Japanese Local Food Onigiri is in a Popularity Boom

(Photos courtesy of OMUSUBI GONBEI)

Onigiri is a convenient, easily portable food enjoyed by the Japanese since long ago. The combination of rice, a staple of Japanese cuisine, with a variety of fillings not only enhances their deliciousness, but also makes for a visually appealing dish. Their popularity on social media has made onigiri popular not only among young people, but among people of all ages. Today we’ll be introducing onigiri, arguably the most well-known portable Japanese food, and one that has attracted significant attention outside of Japan in recent years too.

What is Onigiri?

Onigiri’s primary ingredient is Japanese rice, cultivated in fields across Japan. It comes in triangle shapes, circular shapes or even in the shape of a tawara, a kind of straw bag made for storing harvested rice.

Onigiri has been a beloved traditional food among the Japanese people for a very long time. Its history goes back ages, with descriptions of it found in writings that go back to the 8th century. Onigiri can be shaped into a triangle convenient for eating with one’s hand, or into a tawara shape that is easy to eat with chopsticks in a bento. In years past, travelers would wrap them in things like bamboo leaves to take with them as portable food. Typically, onigiri is made with freshly cooked rice that is formed by hand, with salt seasoning the maker’s hands while forming it. It is then wrapped in seaweed or filled with umeboshi—Japanese pickled plums—or other pickled fillings. The subtly sweet Japanese rice combines with the salt and fillings right in your mouth, boosting its delicious flavor. Moreover, rice is slowly digested, making onigiri a distinctly satisfying food.

Japan’s Onigiri Booms in Popularity with Varied Looks and Fillings

Vibrantly presented onigiri is popular among younger people on social media. (Photo courtesy of Rice Republic Inc.)

Different kinds of onigiri line the store shelves of a convenience store. One major national convenience store chain recognizes onigiri as a crucial product that influences overall store sales, actively investing in its development. According to the latest statistics, annual onigiri sales from this company alone exceed 2.1 billion units. (Photo courtesy of Seven-Eleven Japan Co., Ltd.)

While onigiri has been a staple in Japanese households for a long time, the gradual westernization of diets and decreased frequency at which people cook rice at home has led to a decline in people making homemade onigiri. Because of this, as simple and easy convenience store onigiri has increased in popularity, high-quality onigiri made with rice and fillings not readily available at home have become more popular as well. In recent years, more vibrantly presented onigiri have rocketed in popularity on social media.

A long-established onigiri specialty store where patrons can eat freshly made large onigiri (180 to 200 g) with miso soup. Many customers will wait for the store to open. The store’s signature menu item is its richly flavored onigiri with soy-sauce marinated egg yolk. (Photos courtesy of ONIGIRI BONGO)

The increasing enthusiasm for this trend is evident in the long lines forming outside onigiri specialty stores. One long-established onigiri specialty store that has operated in Tokyo since 1963 finds itself completely full day after day, experiencing the onigiri popularity boom first-hand. In response to customer demands, they have expanded their flavor options with a diverse lineup of unique onigiri, each made with freshly cooked rice.

Long lines of people appear at this onigiri specialty shop’s stores in and outside of Japan. Their most popular onigiri is filled with salmon, while their other offerings including onigiri wrapped in shiso leaves with mixed rice containing dried fish and other morsels, as well as a tenmusu tempura onigiri wrapped in seaweed. All of these varieties of onigiri are offered in substantial, large sizes. (Photos courtesy of OMUSUBI GONBEI)

Onigiri stores offering take-out services are also popular. One popular chain that sources rice from contracted farmers across Japan and places heavy emphasis on their meticulous cooking and forming techniques of their onigiri, made to draw out the delicious flavor of Japanese rice, has long lines out the door every day. Customers select from a diverse selection of onigiri, including their popular salmon option, all lined up in the store’s showcase, ready to eat. Store staff say they want customers to hold the store’s big onigiri in their hands and enjoy every last grain of delicious Japanese rice, which remains tasty even when cold. At a different onigiri specialty store, they’ve tried updating the everyday onigiri by placing all of the ingredients on top, creating vibrant and memorable onigiri that make waves on social media. Their onigiri, made with Japanese rice able to retain a large volume of moisture and cooked with a dedicated rice-cooking pot, features combinations of ingredients that maximize umami, texture and aroma. Ingredients include scallops sautéed in shiokoji butter, shiitake mushrooms and kombu kelp infused with dashi, grilled mackerel with ginger and crisp seaweed. These delicious onigiri are crafted with care to bring a touch of luxury to people’s everyday lives.

This store that opened in 2023 in Tokyo’s Ningyocho district features an impressive noren divider at its entrance. Some stores cook their rice in a pot and top it with a wide variety of toppings. (Photos courtesy of Rice Republic Inc.)

Onigiri Rides the Wave of Health-Conscious Trends

Simple onigiri made with white and brown rice. (Photo courtesy of OMUSUBI GONBEI)

Onigiri made with kuromai. (Photo courtesy of Rice Republic Inc.)

Plum kombu onigiri from a convenience store. It’s made with glutinous rice, believed to help control post-meal blood sugar level. (Photo courtesy of Seven-Eleven Japan Co., Ltd.)

In recent years, the popularity of onigiri has even spread to the health conscious. Japanese cuisine itself is already considered healthy; with rice as a staple, it provides the body a good balance of nutrients. Particularly, unpolished brown rice and ancient grains like kuromai are rich in vitamins and other nutrients. Onigiri made with these varieties of rice have gained popularity for their nutritional benefits. Major convenience stores are even releasing onigiri containing mochimugi, a promising food option for continued maintenance and promotion of health.

Japan’s delicious and nutritious onigiri is incredibly popular among a diverse range of international tourists visiting Japan too. When you come to Japan, be sure to indulge in Japan’s onigiri for yourself.