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Tea Leaves

How a $30 cherry helps boost rural Japan

Yamagata's luxury fruit market reflects economics and social dynamics of aging countryside

The Yamagata Benio, left, is Yamagata prefecture's largest cherry variety yet. It is seen here compared with its predecessor, the Beni Shuho variety, at an orchard in June. (Photo by Yuki Kohara)

Tokyo's Ota wholesale market was the last place I expected to find myself at 6 a.m. on a torrentially rainy Friday in mid-June. As I weaved my way -- shoes sodden and hair frizzy -- through the crates of fresh fish and piles of potatoes, I will admit I questioned my life choices more than once.

But the chance of being one of the first in Japan to sample Yamagata prefecture's new luxury cherry variety, the Benio, was unmissable. As a former Yamagata resident, I equate the start of the Japanese summer with the prefecture's rubylike stone fruit, which is harvested during June and July and accounts for around 75% -- or roughly 12,000 tons -- of the nation's annual cherry haul.

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