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Inspirations from Everyday Life.

Japanese Bento – Kyaraben!

We’ve saved the best for our final post in our Japanese Bento series… kyaraben!

Character bento, or kyaraben, are famous for their style, originality, fun and creativity. Initially created to entice children to eat their lunch, kyaraben focus on the concept of “kawaii”, or cuteness, to present a well-balanced meal in a convenient, portable bento box.

Kyaraben come in an endless variety, all depending on the creativity and wherewithal of the maker. The simplest kyaraben showcase cars, trains, airplanes, stars, hearts and flowers. As the kyaraben artist makes more sophisticated bento, they add cute animal shapes to the bento, including grinning panda bear patties, smiling penguin rice balls, octopus-shaped sausages with flapping arms, porky pigs and small rabbit-eared eggs.

The most popular types of kyaraben, in Japan and internationally, are ones that showcase characters from Japanese anime and manga as well as from Western animated TV shows and movies. Imagine eating a nutritious lunch with Hello Kitty or Gudetama! And how about Doraemon and Pikachu, stacked with fried chicken and sausages! And let’s not forget Totoro and Anpanman on a bed of fried rice surrounded by colorful carrots and edamame! And for kids who love American cartoons, Disney’s Tsum Tsum characters and Winnie the Pooh are big favorites!

Kyaraben artists use both everyday kitchen tools along with special tools made for creating character bento. Plastic wrap is generally used to shape rice balls, but special shapes can also be made using rice molds. Vegetables can be julienned with a sharp knife and also cut into flowers, stars and clouds using miniature veggie cutters. And meats, poultry and seafood are served in bite-sized pieces. Rice and other items are decorated with cutouts of nori seaweed or with designed using powdered seaweed sprinkled through stencils. So elaborate are kyaraben designs that numerous books have been published and popular blogs such as Little Miss Bento are visited by foodies from all over the world!

Ready to try your hand at kyaraben? Check out our ideas for these beautifully-shaped fun bento. And as always, be sure to share your pictures with us!

A Food Lover’s Tour of Japan – Gifu Prefecture and Savory Gohei Mochi

Our Food Lover’s Tour continues this month in Gifu Prefecture, home of the famous gohei mochi!

Located in Central Japan, Gifu Prefecture represents so many facets of the Japanese landscape and the diverse culture of this area.

The northern part of Gifu Prefecture is mountainous, covered by large swathes of alpine forests, ideal for skiing in the winter and trekking in the summer. The central area of the prefecture boasts clear, fresh springs, caverns and local traditions. And the southern part of Gifu Prefecture is famous for traditional cormorant fishing, modern industry and the confluence of powerful rivers.

One of the most famous sights in Gifu Prefecture is Shirakawa-go, situated at the base of Mt. Haku-san. Shirakawa-go embodies ancient Japanese alpine life, with a river running through the village, nourishing rice fields, a temple, coalhouse and paddock to preserve the old village scenery and 114 traditional thatched roof homes, still occupied along with the more modern residences. Locals continue to practice traditional industrial arts such as weaving, dyeing and culinary arts such as making soba noodles and sake. UNESCO designated Shirakawa-go as a World Heritage Site in 1995.

When not enjoying the snow, visitors to Gifu Prefecture enjoy the onsen, or hot springs, predominantly found in Gero and Okuhida. The hot springs at Gero have been active since the 10th century, and are said to be effective in treating ailments. They’re even nicknamed the “springs for the beautiful” because the smoothness of the water is said to aid in beautifying skin tone and complexion. The Okuhida area also boasts hot springs, five of which are famous in Gifu Prefecture. These onsen–Hirayu, Fukuji, Shin-Hirayu, Tochio and Shin-Hotaka–are scattered along the base of the Japanese Alps, and are surrounded by incredible frozen waterfalls in winter and teeming rivers and white birch forests during warmer months.

The southern part of Gifu Prefecture is widely famous for cormorant fishing along the Nagara River, near Gifu City. This area prospered as a castle town during the 13th century, and to this day, the annual Tejikarao Fire Festival, when portable shrines are carried among a shower of sparks and paraded through the city in the spring. Also in the spring, traditionally beginning on May 11, cormorant fishing takes place along the river, a practice that has been taking place here since the 8th century. Cormorants are aquatic birds that have been trained to catch sweet ayu, a type of river trout. The fishing masters are recognized by the Japanese Imperial Household and showcase this type of fishing until the middle of October.

For those who crave more nightlife, the Okumino Area hosts the Gujo-odori, a dance festival that lasts for 32 nights, within this period, four days are termed “All-Night Dancing” and the participants dance the whole night from dusk until dawn! The Takayama Festival and Furukawa Festival also provide ample opportunity to party, with both festivals showcasing the craftsmanship and artistry of this area–including the production of washi paper and wood carvings—in the floats that are designed for the processions.

But Gifu Prefecture isn’t just about tradition. Many modern industries thrive in this area, from the serious aerospace business to the more whimsical production of plastic food displays. No matter what your interest–skiing, trekking, museums, architecture, onsen, or outer space–Gifu Prefecture has everything to offer…

… Including pleasure for your taste buds! Gohei mochi is a signature dish of this area and is made from cooked short-grain white rice, pounded and shaped onto a flat stick. The rice is then grilled and once crispy, coated with a walnut-miso paste and grilled again. The resulting snack is warm, savory and delicious… and best of all, easily made at home! You may try out this simple recipe!

We hope you enjoyed learning about Gifu Prefecture and as always, share your experience with us… and don’t forget the pictures of your gohei mochi!

Product Inspirations – Home Bakery Maestro™ Breadmaker (BB-SSC10)

It’s time to get baking, and we’re so excited to introduce our newest premium breadmaker: the Home Bakery Maestro Breadmaker.

We’ve created this breadmaker to make 1-pound loaves of bread, doughs, cakes, jams or your own creations, and have loaded it with healthy course settings. And we’ve designed this breadmaker with our newest innovations.

The Home Bakery Maestro Breadmaker features 15 courses, each of which alter the mixing, kneading, rising and baking functions according to the type of food to be made. Ten bread settings include traditional courses like White and Whole Wheat, as well as new settings for healthy baking, such as Multigrain, Gluten Free, Sugar Free, Salt Free and Vegan. The breadmaker also includes four specific courses for Bread/Pizza Dough, Pasta Dough, Cake and Jam. One of the most unique features of this breadmaker is the Homemade course, which allows you to customize the knead, rise and bake time as well as store up to three custom programs to match your own homemade recipes.

The Home Bakery Maestro Breadmaker also comes with a new Auto Add Dispenser, which automatically adds ingredients such as dried fruit and nuts during the knead cycle.

No matter which setting you choose, the Home Bakery Maestro Breadmaker uses double heaters built into the bottom of the breadmaker to rapidly heat the interior of the baking pan to facilitate oven spring, helping to make breads with an airy crumb and a superior crust.

The easy-to-read LCD control panel and convenient key code on the lid make it simple to choose the course setting, select the crust color and set the delay timer. And cleaning is simple, as the baking pan, kneading blade and Auto-Add Dispenser are all removable so they can be cleaned with mild dish detergent and warm water. The sturdy handle makes it easy to move and store. Accessories include a full color recipe booklet with 50 delicious recipes, a liquid measuring cup and measuring spoon. All surfaces that come into contact with your food are BPA-free.

This compact breadmaker comes in a modern white finish, perfect for any kitchen decor.

But what kinds of goodies can the Maestro make? Health-conscious recipes include salt-free and sugar-free breads, like Salt Free Whole Wheat Bread and Sugar Free Whole Wheat Bread. Gluten-free breads are also easy to make in this breadmaker, especially ones like Gluten Free Brown Rice Bread. And our new setting for vegan breads includes a great recipe for Vegan Cranberry Walnut Bread where you can add the dried cranberries and walnuts using the Auto Add Dispenser. Recipes such as Lemon Cake, Quick Cheese ‘n’ Onion Bread, Blueberry Jam, Naan, Spinach Pasta and Whole Wheat Pizza Dough are just as easy to make.

Try out our new breadmaker, and find how-to videos and more recipes on the Home Bakery Maestro™ Breadmaker (BB-SSC10) website, exclusively for this new machine. And don’t forget to share your recipes with us!

Japanese Bento – Ekiben!

One of the most recognizable types of bento are ekiben… and this month, we’re excited to explore these boxed meals that are famously found at railway stations!

Ekiben are special types of bento, or boxed meals, and the name is a compilation of “eki” which means station and “ben” short for bento. They were originally only available at railway stations, to travelers looking for fresh food, and were designed to enhance the adventure of travel. Imagine being able to eat a wholesome, carefully prepared meal while watching the scenery go by!

The advent of ekiben coincides with the advent of the Japanese railway. In 1872, the first train began service in Japan, from Yokohama to Shimbashi in Tokyo. As the rail system grew, travelers’ needs grew, too, and ekiben made their debut in the late 1870’s to the early 1880’s. This first ekiben was essentially a rice ball. Realizing how large of a market there might be for fresh, boxed meals for travelers at railway stations, more and more vendors began selling ekiben, showcasing their wares by holding them in carriers around their necks and selling them to passengers through the open windows of trains. By 1910, ekiben had increased in popularity to such an extent that vendors began creating regional recipes and packaging to reflect the specialties available at their local train stations. One of the most famous specialized ekiben was introduced in 1941 by a local ekiben shop in Hakodate, Hokkaido, during a time when rice was not plentifully available because of World War II. They stuffed a small amount of rice into squid and simmered it in a savory sauce. This rice-stuffed squid is still popular today!

Ekiben design and ingredients were also influenced by popular culture. In the 1970’s, when popular television shows became a mainstream form of entertainment, vendors began selling ekiben that mimicked those found in TV. Travelers always recognized them! But soon after, many Japanese stopped traveling as much by train, as owning vehicles and traveling by plane became easier. Ekiben sales decreased by approximately 50% between 1987 and 2008! To counter this downward trend, ekiben vendors got even more creative and innovative, such that today travelers can find elaborate ekiben at stations.

The Shinkansen E7 Series Bento is a great ekiben to purchase when traveling by bullet train, especially for kids! The container looks like a shinkansen train and it can be used to hold small keepsakes after the food is gone. The Gyu-tan Bento, from the Sendai area, uses a self-heating container that heats the food inside when activated. The Feel Good Meal sold at Matsue Station comes with sake. Rustic ekiben evoke nostalgia, like the Toge No Kamameshi rice bowls. Sometimes the boxes seem ordinary, but the wrappers are works of art, commemorating modern and historical events, samurai, manga and famous people.

Ekiben are made by independent artisans and also in larger factories. Regardless of where the ekiben originate, freshness and quality are of utmost importance. Even department stores have gotten onto the ekiben train! They host multiweek festivals, showcasing ekiben from various regions of Japan and giving buyers a chance to experience the flavor of travel, without leaving home.

When you’re feeling the bug to travel but can’t manage a trip to Japan, try making some popular items found in ekiben. As always, white rice is a key ingredient in bento, and items like mini-hamburgers and aemono are great additions to a balanced bento. Try out these recipes and let us know what your favorite bento items are!

A Food Lover’s Tour of Japan – Hiroshima’s Famous Okonomiyaki

May is a beautiful time to visit Japan. The air is fragrant and the mild, sunny weather makes it perfect for sightseeing. One of the most famous places in Japan is Hiroshima, and this month we explore its signature dish, Hiroshima-style Okonomiyaki, along with some history and culture about the area.

Hiroshima Prefecture is located in the Chugoku Region of Japan, at the western-most end of Honshu Island, which is Japan’s main island. On the west coast, the Chugoku Region is bound by the Sea of Japan, and on the east coast, by the Seto Inland Sea. Hiroshima Prefecture lies in the center of this region, bordered by the Seto Inland Sea on the east and the Chugoku Mountains along the northern border of the prefecture.

Itsukushima shrine on Miyajima

Five areas comprise Hiroshima Prefecture, including the Hiroshima City area, the Miyajima Area, Onomichi/Fukuyama Area, Northern Hiroshima Prefecture and Bihoku Area. Each of these diverse areas offer travelers and foodies much to experience!

Known as the “City of Water” because of the six rivers that flow through it, Hiroshima City lies at the coast of the Seto Inland Sea and serves as the administrative center of the prefecture. The city was originally founded by Terumoto Mōri in the 16th century as a feudal town, and served as gateway through the mountain passes in the north and an important trade center along the sea coast. Hiroshima City is famous for many things–from the fresh oysters that have been cultivated there since ancient times, grilled to perfection, to the rich cultural diversity brought by traders. Visiting Hiroshima City today means visiting Hiroshima Castle, Shukkei-en Garden and the red Taho-to Tower at Mitaki-dera Temple, as well as the Genbaku Dome and Peace Memorial Park.

A street vendor selling hiroshimayaki sits among other food stands

Miyajima Island, formally known as Itsukushima Island, is famous for the awesome sight of Mt. Misen and the glorious Itsukushima Shrine. Mt. Misen is considered one of the most beautiful spots from which to view the islands of the Seto Inland Sea and from which to enjoy the virgin forests that are designated as a national natural monument.  When not climbing the peak, visiting the Itsukushima Shrine and the accompanying Ōtorii or Grand Gate are a must. Both were built in 593 and to this day, seem to float in the waters of the sea itself! Depending on when you travel, don’t miss the Water Fireworks extravaganza.

Miyajima Island is a ferry ride from the coast, and when returning to the mainland, visiting the Onomichi / Fukuyama area provides a wonderful trip to a scenic port town and temples from which to enjoy the view. And in autumn, when the maple leaves dramatically change colors, trekkers flock to Northern Hiroshima Prefecture and the Bihoku area to climb in and out of the valleys and ravines, catching glimpses of the sea and mountains.

Making Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki

Traveling all over Hiroshima Prefecture is sure to whet your appetite! Along with fresh, grilled oysters, Hiroshima is famous for its okonomiyaki. Okonomiyaki is a portmanteau from “okonomi” which means “as you like it” and “yaki” which means “grilled”. The Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, also known as hiroshimayaki, was conceived of in the 1950s, during which time it provided inexpensive food for the population recovering from World War II. Hiroshimayaki is made by layering ingredients, as opposed to mixing finely chopped ingredients into the thicker pancake-like batter as is popular in the Osaka area. The traditional form of hiroshimayaki is a thin layer of crepe, dried bonito powder, shredded cabbage, tempura scraps, thinly sliced green onions and bean sprouts topped with pork belly and another layer of crepe. Once that has cooked, it’s further topped with yakisoba noodles stir-fried in okonomiyaki sauce and a fried egg. All of which is further topped with more sauce, mayonnaise and dried green seaweed powder.

Want to make the resulting goodness? Try out our recipe for Okonomiyaki, Hiroshima-Style! It’s easy to make using our electric griddles and so very satisfying!

As always, share your pictures with us…and tell us how you like to top your okonomiyaki!