100-Year-Old Ekiben Business ~Kiyoken~

April 14, 2019
An interview with third generation president, Naobumi Nonami
Proud holder of the number one ekiben sales spot, 21,000 Kiyoken Shiumai Bento are sold on average every day! It's also a long-selling ekiben. To find out the secret behind this success, we spoke with the third-generation president, Naobumi Nonami, who started his tenure in 1991.

Founded at Yokohama Station, in business for 100 years

The fourth station master of Yokohama Station (present day JR Sakuragicho Station), Hisayuki Kubo, opened the first shop inside a station after he retired in 1908. His hometown of Nagasaki was called Kiyo by Chinese businessmen, so he named his shop Kiyoken.
However, since Yokohama Station was too close to the start and terminus of the line, his ekiben did not sell well at first. Making the most of that misfortune, he continued to innovate and revise, eventually succeeding in making a company that has been in business more than 100 years. It continues to grow even today.

The Yokohama specialty, Shiumai, is born!
Yokohama never had anything that it could call its specialty. At that time, he got the idea for Shiumai, which would be his company's specialty, and in turn, Yokohama's.
Developed by a Chinese chef, scallop meat was added to the pork so it would be delicious even when cold. It was first sold at Yokohama Station in 1928.
It is called Shiumai since in the first president's Tochigi accent, it sounded close to the Chinese word's reading, Shaomai.

The secret of success is the Shiumai Ladies

The reason these Shiumai became such a tremendous success was the appearance in 1950 of the Shiumai Ladies. Wearing red China dresses with white sashes and carrying baskets, the Shiumai Ladies sold bentos from the station platform, appeared in movies, and became a very popular profession. Since bentos were sold through the train window, there was a rule that they had to be at least 158 cm tall (which was tall at that time). That is to say, only women with a nice figure, like today's models or idols, were employed. At present, the only place you can see Shiumai Ladies in their red dresses are at the company-operated stores. They wear the 17th generation version of the uniform.

Hyochan soy sauce container collection

An inseparable part of Kiyoken Shiumai are Hyochans*; the gourd-shaped, porcelain soy sauce containers with cute faces and hands painted on them. There is a special factory that produces only Hyochans. The first set of illustrations was the "48 Faces of the Alphabet" drawn by the cartoonist Ryuichi Yokoyama. In 1988, to mark the company's 80th year, Osamu Harada drew the second generation set. The limited-edition set for the 100th anniversary was drawn by Ryohei Yanagihara. The first collaborative set, done in cooperation with the Shiki Theatre Company's Yokohama production of "Cats," became quite popular. It's fun to collect all the different expressions on the Hyochans.
*Only included with Shiumai.

Shiumai becomes the dish of Yokohama citizens

Kiyoken's Shiumai esteems the local color, and has decided to become a local brand. In the past, they had been sold all across the country, but at present they are only available in the Tokyo area, concentrated mostly in Kanagawa. This has gained them even greater support from their fans.
In the area around Yokohama Station where Kiyoken headquarters are, there are 14 company-operated stores, and Shiumai has become one of the everyday dishes of the citizens of Yokohama. For 40 years, Yokohama has sold more steamed dumplings (or Shiumai) annually than anywhere else in the country. This is the result of the aim to make them Yokohama's specialty, and proof that they have become so.

Birth of the number one ekiben, Shiumai Bento

The flavor of Shiumai hasn't changed since they were first sold, and the recipe is incredibly simple. The ingredients are pork, onions, green peas, dried scallops and their broth. The seasonings are just salt, pepper, sugar and starch. The Shiumai Bento, whose main ingredient is the Shiumai made popular by the Shiumai Ladies, first appeared in 1954. To make them available in time for the running of the trains, production begins early in the morning, and they're in the stores by 6:00 a.m.

The ribbon is proof of the devotion of the workers at Yokohama's main factory

In order to increase efficiency and boost production of Shiumai Bentos, the Tokyo factory switched from using ribbons to hold the lid and wrapping paper on the bentos to using tight-fitting lids. However, only the Shiumai Bentos made at the main factory in the company's home in Yokohama are wrapped in a ribbon by hand like always. These bentos are sold in the Yokohama area stores. This is due to the desire of the workers to "maintain the old-fashioned style ekiben," and "show our devotion to the very end." There were also requests from customers who "want to return the box to the original state after eating, and tying it with the ribbon" to show their feeling of "appreciation for the meal." The Japanese spirit of "hospitality" and their aesthetic desire to "keep everything beautiful to the end" are expressed in this single bento.

A box packed with ingenious ideas
The Shiumai Bento isn't just about delicious Shiumai. The fundamental part of a bento, the rice, is also extraordinarily delicious. In Japan, just after rice is cooked, it is transferred to a wooden tub called an "ohitsu" while it's still hot. Thin sheets of wood are used in the Shiumai Bento to maintain a similar condition in the bento box. The Jezo spruce and other woods used in the thin wood sheets are antibacterial and control moisture, as well as smell nice. The rice grains sticking to the thin wood sheet are proof that the moisture is just right and the rice is delicious.

Boilerplate Shiumai speech for wedding ceremonies

Every newlywed couple is passionate, but it's when the passion cools off that a couple's relationship becomes important. Kiyoken Shiumai are the same. Though the pork and scallops are raised in different places, they respect and support one another so they're delicious even after cooling off. I hope that you can be a married couple that is like that. (Applause)

Message from the President

Marketing research in disguise: Doesn't anyone notice?
At Kiyoken, customer opinions are related to employees through salesclerks, and used in product development. But it doesn't stop there. The President also does marketing research himself. Occasionally he will disguise himself and stand next to the station store sample case and listen to the customers' comments. Apparently, he blends in so well that his employees don't even recognize him when they walk by.

株式会社崎陽軒 取締役社長 野並直文 (Naobumi Nonami)
Kiyoken's Shiumai is a Yokohama specialty which is a fusion between Chinese food culture and Japanese ekiben culture. Our Shiumai are delicious even cold and bite-size, so they can be eaten easily while on the train. Please give them a try.