The “circle of the sun boxed lunch” is usually a friend to those with a lonely wallet, but not this one.

Japan has all sorts of different kinds of boxed lunches, and perhaps the most auspicious-sounding of all is the hinomaru bento. “Hinomaru” translates literally as “circle of the sun,” and refers to the crimson circular representation of the sun that sits at the center of the flag of Japan (since Nihon/Nippon, the country’s name in the Japanese language, means “originating from the sun”).

So with hinomaru bento thus meaning “circle of the sun boxed lunch,” it must be loaded with super-Japanese delicacies, like prime wagyu beef, or maybe the highest grade of tuna sashimi?

Nope. The hinomaru bento name is meant to be taken literally, since the contents of the boxed lunch look just like the Japanese flag…

…and all you get is white rice and a single umeboshi/pickled plum.

Because of this, “hinomaru bento” has a bit of an ironic ring to it, since it has the proudest of names, but is meant for the humblest of budgets. In most bento shops, ordering one is a clear admission that “Look, I don’t have a lot of cash, so I just want the cheapest way to fill myself up.” But the story is a little different with the hinomaru bento seen here, which our ace reporter Mr. Sato found at the Tokyo Shinjuku branch of department store Isetan.

Isetan caters to a decidedly upmarket and fashionable clientele, so Mr. Sato was surprised to even see them offering hinomaru bento at takeout shop Meshiya on their food floor. Then he got a second, and larger, shock when he saw the price.

648 yen (US$6.15), for some rice and one bite-size plum? You can get hinomaru bento at other shops for a third of that price. Heck, 648 yen is more than enough for an entire Pokémon beef bowl set at Yoshinoya.

“That’s crazy expensive,” Mr. Sato thought. Does anyone actually buy this premium-priced hinomaru bento, he wondered, and to satisfy his curiosity, he asked a Meshiya employee, who told him “Yeah, and we have a lot of repeat customers for it too.”

Now Mr. Sato was really intrigued, and also really hungry, since he’d been wandering around Isetan’s food section looking for lunch. So he decided to take a shot on this supposedly special hinomaru bento. To hedge his bet against this potentially frivolous extravagance, however, he also picked up a pack of microwavable white rice at the convenience store for just 95 yen, so he could compare the quality of their rice.

Back at SoraNews24 headquarters, Mr. Sato unwrapped his hinomaru bento and removed the lid, revealing a decorative but non-edible leaf that gave a classy preamble to the simple meal. Underneath, as expected, was his one umeboshi sitting in a field of white rice.

After cooking his microwavable rice, he peeled back the plastic covering for its container and performed the visual comparison…and to be honest, things weren’t off to such an encouraging start.

Isetan premium hinomaru bento (left) vs. cheap microwaved convenience store rice (right)

The far less expensive microwavable rice was glossier and had a brighter color, making it the more appetizing-looking of the two. Having recently been recognized by Google as the handsomest man in Japan, Mr. Sato knows how important appearance is. Still, what really matters is the flavor, and so Mr. Sato tasted a mouthful of rice from each, and quickly learned that this comparison was no contest at all: the premium hinomaru bento was far more delicious than not only the microwavable rice, but every other hinomaru bento Mr. Sato had ever eaten. Every single grain of rice was flavorful and cooked to perfection, distinctly formed and not press-blended with the others, and with an exquisite balance between firmness and chewiness. Even the umeboshi was outstanding, on a level of quality several rungs above the ones that Mr. Sato buys in bulk in a jar at the supermarket.

Really, the only regret he has is pouring all of the included packet of salt and black sesame onto the rice, since the umeboshi itself is already pretty salty, and would provide an excellent balance of flavors with the rice without any additional toppings. But aside from that, he’s got no complaints, and he can now totally see why, even with the startling price, customers keep coming back to this special hinomaru bento.

Shop information
Meshiya / 米屋
Located inside Isetan Shinjuku / 伊勢丹 新宿店
Address: Tokyo-to, Shinjuku-ku, Shinjuku 3-14-1
Open 10 a.m.-8 p.m.

Photos ©SoraNews24
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