Mr. Sato tries the ultimate in luxurious noriben and equates it to a microcosm of the universe.

Yamamotoyama is a Japanese tea merchant that also sells ultra-premium nori seaweed and select sweet treats. When our intrepid Japanese-language reporter Mr. Sato caught wind that they sell a nori bento (“noriben”) that makes use of top-grade nori, he was insatiably curious. After all, you probably know what you’re doing if your shop has been around since 1690!

For reference, a noriben is usually a simple bento with rice and seaweed being the core components, although it’s often sold with fried fish or a couple of veggies included on top as well. It’s an affordable alternative to a bento filled with meat or seafood products as the main ingredients, similar in that way to a hinomaru bento, which is essentially a dish of rice with a single umeboshi pickled plum in the center to echo the design of Japan’s rising sun flag, which is known as “hinomaru” in Japan.

▼ This is Nagomi no Yoneya’s high-quality hinomaru bento that Mr. Sato purchased last year in Shinjuku’s Isetan department store which still only set him back 648 yen (US$4.48).

Therefore, the prospect of an “ultimate” noriben was very intriguing. Just how could something so seemingly simple be turned into a luxury product? To satisfy his mind and stomach, Mr. Sato headed to the Nihonbashi Takashimaya Mitsui Building in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi district, where Yamamotoyama operates the Fujie Tearoom that sells the super special noriben.

Dine-in at the tearoom is conducted with a 100-percent reservation policy and bento can be purchased for takeout also on a kind of staggered schedule. Mr. Sato didn’t know this system ahead of time, so he ordered in person and was instructed to pick it up 30 minutes later. He recommends calling ahead if you’d like to get a bento to go.

Importantly, there are three types of takeout noriben to choose from:

The beef sukiyaki noriben and salmon noriben are priced at 2,000 yen and 1,600 yen respectively. That’s a bit steep, but Mr. Sato didn’t think it was strange since Yamamotoyama is such a well-established shop.

However delicious those two sounded, he only had eyes for the third type, called the Nihonbashi noriben, which makes use of the ultra-premium nori.

At 2,200 yen, it’s even more expensive than the meat or fish versions–and doesn’t even come with any side dishes!

On top of that, in an effort to keep things as fresh as possible, staff instructed him at pick-up that the noriben is supposed to be consumed within four hours of purchase. Mr. Sato received his food at 12:30 p.m., so he had until 4:30 p.m. to eat it all up.

With that knowledge, he rushed home to dig in as soon as he could. The bento box itself was simple but elegantly tied together with string.

What would be waiting for him under the lid?

He saw a peek of something dark and crinkly looking…

…aha! It was a layer of dark, shining nori!

Its texture was hard to see through his camera from directly above, so he tried taking a photo from an angle to show more depth.

Nestled in the center of the nori ocean was another delicacy–an umeboshi (pickled plum) from the famous plum-producing Kishu region of Wakayama Prefecture. Mr. Sato was suddenly overcome by a strange poetic feeling and could only equate the visual to a lone star shining with all of its might in the cosmos, trying not to be gobbled up by the encroaching darkness. He allowed the metaphor to run wild in his mind for a moment and almost had to wipe away a tear at its beauty.

Okay, now on to the food itself. The noriben came with an illustration of its cross-section describing its contents. Even the minimalist diagram was beautiful in its simplicity.

The surface was a layer of crumbled “Nihonbashi” nori. This is the cream of the crop when it comes to nori, so Mr. Sato was brimming with excitement as he sunk his teeth into a bite of it. He had truly never eaten any seaweed with such a surprisingly chewy texture before. Average nori has a bit of a rough and even scratchy texture, but this stuff was soft and had a deep flavor that slowly spread throughout his mouth.

They blended in well with the grains of rice, but there was also a layer of tiny fish under the nori. They added a pleasing texture that contrasted nicely with the nori and added a touch of sweetness to each bite.

Before he knew it, the bottom of the dish came into sight.

Psych! It was actually just another layer of nori, this time toasted. Under that was even more rice. He almost wanted to describe the noriben’s composition like some kind of layered pastry.

It made full sense to Mr. Sato now why this noriben didn’t need any meat, fish, or side dishes. Rather, it was correct of Yamamotoyama to not let those things anywhere near this luxurious nori! Just like a black hole, this dish had swallowed him and his taste buds up whole in happiness. Now, maybe he’d just have to also purchase some of that roasted nori cake from Yamamotoyama for dessert

Store information
Yamamotoyama Fujie Tearoom / 山本山 ふじヱ茶房
Address: Tokyo-to, Chuo-ku, Nihonbashi 2-5-1 Nihonbashi Takashimaya Mitsui Building 1st floor
東京都中央区日本橋 2-5-1 日本橋髙島屋三井ビルディング1階
Open: 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m. (tearoom by reservation only)

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[ Read in Japanese ]