We just wish it could warm up more than one at a time.

When it comes to convenience store rice balls, there are two kinds of people: the ones who warm them up, and the ones who eat them at room temperature or straight off the shelf. Apparently, the divide is regional. In cold areas like Hokkaido and Tohoku, and also for some reason the not-so-cold southwestern Kyushu, it’s common for convenience store staff to ask you if you want them to warm up your rice balls in the microwave for you, but not so much in Tokyo and other more central areas of Japan.

Our Japanese-language reporter Saya Togashi has encountered this question before, but she’s never said yes. Though ordinarily, she’d prefer her rice to be nice and hot when served with a meal, it’s different for rice balls. Room temperature, to her, is the better option.

But even so, when Saya learned of the USB Onigiri Warmer, a device designed to warm up rice balls, she couldn’t help but be curious. It was, after all, on its third generation of product design, so it had to be pretty popular! Curious about how it worked and if it was worth using, she decided to give it a try.

The USB Onigiri Warmer cost 2,480 yen (US$21.82). It’s composed of a very simple, nondescript black case, which is very small, making it great for taking on the go. Its USB cord is about 90 centimeters (35 inches) long, and can connect to a mobile battery charger or other USB port. It does not come with an AC adaptor.

It has room for a single convenience store rice ball, and it has no other functions besides heating one up. The case does have a bit of armor padding to keep your rice ball from getting squashed in your bag, but the truth of the matter is, its sole purpose is to warm up a single rice ball.

The case contains a heating mechanism that takes anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes to make your rice ball nice and steaming hot. The interior gets anywhere between 60 and 80 degrees Celsius (140 to 176 degrees Fahrenheit).

The device is made specifically for convenience store rice balls, so you can’t use it on your homemade rice balls, unfortunately. It also only fits regular size rice balls and not the giant ones convenience stores sometimes sell, like the new Attack on Titan titan-sized rice ball, so you have to be a little careful about which kinds of rice balls you choose to warm up with it. Apparently, the rule of thumb is also to keep the rice ball in its packaging while heating it up inside the case.

Owing to the device’s simple design, it doesn’t have an on switch or a timer, so you do also have to be careful about leaving your rice balls in the case for too long while it’s plugged in. You also shouldn’t use it to heat up half-eaten rice balls, either. With devices like these, you have to be careful not to give yourself food poisoning.

After taking all these notes on the device’s functionality, Saya was ready to try it out. Now, let it be known that Saya is on Team Cold Onigiri, usually. If the rice ball has a sticker on it that says, “Best if warmed up”, then she’ll warm it up, but otherwise, when it comes to the classic flavors, like salmon, cod roe, and tuna, she doesn’t feel like it’s necessary to warm them up.

After all, they’re good enough at room temperature. The rice doesn’t get overly sticky or clumpy over time, and it doesn’t dry out. The seaweed wrapper is always nice and crispy, too. Really, room-temperature rice balls are a staple charm of convenience store culture.

So what’s the point of warming it up? Saya decided to try it out first with a Tuna Mayo rice ball. She had to fold up the corners of the wrapper, but it fit nicely inside the case. All she had to do was plug it in (and be careful of where she left it because the case does get hot).

60 minutes later, it was ready! The smell of tuna was definitely stronger now. Both the exterior and the interior were nice and warm, which was frankly a little strange for Saya. Unfortunately, the drawback was that the seaweed also felt a bit damp. Saya guessed that wouldn’t happen in a microwave.

Yet as Saya took a bite out of her warmed-up onigiri, she was struck with a memory. Her mother was in the kitchen, in the bright light of early morning, busy making rice balls for lunch. She’d always hand Saya one for eating then and there, and it was always nice and hot. Saya remembered suddenly how nice it was to have a fresh onigiri handed to her by her mother.

At some point, Saya had started telling her mother she’d just buy rice balls, and her mother stopped making them. Even when Saya became a mother herself, she always bought them. She’d forgotten what it was like to have a hot rice ball. And she’d forgotten the love that her mother packed into each one.

With this memory came a realization: that’s what a rice ball warmer is for! To remind you of the love squeezed into each warm rice ball. Hmm, in that case, it’s not so bad!

One rice ball isn’t enough, though. Saya doesn’t consider herself a big eater, but without any sides, she’d rather have two rice balls for lunch. But her mother wasn’t there to hand her another hot one, and with this device, she’d have to wait another hour to warm another one up.

With this in mind, Saya was forced to think about what use such a device could have. Perhaps on a really cold day, when you’re outside and your rice ball is colder than room temperature? Even Saya, who prefers her rice balls to be room temperature, had to admit that an ice-cold rice ball didn’t sound appealing.

It might also be good for road trips when you need a snack but not a full meal. Or when you’re taking a night bus or overnight train somewhere, perhaps? The case is super light, weighing only 80 grams (2.8 ounces), so it might also be great for hiking.

On the other hand, sometimes eating one rice ball is like an appetizer, and it makes you want to eat more. With this device, though, that makes it hard. You’d have to have multiple on hand if you want to eat multiple rice balls in a row. But if you’re on Team Warm Onigiri and are okay with eating just one rice ball at a time, then you’ll definitely want to try this USB Rice Ball Warmer out!

And if you don’t know what team you’re on because you’ve never tried a rice ball before, then here’s a list of the 10 best types to try. Don’t miss out on this staple part of Japanese convenience store culture!

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