Monzen-nakacho’s Smiling Senbei
Published: May 7, 2018
Looking for a gift which epitomises Japanese culture and is not too expensive; then why not try Japanese “senbei” (rice crackers)? I am a sucker for these crisp, tasty snacks, so I was delighted when I was told to go along to Minatoya in Monzen-nakacho and see what they have to offer.
Strategically placed on a corner of Monzen-nakacho’s covered shopping arcade, a short distance from Fukagawa Fudoson temple and Tomioka Hachimangu shrine, Minatoya has been in business since 1948. The current owner, Mr. Takashi Aoki (pictured here with his mother) is the 3rd generation owner of the business started by his grandfather.
This family-run shop sells roughly 100 types and sizes of senbei, 30-odd types of “mame” (beans) and numerous “okashi” (traditional-style sweets). According to Mr. Aoki, the okashi add colour and a bit more of a selection to the already-wide range of senbei and mame on offer.
Peering into the well laid-out shop I was fascinated by the multitude of colours and the orderliness of the place. There was row upon row of senbei wrapped individually or in packets, all neatly lined up waiting to be bought and bitten into.
Whilst senbei, mame and okashi are considered to be traditional fare, Mr. Aoki has combined this image with humorous innovative offerings, such as Minatoya’s “face” (see top photograph) and “arigatou” (thank you) senbei. These cheerful crackers come in 3 flavours: soy, green tea and sugar-coated and make a charming but inexpensive “message with a difference”.
When I asked him what sells best, Mr. Aoki said without hesitation, “For the Japanese customers wandering around the Fukagawa area to visit the famous temple and shrine it is the Fukagawa Asari”. These senbei are flavoured with clams which form part of a famous local dish. And you can see the fisherman trawling for clams on the wrapping of the senbei
For the foreign visitors the more traditional-flavoured senbei, such as soy and green tea sell well, whilst the novelty sushi “ame” (candy) are also popular.
What differentiates Minatoya from a lot of other senbei shops is that it makes its own mame and senbei on site, and if you are lucky you could get to see the staff in action, toasting the senbei in front of the shop (the main factory is located on the 5th floor of the same building). It was not only me who stood there on a hot morning taking in the sight of one of Minatoya’s staff turning the senbei over a hot griddle to toast them; I was joined by other intrigued passers-by to watch this unusual spectacle.
And if you can’t get to see them live in action toasting the senbei, you can always watch it on YouTube below:
In winter, from November onwards, you can see mame being roasted almost daily in front of the shop.
And if you are overwhelmed by the selection of senbei, mame and okashi on offer and you can’t make your mind up what to buy, why not pick up a packet of broken senbei – they might not look as attractive, but I am sure they taste just as nice as the whole senbei and they cost less.
Or, when it happens to be available, why not go for the “Tsume-houdai” (note: this promotion is only offered at certain unspecified times) and see how many different senbei you can cram into one plastic bag? This allows you to try a variety of senbei at a very reasonable price. So, go on! Have something to nibble whilst you are sight-seeing around Monzen-nakacho.
Story and Photos by Jeremy Hutchinson