Yumiko Ukon - The Woman Who Led Onigiri Bongo, Tokyo's Popular Onigiri Restaurant, to Success
The best way to learn about a country is by getting to know the locals. With our interview series “People of Japan,” we’ll bring you even closer to Japan by introducing business owners, cultural ambassadors, and all-round amazing people bonded by strong passions. In this edition, we spoke with Yumiko Ukon, the woman behind the incredibly successful Onigiri Bongo, a shop located near JR Otsuka Station that has been making and selling "onigiri" rice balls for over 60 years. Just what does it take to create an onigiri restaurant so popular that people start lining up in front of their doors an hour before they open, even on weekdays?
Jul 29 2022
It was a sunny May morning when we arrived at JR Otsuka Station. After a four-minute walk, during which we passed by the newly-opened Hoshino Resort urban hotel "OMO5 Tokyo Otsuka," we arrived at a quaint building with the shutters half-closed. Looking around, we found a lit-up sign with the words "Niigata Koshihikari" and "Onigiri" written on it. This was our destination - Onigiri Bongo, an onigiri restaurant that has been in business for over 60 years.
An Onigiri Shop That Feels More Like a Sushi Restaurant
“Nice to meet you!" Yumiko Ukon greeted us cheerfully as we came in. Despite her small stature, the second-generation owner of the restaurant had an aura of confidence about her, as well as a beaming smile.
The inside of the restaurant resembled a sushi shop, with seats arranged along an L-shaped counter and the kitchen clearly visible through a transparent partition. On the wall behind the seating area, there was a menu that included everything from standard fillings like pickled plums, salmon, and cod roe, to more creative options such as cheese and bacon and pork kimchi.
Altogether, Onigiri Bongo has as many as 56 different kinds of fillings for customers to choose from. Prices range from 300 to 700 yen depending on the variety. It's also possible to order a combination of several ingredients for one onigiri.
What makes Onigiri Bongo's rice balls special? Well, they're about twice as large as the ones you can find at convenience stores, and they're so packed with filling that some people get full eating just one! It's a tantalizing dish that has attracted fans from all over Japan and even overseas to their doors, hoping to learn Ukon's secrets to making delicious onigiri.
Onigiri Bongo was originally opened in 1960 by Tasuku Ukon, the current proprietoress’ husband. At the time, rice balls were commonly served at the end of a visit to an "izakaya" Japanese pub to round out the night. Very few places specialized in just onigiri, making Onigiri Bongo stand out as soon as it opened.
The first owner, who was not fond of alcohol, decided to make it a casual eatery for people of all ages. He made onigiri the star of the restaurant, as it was a familiar Japanese dish, and made it like you would in a proper sushi restaurant - prepared on the spot after an order comes in.
Tasuku Ukon also named the restaurant. A drummer in a band, he decided to call it "Onigiri Bongo" after bongo drums, hoping that its popularity would reverberate like the sound of drums. More than 60 years later, the shop is known not just throughout Tokyo, but also all of Japan and even abroad!
However, the success and appeal of Onigiri Bongo cannot be explained simply by the restaurant’s delicious onigiri. So, in our interview, we decided to ask the current owner, Yumiko Ukon, about how it all came together.
Tokyo Was Like a Food Desert
Yumiko Ukon took over Onigiri Bongo more than 40 years ago.
Originally from Niigata Prefecture, Japan's rice kingdom, she started working immediately after graduating high school. Her father was a very stern man with his own strict ideas about how his daughter should hold a bowl of rice or take off her shoes. The young woman felt suffocated living in such a strict environment, so shortly before turning 20, she packed the bare necessities and moved to Tokyo completely on her own.
Luckily, not long after she moved to Tokyo, Yumiko found a job at a coffee shop and began using her meal breaks to explore the city. However, her experiences with Tokyo's food led her to realize that, having grown up eating mainly her mother's homemade food, she was very particular about rice. She found it difficult to stomach the taste of the rice in Tokyo, and since there weren't many affordable restaurants in Japan's capital, she often had to make do with just bread or ramen.
Eventually, Yumiko made a friend from Niigata who was also particular about rice, and that friend ended up introducing her to Onigiri Bongo. On her first visit there, she devoured two onigiri in one sitting and brought home four more! She loved the taste of their onigiri so much that she kept coming back.
Over time, she became friends with the owner, Tasuku Ukon, and the rest of the staff, even drinking and eating with them. Yumiko and Tasuku eventually hit it off and, despite their 27-year age gap, got married. Yumiko then began to take on various roles in the restaurant like washing dishes.
Inheriting Onigiri Bongo
All was well until the day her husband passed away unexpectedly from illness. The woman who only helped around the restaurant suddenly had to run the place herself.
Loving to eat and running a business are two very different things. Even though Ukon had a passion for rice, actually making onigiri from scratch was very challenging for her in the beginning. Having had little time to actually practice making onigiri, she found herself completely unprepared standing behind the counter in a restaurant packed with customers. The pressure and the stress were so great that she developed a stomach ulcer within the first week.
At the time, she lacked confidence in her cooking, which was not helped by one customer telling her, “Your miso soup is the worst in the entire world.” No matter how hard she tried, the complaints kept coming and work quickly became unbearable. During that time, Ukon would work with her face down, sometimes not even noticing when a familiar customer came in.
It takes a tremendous amount of effort for a novice to run an onigiri shop. Ukon told us that those days were so difficult, she could still clearly remember them today 10 years later. She didn’t have enough staff, she didn’t get enough sleep, she left home early in the morning when it was still dark out and returned home late at night. Sometimes, she’d actually fall asleep while making onigiri! When we picture hard work, we tend to think about blue-collar workers, but making onigiri can be just as grueling.
Finding Her Own Way After 10 Long Years
Ukon continued to work hard to fulfill the responsibilities she had inherited. After 10 years, she became more skilled at making onigiri and interacting with customers, and soon everything started to fall into place, little by little.
For example, making use of her Niigata heritage, she consulted with her parents and decided to change the rice used at Onigiri Bongo to the Koshihikari variety produced in Iwafune. Located in the northern part of Niigata Prefecture, Iwafune has beautiful mountains, clear water, and a large temperature difference between day and night, which are necessary elements for growing good rice. This is what gives Iwafune rice its unique sweetness and stickiness.
Little efforts like the above, together with Ukon's neverending passion and determination to succeed, helped build and grow the business into the wildly popular Onigiri Bongo many people know today.
Lovingly Growing Onigiri Bongo Together With Her Customers
For Ukon, it's obvious that onigiri shops should make and sell delicious onigiri. So, what's her philosophy behind running Onigiri Bongo? According to her, it's all about caring for her customers.
This can be seen through Onigiri Bongo's menu. Originally, it had around 20 flavors, but that has now grown to about 56. Each and every option on the menu was created to meet customers' wants and needs, with Ukon and her team sometimes dedicating over a year to come up with them!
One good example is the addition of mayonnaise to the menu. Ukon has never liked mayonnaise since it has a strong sour taste, and actively avoids eating even sandwiches that have mayonnaise in them. However, one day, a customer insisted on having onigiri with mayonnaise in it. The requests for mayonnaise continued to grow, so Ukon began researching the best ways to pair mayonnaise with various ingredients. The results won over the hearts of her customers, and now you can order a variety of ingredients with mayonnaise!
In this same way, new flavors were gradually added to the menu, including some more unusual ones like curry, beef tendon, minced meat, and peanut miso. The ever-expanding menu has even resulted in a customer who, living far away, orders two flavors at a time whenever they come to Tokyo because they eventually want to get through every item on the menu!
As of 2022, the newest item on the menu is peperoncino. We never imagined that this classic Japanese pasta flavor would go well with onigiri, but apparently it's a flavor that Ukon personally likes.
"In the past, all our customers used to say that the rice was delicious. Nowadays, they say the ingredients are delicious!" This doesn't faze Ukon one bit, because rather than worry about what specifically customers like, she's more focused on their overall satisfaction.
Onigiri Bongo has made a name for itself not just in Japan, but overseas as well. Ukon still remembers a Thai customer, who visited after learning about the shop in Thailand, giving a thumbs up after eating her onigiri and saying "Delicious!" in Japanese. Seeing her customers enjoy her food is what gives Ukon the power to keep going.
As the clock on the wall approached 11:00 am, we could see through the half-closed shutters that several people were already waiting in line. After slipping through for a moment to greet them, Ukon returned to the store and told her team, "It's hot today, so let the customers in from 11:20 am!"
This, and in many other ways, is how the staff at Onigiri Bongo constantly show how much they care for their customers. And this care is the very reason why, even after over 60 years, this onigiri restaurant is still loved by generations of customers. Just like the rice and fillings in onigiri, Ukon and her customers are a pair, and together they form the reason why Onigiri Bongo can continue to exist and grow.
The Taste of Freshly-Made Onigiri
Once the interview came to a close, we got the opportunity to sample their onigiri. Onigiri Bongo makes them to order, so you can watch your onigiri being made right in front of you.
The onigiri Ukon made for us was very heavy and about the size of our palms. Following Ukon's advice to "eat it quickly or it'll fall apart," we hurriedly took a few photos before downing our rice balls.
We got to try the standard salmon and sujiko (salty salmon roe) onigiri, the aromatic raw egg yolk marinated in soy sauce and savory minced meat onigiri, and the rich mentaiko-flavored mayonnaise with cream cheese onigiri.
We were first enthralled by the chewiness of the rice, and then by how we got a taste of each ingredient in every bite! They were all so delicious that we wanted to swallow them whole!
How Ukon Spends Her Days Off
Ukon's life once revolved around Onigiri Bongo, but wanting to explore the world outside of the business, she recently decided to close the shop on Sundays.
Now, on her days off, Ukon plays the taiko drum which not only relieves her fatigue from staying in the same positions for hours on end, but also helps her meet new people of all backgrounds and ages. "Even if I feel too tired to go, I know that going will energize me," she told us, adding that she found it such a breath of fresh air that before she even realized it, she had been playing the taiko drum for 7-8 years. On Christmas, she also holds onigiri-making workshops for children with the rest of her team at Onigiri Bongo.
Since stepping outside of the world of onigiri, Ukon's life has become even more colorful. Her unstoppable excitement for life has the power to brighten up any place or atmosphere.
Sharing Her Love for Japan's Onigiri Culture
Originally, Ukon planned to retire when she turned 70 years old. However, even though she turned 70 in 2022, she still plans to continue working at Onigiri Bongo. When her husband fell ill, she continued running the business to make money. However, as the store took off, she began to realize that making her customers happy had a positive effect on many people, including herself, with the many happy smiles giving her energy. This eventually led her to think of ways to contribute to society through Onigiri Bongo.
For Ukon, it's not just about increasing the popularity of Onigiri Bongo. Rather, she wants to use her wealth of experience and skills to show off Japan's onigiri culture and teach others how to make delicious onigiri. She hopes to one day see onigiri in every part of the world, jokingly saying that "One day, people overseas might even call onigiri 'bongo'!" Already, she has one student who left Japan and started an onigiri shop in Germany.
The clock struck 11:20 am, and Onigiri Bongo began to welcome the customers who had been patiently waiting outside. Ukon, full of energy, started to do what she does best - making onigiri and welcoming customers with a smile.
Looking at that scene, we thought that her very presence was the reason why the spirit and energy of Onigiri Bongo could be felt so keenly in each and every customer's hearts, including ourselves.
►If you want to learn more about how to make amazingly delicious onigiri from Ukon herself, check out: How to Make Delicious Onigiri According to a Famous, Established Onigiri Restaurant
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.