will lack in sweetness and coloration.
As with most fruits in Japan, the cultivation of Kyoho grapes has become more of an art-form than agriculture. This means that it is not uncommon to see the grapes atop pedestals in grocery aisles and given as presents for special occasions.
Like the Concord grape, or other large varieties, the Kyoho grape is slip-skin. This means that the flesh is easily separated from the skin. When consumed in Japan, the skin is usually peeled and discarded due to its acidity and astringency, but it is not at all dangerous to consume. In fact, many people (including me) enjoy the tart acidity and the astringent feeling. More so than the sweet and juicy flesh, the skin will leave a tart mark on the palate that mellows into a pleasant aftertaste.
Because of their size and price in Japan, Kyoho grapes aren’t usually eaten off the vine or by themselves. They are often used in desserts like parfaits or in fruit salads.
But the way that most people consume the grapes is in drinks. While they can be used to make low alcohol sweet wine (particularly famous in Shinshu), Kyoho cocktails and Kyoho-flavored drinks, like chu-hai and highballs, are perhaps more common. Kyoho spritzers will quench any thirst on a hot and humid summer day in Japan, and I can attest to the fact that Kyoho Sangria was made by Dionysus after the God of Wine visited the Japanese archipelago.
Kyoho grapes reached our supermarket shelves a few weeks ago in early to mid June but happily unlike some fruit that are only available in Japan for 2-3 weeks, Kyoho are usually available until September. When they first arrive, prices can be astronomical, but in the middle and late season they will drop to around 460 yen per cluster (about 450 grams). Nearly every supermarket will stock them, but prices and availability will vary by region.
Another thing to watch out for is where in the market you get the grapes. Because of its revered status, the grape is often cultivated for the purpose of being a gift-fruit (along with watermelons, peaches, and apples). Kyoho grapes of this kind will generally be bigger, darker, and much much much more expensive-er!
Usually, gift fruits are located near to—but clearly separate from—the other fruits and vegetables, in a refrigerated section. They will most likely have special packaging as well. Unless you’ve got a date to impress, be sure to choose the normal Kyoho grapes or this mountain monster will consume your wallet!
If you are in Japan while the grapes are in season, you can also pick them right from the vine. Fruit-picking in Japan is a great way to get fresh fruit at prices that are somewhat reasonable. However, I have yet to come across a farm that allows you to take the fruit home. Most fruit-picking farms operate on an all-you-can-eat (食べ放題 tabehoudai）business model. Consumers are given a time limit during which they can peruse the vineyard and consume grapes at their leisure (while dodging the wasps and bees that are also trying to chow down on that sweet Kyoho sugar).
Depending on where you visit in Japan, the availability and season of Kyoho grapes will change, but if you are here in August or September, these delicious treats should be a top priority! Sure, you may have to pay a pretty penny, but no one will every fault you for splurging on a healthy and nutritious delight! Who needs a 500 yen draft beer in a smoke filled bar when you could do enjoy one of Mother Nature’s natural candies while strolling through a park this summer?