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People in Tokyo wait in line 3 hours for a taste of these Japanese rice balls

A lunch at Onigiri Bongo includes mustard green and salmon flake onigiri, miso soup, pickles and green tea.
Anthony Kuhn
/
NPR
A lunch at Onigiri Bongo includes mustard green and salmon flake onigiri, miso soup, pickles and green tea.

TOKYO — The world's great cuisines can regale the eye and the palate. Or, alternatively, they may celebrate the plain and exalt the humble — for example, by recreating home-style comfort food in a restaurant setting.

A popular and compact eatery in Tokyo's Toshima ward, called Onigiri Bongo, does just that. It has served one of Japan's most humble foods, the onigiri, or rice ball, for some 60 years.

Diners at Onigiri Bongo — named for the drum, whose sound resonates far and wide like the restaurant's reputation — are squeezed into nine seats around an L-shaped counter. Its tiny space, and its reputation as one of the city's top onigiri emporia, produces lines of customers stretching down the street, waiting for three or four hours, or more.

Onigiri Bongo owner Yumiko Ukon (foreground) prepares rice balls at her popular Tokyo restaurant. Ordering from a chef behind the counter is similar to the way many sushi restaurants operate.
Anthony Kuhn / NPR
/
NPR
Onigiri Bongo owner Yumiko Ukon (foreground) prepares rice balls at her popular Tokyo restaurant. Ordering from a chef behind the counter is similar to the way many sushi restaurants operate.
The front of a line of people stretching down the block, awaiting the 11:30 a.m. opening of Onigiri Bongo, a nine-seat restaurant.
Anthony Kuhn / NPR
/
NPR
The front of a line of people stretching down the block, awaiting the 11:30 a.m. opening of Onigiri Bongo, a nine-seat restaurant.

Behind the counter is the restaurant's wiry and sprightly owner, 70-year-old Yumiko Ukon. She scoops rice from a huge pot, putting it in triangular molds and packing them with a variety of fillings — more than 50, including standards such as bonito or salmon flake, pickled plum, mustard greens and cod roe, and innovations such as pork and kimchi, and fried chicken with mayonnaise and soy sauce.

Then she puts more rice on the top, and deftly shapes them with three final squeezes. She wraps each rice ball in a thin sheet of seaweed and serves them to customers at the counter. The restaurant serves between 1,200 and 1,500 onigiri every day.

Onigiri Bongo owner Yumiko Ukon stands in front of a wall listing the 50-plus fillings that diners can order for their rice balls.
Anthony Kuhn / NPR
/
NPR
Onigiri Bongo owner Yumiko Ukon stands in front of a wall listing the 50-plus fillings that diners can order for their rice balls.

Japanese people have been eating onigiri for 2,000 years

The onigiri is sometimes born of the leftovers of family rice pots, and often packed in school and travel lunchboxes and hiking and picnic bags. Packaged, commercial versions of onigiri line the shelves of convenience stores across Japan.

Archaeological evidence from Japan's Yayoi period (roughly 300 B.C.E. to 250 C.E.) seems to suggest that Japanese have been eating variations of onigiri for more than 2,000 years. The rice balls are known by different names, depending on the era and region. The word onigiri itself comes from the Japanese word "nigiru," to squeeze, referring to how the rice ball is shaped by hand.

Onigiri Bongo owner Yumiko Ukon wraps triangular rice balls in thin sheets of nori, or dried seaweed, behind the counter at her restaurant.
Anthony Kuhn / NPR
/
NPR
Onigiri Bongo owner Yumiko Ukon wraps triangular rice balls in thin sheets of nori, or dried seaweed, behind the counter at her restaurant.

Bongo Onigiri's main ingredients are sourced from around the country, including short-grain Koshihikari rice from terraced paddies of Ukon's native Niigata prefecture, seaweed from Japan's Ariake Sea and salt from Okinawa.

For the current owner, the restaurant was "love at first sight"

Onigiri Bongo restaurant staff prepare ingredients for rice balls ahead of lunchtime.
Anthony Kuhn / NPR
/
NPR
Onigiri Bongo restaurant staff prepare ingredients for rice balls ahead of lunchtime.

At Onigiri Bongo, Ukon's gentle squeezes leave the rice balls fluffy and crumbly. The onigiri are sizable, the rice a bit al dente, and the tastes simple, genuine and straight-up scrumptious. The rice balls are often served in a set, including pickles and miso soup. A weekday meal set with two onigiri and tofu soup goes for for 800 yen, about $5.98 — in Tokyo, a very affordable lunch.

But to Ukon, what makes onigiri special is not the details of preparation, but their meaning, and the way people bond over them.

"It's not about the technique. It's about how much feeling you can put into each onigiri. That's why I'll never forget my mother's onigiri for the rest of my life," she says.

"It was part of our culture not to buy them, but to make them at home," she recalls.

After she moved to Tokyo at around age 20, "Onigiri were always there in my happy memories, like of athletic festivals or school hikes," says Ukon. "My best memories of onigiri are of the ones my mother made when I came home from Tokyo."

A picture on the wall at Onigiri Bongo shows the restaurant's original owner, Tasuku Ukon (back row, left), and his wife, the restaurant's current owner, Yumiko Ukon, in front of him.
Anthony Kuhn / NPR
/
NPR
A picture on the wall at Onigiri Bongo shows the restaurant's original owner, Tasuku Ukon (back row, left), and his wife, the restaurant's current owner, Yumiko Ukon, in front of him.

Freshly arrived in the capital, she says she felt like a "food refugee" because "I couldn't find food I liked," she recalls. "But a friend introduced me to a delicious rice ball restaurant, and it was love at first sight."

Ukon was not destined to be just another customer. She married the restaurant's owner, Tasuku Ukon, 27 years her senior. After he passed away in 2012, she took over.

Now, after more than 40 years of running the place, she continues to serve up onigiri with vigor and passion.

"I thought about retiring at 70," she says, "but I'm still in good health, and I want to see the smiling faces of the people eating the rice balls."

Chie Kobayashi contributed to this report in Tokyo.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.