A popular rice ball shop stands near Tokyo Station’s Yaesu Central Gate, drawing long lines of customers waiting to buy products made with rice from Aizu, Fukushima Prefecture, known for remaining soft with a touch of sweetness even when it gets cold.
As it takes less than a minute to make the rice balls, customers don’t have to wait long at Honnoriya, a rice ball chain operated by JR East Food Business Co.
From actors, athletes and comedians to politicians and culinary maestros, many say they are fans of the rice balls. After it was featured on the popular TBS television show “Matsuko no Shiranai Sekai” (“The World Unknown to Matsuko”), a rush of traffic swarmed Honnoriya’s website, temporarily shutting it down.
Sadafumi Yamagiwa, president of JR East Food, said the secret of the chain’s popularity is the quality of the rice — Koshihikari rice produced in Fukushima’s Aizu region.
“It’s because the rice tastes good. The Aizu Koshihikari rice is chewy, making it different from other rice,” Yamagiwa said.
The firm uses Aizu Koshihikari in all of its 13 outlets located in Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba. At the main shop in Tokyo, around 7,000 rice balls are sold on busy days. In fiscal 2017, a total of 252 tons of rice were consumed at its 13 stores.
Since Honnoriya opened its first outlet at Tokyo Station in March 2002, it has continued to use Koshihikari brand. Despite having been awarded the top “special A” ranking by the Japan Grain Inspection Association, Aizu Koshihikari is cheap compared with other varieties produced in different regions, Yamagiwa said.
Following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and the ensuing nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, many consumers avoided produce from the prefecture. The company also received many inquiries about the safety of the rice, and employee opinions differed over which brand should be used.
But as blanket radiation checks conducted on Fukushima-grown rice found no radioactive material, such concern gradually eased, Yamagiwa said.
He stressed that the company has been using Aizu Koshihikari solely for the reason that it tastes good. “It’s not like we’ve been using the rice to support the disaster-hit regions,” he said.
Each year, the company chooses a rice brand after comparing the tastes of different varieties produced in different parts of the country.
For the past 16 years, there has been no rice that surpassed Koshihikari produced in Aizu, Yamagiwa said, meaning that Aizu Koshihikari has consistently won the internal competition every single year.
This section features topics and issues from Fukushima covered by the Fukushima Minpo, the largest newspaper in Fukushima Prefecture. The original article was published on Sept. 30.