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Can sales of 'ehomaki' sushi rolls bring good fortune to Japan's eatery industry?

This photo shows, from left, 1,800-yen, 5,000-yen, and 10,000-yen ehomaki rolls available for pre-order at Hotel New Otani Hakata. (Photo courtesy of Hotel New Otani Hakata)

FUKUOKA -- In the lead up to the Setsubun festival on Feb. 2, the "ehomaki" sushi roll business in the restaurant and hotel industry in this southwestern Japan city is heating up like never before.

    Manufacturers are hoping to make up for a drop in sales caused by self-restraint in eating out due to the spread of the coronavirus. In the midst of the pandemic, can ehomaki bring good fortune to the restaurant industry and to consumers?

    It is a custom to eat an ehomaki sushi roll on Setsubun, an annual festival held the day before the beginning of spring in the old lunar calendar, facing the direction that will bring you good luck for the year, while making a wish and eating it without saying a word. The blessing direction for 2021 is south-southeast.

    Many restaurants have decided to sell ehomaki for the first time this year as people seek blessings for prosperous business and good health amid the spread of the coronavirus. Some are selling high-end products in anticipation of demand from consumers who are staying home due to the pandemic and the state of emergency currently in effect in 11 prefectures including Fukuoka.

    "If we don't do something, people will forget about us. We have to do something," said Seiyoshi Kosaka, 42, the owner of Shuraku Yuzen Ebisu, an "izakaya" Japanese style pub in Chuo Ward in the city of Fukuoka.

    Seiyoshi Kosaka of Syuraku Yuzen Ebisu holds a prototype ehomaki roll in Fukuoka's Chuo Ward, on Jan. 26, 2021. (Mainichi/Hiroshi Hisano)

    The izakaya is selling ehomaki rolls for the first time this year and taking reservations for seafood rolls and fried shrimp rolls for 1,000 yen (about $9.50) each, (including tax). The number of dinner meetings and parties has plummeted due to the pandemic, so it began offering lunch and take-out services, but since the declaration of the state of emergency, sales have dropped by about 70% from the same period last year. Kosaka is worried that regular customers will abandon his business.

    In addition to the lack of familiarity with ehomaki, which is believed to have originated in the Kansai region, in recent years the disposal of leftover foodstuffs has become a social problem, so the izakaya has not been selling them. This year, however, Kosaka decided to offer them on the recommendation of customers. In order to prevent leftovers, he made the rolls smaller and kept the price as low as possible.

    "We are grateful that some of our regular customers have pre-ordered 10 of them. I feel a connection with my customers, and it gives me a positive feeling," Kosaka said with a smile.

    Some restaurants are selling high-end specialty goods for people to treat themselves at home instead of eating out. Kazuya Tanaka, 34, who runs Sushi Kazuya in the city's Chuo Ward, is selling for the first time a single 5,000-yen (about $47, tax included) ehomaki roll made with premium ingredients such as fatty tuna, sea urchin, and kurumaebi prawns. Reservations are necessary to purchase the product. Since he runs the store by himself and cannot produce large quantities, he decided to compete on quality.

    This photo shows the 10,000-yen ehomaki roll that Hotel New Otani Hakata is offering for pre-order sales. (Photo courtesy of Hotel New Otani Hakata)

    Sales at his shop were down 30-40% in January compared to the same month last year, and he hopes to make up for it with the ehomaki rolls. "I want people who are unable to come to my restaurant as they refrain from going out (due to the outbreak) to enjoy my food," he enthusiastically said.

    Hotel New Otani Hakata in the city of Fukuoka is also selling high-end ehomaki for 10,000 yen (approx. $95.50) per roll (tax not included) in a limited edition of 20 rolls. The products will be handed over at the driveway of the hotel in a bid to prevent coronavirus infections. Until last year, the most expensive item was 5,000 yen, but the staff member in charge commenting on the reason to prepare more expensive ehomaki this year said, "More and more customers are eating luxurious food at home instead of dining out, and high-priced Osechi (New Year's) dishes sold well."

    Ehomaki spread from the Kansai region to the rest of Japan through major convenience store chains and department stores, but in recent years, the disposal of unsold products has become a problem, and the market has hit the ceiling. MyVoice Communications Inc, an internet research company based in Tokyo, conducts a survey every February to find out the percentage of people who have actually eaten ehomaki among those who know about it, and although the percentage has been on the rise since 2005, it peaked at 78.4% in 2019 and slightly declined to 78.1% in 2020.

    Kazuya Tanaka of Sushi Kazuya makes a prototype of a 5,000-yen ehomaki roll in Fukuoka's Chuo Ward, on Jan. 26, 2021. (Mainichi/Hiroshi Hisano)

    This year, while shrines have refrained from holding Setsubun events due to the coronavirus pandemic, some department store officials are hopeful that demand for ehomaki will grow as people spend more time at home and wish for good health for their families. In fact, Takashimaya department store group is reportedly experiencing a tripling of online reservations compared to the previous year.

    Atmos Dining in the city of Fukuoka, an izakaya operator, sells take-out ehomaki every year. The person in charge said, "This year, the number of stores selling them seems to have doubled and competition is fierce." The company aims to boost sales by increasing its variety of products, such as ehomaki and hand-rolled sushi sets.

    (Japanese original by Hiroshi Hisano, Kyushu Business News Department)

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