Fruit is astoundingly expensive in Japan. It’s about 380円 for a peach, roughly $5 at today’s exchange rates. Want a box of figs? That’ll set you back 800円 or so. Such a contrast from the Middle East, where you could pick up a huge box of any sort of fruit for the equivalent of three or four dollars. Watermelon in the land of milk and honey? About 11 cents per pound. As for figs, you could just eat ones the size of an apple off of your friends’ trees or in vacant lots for free.
In Tokyo, an average small watermelon, or suika (西瓜, すいか, or スイカ), will set you back around 1,500円, in the neighborhood of $20. The further from Tokyo you go towards the hills, they approach 2,000円! And this isn’t for a particularly large watermelon! At least they’re not exploding.
Why, you ask, an entire post dedicated to costly fruit? Last Tuesday, our lab group drove and biked up to a spot along a river near Okutama west of Tokyo for an afternoon of grilling, swimming, and otherwise being outside of the city. The cold river was a relief after the intense heat of Tokyo. We spent hours hopping into the water, splashing in the shallows, and watching teenagers haul their friends into the river.
The boys had been talking about the “BBQ” for weeks—every conversation in the lab was “mumble mumble BBQ mumble ka?” Joining dozens of other Japanese families and groups, we set up grills and proceeded to “BBQ” everything we could buy at the neighboring stores: pork, beef, beef tongue, sausages, peppers, onions, pickled plums (“yaki ume!”, exclaimed the deputy lab director), and even Japanese pumpkin, kabocha.
I taught the boys how to make a package out of aluminum foil and fill it full of onions, peppers, potatoes, and meat, which they found incredibly novel. We wound up making s’mores, but I couldn’t find graham crackers, so we substituted with coconut-flavored crackers.
We made a small barrier out of rocks in the river shallows, using it as a cooler for drinks and the watermelon. (Last summer, we saw families grilling along the Jordan River doing exactly the same thing. Except they were smoking hookah and speaking in Hebrew and Arabic instead of Japanese.) Shin decided to go fishing for grapefruit juice.
After the requisite number of beers were consumed by my labmates, the boys tried to explain to me the afternoon’s entertainment. The expensive watermelon is the main object in a Japanese party game known as “suikawari” (西瓜割り) or “watermelon splitting”. For those of you familiar with piñata, you know about filling a papier-mâché star or animal full of candy, hanging it from a tree, blindfolding small children, handing them a stick, and having them take a swing at the piñata in order to break it apart and shower the crowd with sweets.
In Japan, suikawari is not much different, except that you have grown men wielding large sticks (bokken) while blindfolded and taking strikes at an innocent, expensive watery fruit. People crouch along the route to the watermelon, while others shout out guidance, both good and bad, to the blindfolded chump holding the bokken. One wrong swing and someone’ll get a bruise on his head or back or worse!
The first attempt was carried out by Hayashia, but the twig he was using broke upon contact with the melon, so he swam across the river to find a more substantial beating device, which he then handed to me. I wrapped a towel around my head and took a swing at the watermelon, but missed by a few centimeters. I handed over the bokken to Tatsuya as he blindfolded himself and set out toward the victim. (Everyone in Japan carries a little hand towel for wiping away sweat; they double as great blindfolds for suikawari.)
Okabe decided that Tatsuya needed some extra guidance, so precision bokken positioning service (PBPS) was provided.
“San, ni, ichi!” Tatsuya struck at the fruit and landed a direct hit with the bokken. Suika guts went everywhere as the group cheered, then set about consuming the split watermelon insides.
I’m sure I’ve played some strange party games involving food, but suikawari certainly takes the proverbial cake for the most entertaining and odd way to eat a watermelon in a group. What’s the strangest food game you’ve played?