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

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

Japanese cooking ranges from meals of Zen-like simplicity to more elaborate 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF STREETCAR)

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 in 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.

SCHMITZ: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUT WE'RE PART NOW")

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF HUGLORD'S "SINCE DAY ONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.