© 2023 Connecticut Public

FCC Public Inspection Files:
WPKT · WRLI-FM · WEDW-FM · Public Files Contact
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

How one Japanese restaurateur turned the humble rice ball into a must-eat dish


Japanese cooking ranges from simple, uncomplicated meals to incredibly elaborate, stylized cuisine. From Tokyo, NPR's Anthony Kuhn has the story of a restaurateur who has turned one of Japan's most humble homestyle foods into a big attraction.


ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Next to some streetcar tracks, you can often see diners lining up for hours down the street. Their objective - to get one of nine seats at Onigiri Bongo, which has been serving rice balls, or onigiri, for some six decades. The homely onigiri is often made at home. It's often packed in school lunches or taken on picnics. Of course, you can always grab a packaged onigiri at just about any convenience store in Japan. But Onigiri Bongo's rice balls are on another gourmet level. Yumiko Ukon is the eatery's wiry and energetic owner. She remembers the onigiri she ate as a child.

YUMIKO UKON: (Through interpreter) Usually, my mother used to make them. If they were wrapped with seaweed, they were a treat. It was part of our culture not to buy them, but to make them at home.

KUHN: Ukon says she left her hometown in Niigata prefecture and came to Tokyo at around age 20.

UKON: (Through interpreter) I called myself a food refugee. I couldn't find food I liked. But a friend introduced me to a delicious rice ball restaurant, and it was love at first sight.

KUHN: Ukon was not destined to be just another customer. She married the restaurant's then-owner, Tasuku Ukon, who was 27 years her senior. She later became the eatery's owner after her husband passed away in 2012.

Ukon's hands flit over the rice balls, stuffing them with filling, gently squeezing them and wrapping them with seaweed. Customers can choose from more than 50 fillings, from standards such as salmon flakes and pickled plums, to nontraditional items such as pork and kimchi or bacon and cheese. The onigiri are made to order and served warm and fluffy, with the rice slightly al dente. They're hefty, unpretentious and straight-up scrumptious. Ukon says onigiri are special because they connect people.

UKON: (Through interpreter) 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.


MIKI HIRAYAMA: (Singing in Japanese).

KUHN: At 11:30 a.m., the restaurant opens, the music comes on and the customers pack in. After more than four decades in the business, Yumiko Ukon is still serving up onigiri with vigor and passion. She's clear about what keeps her going.

UKON: (Through interpreter) I thought about retiring at 70, but I'm still in good health and I want to see the smiling faces of the people eating the rice balls.

KUHN: The name Onigiri Bongo likens the restaurant's reputation to the sound of the drum, resonating far and wide, beckoning to those who hear it.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Tokyo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stand up for civility

This news story is funded in large part by Connecticut Public’s Members — listeners, viewers, and readers like you who value fact-based journalism and trustworthy information.

We hope their support inspires you to donate so that we can continue telling stories that inform, educate, and inspire you and your neighbors. As a community-supported public media service, Connecticut Public has relied on donor support for more than 50 years.

Your donation today will allow us to continue this work on your behalf. Give today at any amount and join the 50,000 members who are building a better—and more civil—Connecticut to live, work, and play.