One of the most ubiquitous snacks in Japan, onigiri or omusubi (both terms for rice ball) are a definitive staple of breakfast, lunch and dinner — and for all those snacktimes in between.
Called tonjiki in the 11th-century diary of “The Tale of Genji” author Murasaki Shikibu, these balls of goodness wound up as convenient battlefield pick-me-ups for hungry warriors, only becoming broadly popular during the latter Edo Period (1603-1868).
Today, onigiri are often wrapped in nori (dried laver seaweed), packed with filling and sometimes grilled. With fillings like tuna-mayonnaise or shiso (perilla), they’ve come a long way from the simple salted rice balls of yesteryear (although those are still available). There’s even an Onigiri Society.
Further adding to the convenience, Seven-Eleven introduced the ingenious (though perhaps environmentally problematic) plastic wrapping for onigiri in 1978. But away from the konbini (convenience store), there are a wealth of specialist onigiri-ya (onigiri shops) that pride themselves on their handmade onigiri.
Tokyo is home to the whole spectrum: long-established institutions, wildly popular shops and hip newcomers. Imbued with kodawari (discerning commitment), these stores offer the same handheld sustenance without the factory facelessness.
Onigiri Bongo is an old-school establishment set in Toshima Ward close to Otsuka Station. Matching the down-to-earth feel of the shop itself, Bongo’s onigiri aren’t small, compact triangles, but almost bulging at the seams (or at the nori) with ingredients.
To be exact, the rice to filling ratio is around 2-to-1 — or so staff claim — meaning you get a veritable meal by ordering just one (from ¥260). You can even mix and match from the dozens of ingredients on offer. At Bongo, the onigiri aren’t shaped by hand — instead the rice is carefully wrapped in nori without directly touching the rice, resulting in a more fuka-fuka (fluffy) texture.
If you were wondering, yes: Bongo (established in 1960) is named after the Afro-Cuban drum, supposedly mimicking how the store’s name echoes far and wide. It’s an apt moniker — expect queues. Once you’re in, nab a counter seat (or order takeout) and enjoy.
Kitaotsuka 2-26-3, Toshima-ku 170-0004; 03-3910-5617; takeout available; onigiribongo.info
Onigiri Asakusa Yadoroku
Talking about onigiri in Tokyo would be impossible without mentioning Onigiri Asakusa Yadoroku. This venerable old shop has been dealing in rice balls since 1954, when it started selling them around Sensoji temple in Asakusa, making it Tokyo’s oldest onigiri joint. It prides itself on using Edo-mae nori — that is, seaweed cultivated in Tokyo Bay — and rice carefully selected from across Japan.
Fillings here run the gamut of omusubi standards from konbu (kelp) and okaka (simmered bonito flakes, a personal favorite) to umeboshi (dried pickled plum) and tarako (cod roe). Prices start at ¥297 per onigiri.
Can’t decide? Opt for a daytime set (from ¥748), which gets you two onigiri of your choice, as well as classic sides of miso-tоfu soup and takuan (pickled daikon radish). For bonus prestige, Yadoroku has also been awarded a spot on Michelin Guide’s Bib Gourmand list.
Asakusa 3-9-10, Taito-ku 111-0032; 03-3874-1615; takeout available; onigiriyadoroku.com
Jujo-Ginza, in Kita Ward, is a district well known for its warren of shōtengai (shopping arcades) and bargain-priced bites, so it comes as no surprise that onigiri outfit Kamataya is well-established among the ranks of Jujo’s affordable vendors. Situated along the narrow Jujo Naka-dori street, the prices of the handmade onigiri here start from just ¥120 apiece, practically matching any convenience store or supermarket equivalent. (They were ¥100 not so long ago.)
Alongside the attractive prices is the selection: Kamataya serves up around 50 different kinds of onigiri (supposedly the store makes about 4,000 per day). The choice is enough to keep any rice ball lover busy for weeks. The onigiri are fairly compact, but, to take a glass-half-full stance, that just means you get to try more varieties before reaching full capacity.
The fillings are unusual for onigiri — eggplant miso, hatōgarashi (chili leaves simmered in soy sauce), maitake mushroom tempura — but traditional flavors prevail. Try its popular tenmusu: onigiri stuffed with a tempura shrimp.
Kamijujo 3-29-15, Kita-ku 114-0034; 03-3906-2044; takeout available; bit.ly/onigirikamataya
Nakameguro’s Onigily Cafe is easily one of the more fashion-conscious onigiri operations in Tokyo. With its paneled glass windows, airy minimalist interior and immaculate plate presentation, it feels worlds away from the tried-and-true Showa Era (1926-89) atmosphere and aesthetics of other purveyors in the capital.
As you might expect, the food is wonderful. There are more than a dozen different onigiri fillings (from ¥121) to choose from, all made using Koshihikari rice from Saku, Nagano Prefecture. The most popular is shiokonbu-tsuna (salted kelp and tuna), but the green onion with miso or the mentaiko (spicy cod roe) and cream cheese are undeniably tasty.
You could swing by for a breakfast set (¥550, 8-11 a.m., hours subject to change) of two onigiri, spicy cucumber and miso soup. If that’s too early for you, lunch sets include fresh salad, karaage (deep-fried chicken) and other morsels alongside rice ball offerings.
Nakameguro 3-1-4, Meguro-ku 153-0061; 03-5708-5342; takeout available; onigily.com
East India Curry Company
This place is certainly an outlier, and not technically an onigiri-only store, but it’s here because it totally defies the traditional onigiri rulebook. Eschewing the delicate flavors of virtually unadulterated white rice for curry-seasoned rice, East India Curry Company serves up the bold fusion that is curry onigiri. Omusubi purists will balk at the thought.
The fillings are no less unusual. These include cheese-mayonnaise (¥200) and pork (¥250, the most popular), as well as ham and egg, and the very large spicy tuna hamburger onigiri (both ¥250).
Inevitably, with the store set on a well-trod route to Shinagawa Ward’s Fudomae Station, these novel creations sell out quite fast. For curry fans not based in Shinagawa, there is a sister store in Tsukiji.
Nishigotanda 4-32-15, Shinagawa-ku 141-0031; 03-3495-4474; takeout available; bit.ly/currycompany-gotanda
Also throwing out the rulebook is bar-slash-onigiri-joint Gao in Iriya, Taito Ward. Noted for its hane-tsuki yaki-onigiri (grilled onigiri with “wings”), the onigiri are grilled in a way that results in flared, crispy, wing-like sides to crunch on, washed down with a beverage of your choosing. The cheese risotto yaki-onigiri (¥350) is truly awesome in its cheese content, while the Hiroshima oyster (¥330) comes with a slice of zesty lemon, both making for a European-inflected extravaganza.
For more modernity, head to Andon. This Nihonbashi-honcho establishment in Chuo Ward claims to be a present-day nagaya (a type of Edo Period townhouse) of food and culture. Its first floor is an omusubi stand; second floor is a drinking den and bookstore; and the third floor hosts an event space. Chic presentation is everything here, as are its Akita Prefecture-sourced ingredients. Similarly, aesthetics are on point at Asakusa’s Misojyu, serving up hearty variations on miso soup alongside a selection of rice balls.
But tradition is certainly alive and well in many of the capital’s top onigiri-ya, not least at the delightfully local Iizuka Seimaiten. A few minute’s walk from Gakugei-daigaku Station, this neighborhood rice mill sells a selection of old-school omusubi made with pesticide-free rice cooked over prized binchōtan charcoal from Tanabe, Wakayama Prefecture.
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