Along a canal in northern Kyoto, just a few blocks from all the shrines and temples, an oddly placed scarecrow brought us to stop in front of a weathered façade. The scarecrow pointed us to a restaurant called Ao Onigiri which is filled with masks of monsters, draped pieces of quilted fabric, and dimly lit walls covered in layers of drawings of a blue demon. Despite some of the ominous decor, we were warmly greeted upon entering by Ao, the owner and chef to try some freshly made onigiri.
Onigiri is a very common Japanese dish known for its simplicity and convenience. It's made of a rice ball, often stuffed with savory ingredients, and wrapped in a layer of nori (dried seaweed). You can find it at every 7-11, Lawson, or fast food store of your choice in Japan. While most onigiri today is mass produced by machines as a quick on-the-go snack, Ao has decided to buck this trend. Set up more like a sushi counter, Ao offers onigiri made to order, hoping to provide the best quality version of this common Japanese food. This allows one of the key ingredients, the nori, to be served with a warm crunch and crispness not found in the packaged variety. While some Japanese prefer a softer and stickier nori wrapper, we can attest that fresh onigiri is really something special. Not only is there more attention for every ingredient, but it's a beautiful dish to watch being made while peeking over the counter.
The restaurant's name is derived from the owner's name Ao, and a play on words of aooni, meaning "blue demon", and onigiri the staple rice ball dish. This helps explain to origin of the countless (and very cute) drawings of pinned all along the wall behind the counter. The tradition began when a local elementary school girl decided to make a present for Ao, an illustration of a blue demon. In kindness of her gesture, Ao reciprocated by offering her freshly made onigiri as a thank you. Soon enough other kids at her school heard about a chance to score a free snack and Ao was flocked with drawings and displays them on the wall to the patrons. Upon visiting Ao Onigiri, you can understand Ao's strong connection to his neighborhood and how we wants to offer the best version of this staple snack not only for the local school kids, but for anyone that wants to enjoy some wonderful onigiri.