How to Make Onigirazu - A Step by Step Pictorial

Willamette Valley rose with onigirazu (nori, brown rice, canned sardines, grilled zucchini and peppers, lettuce, shiso, and shoyu-balsamic vinaigrette). There are no rules.

Willamette Valley rose with onigirazu (nori, brown rice, canned sardines, grilled zucchini and peppers, lettuce, shiso, and shoyu-balsamic vinaigrette). There are no rules.

Onigirazu is a fairly new food preparation which has been getting more popular in Japan over the last few years. Apparently, the idea first appeared in a comic book series 30 years ago, but it seems to be a newer trend among home cooks. I learned about it recently through an online article on the website of the Japanese supermarket Uwajimaya. The Japanese word onigirazu (おにぎらず) means ‘to not grip, or unsqueezed,’ referring to its main difference from the traditional rice ball called onigiri (おにぎり). Onigiri is a popular snack food where a flavorful ingredient (such as umeboshi, salted salmon, spicy cod roe, shiso, pickles, etc.) is placed into the center of the rice ball before squeezing into a triangle with wetted and salted hands. Wrapping nori around the onigiri is optional. Another similar preparation is makizushi (巻き寿司), which is rolled sushi made with seasoned sushi rice. To me, makizushi requires the most technical skill to build, along with the added step of having to make seasoned rice.

I was excited to discover the onigirazu concept because the format encourages improvisation. You can think of it as a sandwich but with the satisfying flavor and texture of rice. Because the nori contains everything like a burrito, the onigirazu can be stuffed with ingredients that might fall out of a sandwich, and the higher filling-to-rice ratio differentiates it from onigiri and makizushi. As I learn to make better onigirazu, it’s clear that there are still techniques waiting to be discovered for improving upon this basic method. In terms of ingredients, anything goes. Here, I had some leftover grilled vegetables and sausage to which I added some fresh cucumber, tomato, and herbs from the garden. It’s good to think about how sandwiches are made - adding condiments to the bread is typical - in order to make sure the rice is seasoned properly. Whereas bread has salt in it, rice does not and therefore needs seasoning. The onigiri has its exterior salted, but it makes more sense to season the inside of the onigirazu. Finally, every online recipe instructs us to wrap it tightly in plastic wrap for a couple of minutes so that the nori can adhere better. This works, but I’m skeptical that it is the single best method. More experimentation is needed to find alternative ways.

Making Onigirazu

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The filling is prepped while the rice is cooking. Grilled vegetables (corn, sweet onion, zucchini, yellow pepper) and sausage, cucumber, and cherry tomato. I find it easier to eat if the ingredients are cut into smaller pieces.

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One sheet of nori is placed on a piece of plastic wrap. The nori’s shiny side is facing down.

Hot rice is placed in a square shape. It helps to press down so that the shape is maintained for later steps.

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It’s important to season the rice with salt (or furikake) and…

…sauce made with homemade mayonnaise, homemade miso, and shichimi. Anything can be used, and a good source of inspiration might be to ask yourself, “what do I like on sandwiches, burgers, hotdogs, tacos, onigiri, makizushi, or anything else resembling such foods?”

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Begin stacking with the flatter filling items. I like to think about contrasting sweet, salty, rich, and acid. Grilled corn (sweet) and tomatoes (sweet, acid).

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The richer ingredients of sausage and zucchini are added.

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Finally, freshness is provided by the shredded shiso and other herbs and greens.,

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Carefully mound more hot rice on top.

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Bring in the opposing corners of nori and press lightly, holding for a moment for the nori to adhere to the rice.

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Repeat with the other two opposing corners of nori. It takes some practice to fold it neatly like a wrapped present.

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Tightly envelop with the plastic wrap, and then press down firmly. Let this sit for about one minute. This is the step that could use some rethinking.

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Unwrap and use a sharp knife to cut into triangles because science has proven that triangles actually taste better than rectangles. Here, I poured my own Centennial IPA (using homegrown hops from 2017) in my Heater Allen glass. Located in McMinnville, Oregon, Heater Allen makes some of the very best lagers in the country.

Japan trip Part 3 - food and scenery

This third and final Japan trip recap is about the food and scenery from my recent visit. Eating delicious things is always a major part of my trips there and this time was no exception. The first stop was the famous Omoide Yokocho area in Shinjuku where old, narrow alleys are filled with the smell of yakitori stands grilling meat and vegetables over hot coals.

Here is a fancy sashimi platter at a Kawagoe izakaya that specializes in seafood. A friend mentioned that the beer must be watered down in places like these because they go down too easily.

A friend gave me this Niigata made Echigo IPA to try and it was very good. This is one of the most striking beer cans I've ever seen.

Kawagoe has one of Japan's earliest pioneering craft breweries called Coedo. Adjacent to their cafe-like taproom is a good sushi restaurant where you can order their beer from next door. The session IPA was a great match with the kaisen donburi. Because Kawagoe is known for it sweet potates, Coedo also makes a sweet potato ale that has a beautiful red color and medium-low fruity aroma. The potato flavor is very subtle and I'm not sure I could pick it out in a blind test.

In Nagatoro, you can take the ride in traditional riverboats through the peaceful waters surrounded by spectacular scenery. I didn't go on this trip but the time I did many years ago is still a vivid memory.

In the part 2 entry, I described the local kabuki presentation in Chichibu. In addition to the great theater and music, the food was some of the best on my entire trip. This little plate of soba looks a very simple, but it was made right there with fresh local sobako (buckwheat flour) and the flavor was magnificent. This tray also looks fairly ordinary, but the konnyaku and miso sauce were handmade by a man running a food booth who was happy to answer all of my questions about his process and ingredients. It was unlike any konnyaku I've had – far more flavor than the usual ones. The karaage was also incredibly delicious and paired perfectly with the local sake, which fully expressed Chichibu's pristine water.

Nikko is a popular destination, and I passed through just as the fall colors were ending. The sulfur smell of the natural hot springs was pleasant in the cool, quiet air. Nearby was a roadside stop with food windows, and an unusual fish name caught my eye: おしょろこま (oshorokoma). The man grilling them on the fire explained that it was a kind of iwana (char) from Hokkaido and the name came from the Ainu language. The flavor was very good – mild, fresh, and slightly sweet.

I received this Nagano-made beer from someone who had just visited that area. It was a well made kolsch-style ale, but the unusual feature was the explanation that water from Suwa Onsen (hot spring) was used to brew it. The interesting can illustration shows local attractions such as Suwa Lake, the local shrine and castle, and even the famous Onbashira Kiotoshi festival where people get on top of enormous logs and slide down a steep hill.

Another activity I mentioned in part 2 was the kabuki performance at the national theater in Tokyo. During one of the intermissions, I enjoyed a traditional makunouchi bento. This feast for the eyes was like a continuation of the beautiful staging and costumes of the play, and it was also delicious.

At the Bettara Ichi Festival in Tokyo's Nihonbashi, the featured food is bettara zuke, which is whole daikon pickled in koji. Between the Wakayama Shachu performances (described in Part 1), I walked around the dozens of vendors and tried almost all of the pickles available with the intention of buying some to take home. However, they seemed to all contain sugar and were too sweet for my taste. Perhaps I wanted to cut the lingering sweetness from all the pickle samples because I ended up at a shichimi booth and picked up a custom mixed bag. There were all kinds of festival-style foods available: dango, colorful chocolate covered bananas, and many others.

Not surprisingly, I couldn't get enough shin soba (fresh-flour soba). This double decker with tempura in Nagatoro was exquisite.

Yet another Japanese craft beer that was given to me which I had never heard of, tasted good, and came in an interesting can design.

Kamameshi is one of those nostalgic dishes for me, and unfortunately restaurants specializing in them seem to be disappearing. Happily there was a small restaurant in Asakusa away from the busy touristy area specializing in this cuisine. This mushroom kamameshi was delicious and satisfying. I also had my first-ever taste of hirezake there, which is charred fugu fin dropped in warm sake. It's not something I would look to order again.

More shin soba in Katashina with the people who make the Swiss horns from bent cedar that I described in Part 2. Local beer was ordinary but the soba was incredible.

This cat was napping under an ice cream window. It drew me in and I considered getting a cone until the person working there gave a disinterested look that was rather uninviting. Too bad, because the combination of a cute kitty and a friendly server would have been impossible to resist.

Japan trip Part 2 - seeing concerts, kabuki, and friends

In the Japan trip Part 1 entry, I described the primary reason for my recent trip: Edo Bayashi intensive with Suzuki sensei. In addition to my lessons, there was a lot happening during my stay and I was able to attend some performances and see many friends.

The day after I arrived, I went to see Azusa Yamada's vibraphone trio in Tokyo. We first met almost 2 years ago through another Tokyo musician because I was looking for a vibraphone to rent for a Ginza performance with shakuhachi player Bruce Huebner. Azusa gave us a great rate to rent her Premier vibes for a two-week period, and two things remain in my memory about the instrument: it was one of the heaviest vibes I've ever played on, and there was a low E (which I couldn't get used to and had to cover up with a music stand bag for the gig). Her performance in the intimate space was very good and I especially appreciated all the original material in the program as well as the exciting playing of pianist Sachiko Nakajima.

The next day was the Wakayama Shachu performance at the Bettara Ichi Festival, which I described in Part 1. The day after that was a collaborative concert in Asakusa called Taiko Battle Live, featuring Makoto Yamamoto of Osuwa Daiko. I've known Makoto for several years, having visited him in Nagano as well as presenting Osuwa Daiko for concerts and workshops in Vancouver, BC. The program consisted of original music, solo performances, and some traditional music. It was also a fun surprise to see my very first taiko teacher Saburo sensei in the audience, as he had taught some classical repertoire to Makoto in preparation for this concert.

I enjoyed checking out Hitoshi Hamada perform at his CD release event in Shinjuku. I first met Hamada san in 2005 during a Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble concert tour. This vibraphone and saxophone duo played some very challenging original music and Hamada san sounded great as always. I was there with Bruce and Azusa so we took a group photo after the performance. It's not every day that three vibraphonists are in the same room together.

I was fortunate to see the famous Kabuki play Kanadehon Chushingura at Kokuritsu Gekijou (National Theater) in Tokyo. As part of the theater's 50th anniversary season, the play has been divided into three parts, and I saw the first third. The middle third runs in November and the final third runs in December. Because each part is approximately 6 hours long, the audience is treated to rarely-presented scenes which many kabuki fans have never seen or heard of. Everything was excellent: acting, music, staging, and bento. This was especially meaningful for me because I had been a geza musician (playing nohkan and shinobue) for Portland State University's presentation of Chushingura in February 2016. The video of that performance can be seen here: Chushingura blog entry.

It's always a great pleasure and inspiration to visit Ranjo san at his workshop in Chiba. He continues to answer my questions and share his wealth of knowledge every time I see him. In this photo, Ranjo san is wrapping one of my flutes to prevent a small crack from opening. I also met Fujita san on this recent visit, a great fue player from Akita Prefecture who demonstrated some of the music from his local festival on a Ranjo #4 hayashi fue. For more information about Ranjo san, check out this blog post: Ranjo blog entry.


Chichibu in Saitama is a special place. It's best known for the spectacular Yo Matsuri (annual night festival, Dec 2-3) and the music of Chichibu Yatai Bayashi. But there is also a very long history of Ji Kabuki (地歌舞伎, local kabuki) going back to the Edo period. This Hagitaira kabuki stage is at least 170 years old and continues to be used for theater and music. Apparently there are no carpenters in the area who are properly trained to make repairs on such an old building, so they have had to bring experts all the way from Kyushu. I attended the October 30, 2016 event where there were three kabuki presentations: elementary school, middle school, and finally the adult group. The performances were complete with live geza music as well as gidayu chant and shamisen, and the day was interspersed with performances of Chichibu Yatai Bayashi, Tsugaru Shamisen, and Chichibu Ondo. The overall presentation was remarkable, especially considering this very rural setting. Of course the youngest performers were the audience favorites, and the best moment for me was when the little girl finally got a turn on the odaiko, outplaying the previous versions by teenage boys and an adult. And all of the food and drinks I tried during the event were memorably delicious.

Another unique experience was visiting "the Switzerland club of Kanto" in Katashina village of Gunma Prefecture. These remarkable wooden horns are handmade by Kinsaku Hoshino using local cedar. I was told that the curved bottom portion is made out of a naturally shaped section of the branch that was bent by the weight of the heavy snow. Even the mouthpiece (similar to trumpet) is handmade. I was able to get a decent sound right away, so perhaps my music education degree finally came in handy many years later. Hoshino san offered to let me try the carving tool so I carefully took a turn.

Finally, I got to see an incredible concert at Suntory Hall in Tokyo of the incomparable Eitetsu Hayashi. This was a mostly solo performance with the exception of one piece composed by percussionist Midori Takada. They have a long history of working together and this was apparent in their cohesive sound. Eitetsu's concerts are fantastic every single time. Without fail, there are always things I've never seen before, and such consistent creativity and attention to detail is truly breathtaking. Concluding the program was a 20-minute solo odaiko performance, and this was the finest odaiko playing I've ever seen. Absolutely beautiful.

Japan trip Part 1 - learning from Suzuki sensei and Wakayama Shachu

Edo Bayashi lessons with Kyosuke Suzuki sensei in Tokyo

Edo Bayashi lessons with Kyosuke Suzuki sensei in Tokyo

My recent Japan trip went very well. Funded by a grant from Regional Arts & Cultural Council and kind sponsorship from Asano Taiko US, my main purpose was to study Edo Matsuri Bayashi (festival music of old Tokyo) with my longtime teacher Kyosuke Suzuki of Wakayama Shachu. I first met Suzuki sensei in 2005 during a Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble concert tour. Since then, I have taken private lessons, assisted and translated his workshops, coordinated his workshop tour in August 2015, and performed with him on numerous occasions. You can see my previous blog post about Suzuki sensei and find more photos and videos on this page.

Traditionally appearing during festivals, the Edo Bayashi ensemble consists of five players performing on two shimedaiko, one odaiko, one atarigane, and one shinobue. Over the years I have performed all five parts, but I continue to study in order to deepen my own understanding and to strengthen my ability to teach this traditional music. Fortunately, anyone who is interested can begin their research and practice by acquiring the sheet music, CDs, and instruments at the Asano Taiko US online store. I'm always happy to assist so please get in touch with me if you are interested in learning more.

lesson on shimedaiko

lesson on shimedaiko

Wakayama Shachu performing Edo Matsuri Bayashi (Hitoppayashi)

Wakayama Shachu performing Edo Matsuri Bayashi (Hitoppayashi)

One of the topics I presented in our lessons was the idea of creating an Edo Bayashi ensemble in North America as a way to spread awareness and appreciation for this music. I have written many times about the value of studying a traditional art in order to gain crucial insight into contemporary forms, where understanding their roots provide the context to move forward with purpose. As the well-known saying goes, "you have to learn the rules before you can break them." My goals for this ensemble include: 1. Raise the performance level of festival music outside of Japan, 2. Increase audience awareness of this music, 3. Make this music more accessible for anyone wanting to study it, 4. Create more opportunities for Suzuki sensei and Wakayama Shachu to teach and perform outside of Japan. If you are interested in joining the Edo Bayashi ensemble, please contact me.

Wakayama Shachu performance

Wakayama Shachu performance

I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to see Wakayama Shachu perform Sato Kagura on this trip. This Shinto theater is performed on a special stage at the shrine and dates back to the Edo period. Watching this performance helped me understand Wakayama Shachu's history and aesthetic, especially as it applies to their approach to Matsuri Bayashi and Edo Kotobuki Jishi (good-luck lion dance of Edo). Put simply, the troupe brings their profound training and dedication of Noh-influenced Kagura dance and music to their interpretation of the festival music of the common people. The result is a transformation where Edo Matsuri Bayashi becomes a higher art form worthy of presenting on a stage in front of an audience, which is quite different from its traditional role of accompanying the mikoshi (portable shrine) through the streets during festival time.

Wakayama Shachu performing Edo Sato Kagura

Wakayama Shachu performing Edo Sato Kagura

Wakayama Shachu performing Edo Sato Kagura

Wakayama Shachu performing Edo Sato Kagura