What Makes People Wait 3 Hours To Get Seated At This Restaurant?

by Shelli Stein

What’s the longest amount of time you’d stand in line to get seated at a restaurant? Maybe you wouldn’t stand for standing in line at all. I can muster up patience when I need or want to. If I’m being honest, though, it would really have to be some eating experience I thought would be truly extraordinary to get me to stand in line for very long. But 3 hours? Wow, that seems like an excessively long time to wait in line for anything, let alone a rice ball. Yes, you read that correctly. People in Tokyo wait in line for three hours for a taste of these Tokyo onigiri rice balls.  I mean, really, three hours.

Curious as to why? So am I! I like Japanese food, but still what can be so special about rice balls? Let’s find out.

A popular and compact eatery in Tokyo’s Toshima ward, called Onigiri Bongo, has been serving one of Japan’s most humble foods, the onigiri, or rice ball, for some 60 years. The restaurant only has nine seats around an L-shaped counter. It’s known as one of the city’s top onigiri emporia. This reputation leads to lines of customers stretching down the street. And yes, waiting for three or four hours, or more.

The owner is Yumiko Ukon and she is the chef who prepares the rice balls. She offers a variety of fillings with more than 50 to choose from. These include standard fillings such as bonito or salmon flake, pickled plum, mustard greens and cod roe, and innovations such as pork and kimchi, and fried chicken with mayonnaise and soy sauce. The restaurant serves between 1,200 and 1,500 onigiri every day.

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History of Onigiri

Japanese people have been eating onigiri for 2,000 years. Onigiri are sometimes made from leftovers in family rice pots. They are often packed in school and travel lunchboxes or hiking and picnic bags. You’ll also find packaged, commercial versions of onigiri in convenience stores in Japan. The word onigiri itself comes from the Japanese word “nigiru,” to squeeze, referring to how the rice ball is shaped by hand.

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How Much Do Tokyo Onigiri Rice Balls  Cost?

The rice balls are often served in a set, including pickles and miso soup. A weekday meal set with two onigiri and tofu soup goes for 800 yen, about $5.98. Especially in Tokyo, that’s a very affordable lunch.

Read more about Yumiko Ukon and her famous onigiri.

The story of how Yumiko Ukon came to own the restaurant is very sweet. She was a customer at the restaurant but she was not destined to be just another customer. Yumiko loved these Tokyo onigiri rice balls because they reminded her of her youth. She married the restaurant’s owner, Tasuku Ukon, 27 years her senior. After he passed away in 2012, she took over. That was 40 years ago! Still, she continues to serve up onigiri with passion! It’s wonderful when people can sustain their passion for what they do after so many years.

Final Thoughts

Maybe you’ve been to Onigiri Bongo. If you have, was it worth standing in long lines for these Tokyo onigiri rice balls, or maybe you got lucky and could be seated right away? Are there places you eat where you wait long times to get seated? When I travel I’ve certainly noticed long lines for restaurants and always want to stop and ask people in the queue if they eat there regularly and if long lines are typical. For those of us with travels planned to Tokyo, I’d certainly say this article piqued my curiosity. How about you?

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1 comment

Stanislav Vardomskiy April 29, 2023 - 11:04 am

Do you have your photos of the restaurant, the line up, and the onigiri that they serve?

Why not include them in the article?


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