Photo/IllutrationVisitors pose for a commemorative photo on their visit to the Kiyoken factory. At the end of the tour, you can sample freshly cooked "shumai." (Photo by Lisa Vogt)

  • Photo/Illustraion

Bride and groom, please join hands around this big knife. Yes, that’s it. Now, friends and family, bring your cameras and gather around the table for the most Instagram-able moment of the wedding ceremony. Is everyone ready? OK, one, two, and three! Together, please cut the ... the ... jumbo "shumai" (steamed meat dumpling)! The what? Not cake?

Nope, not cake. Kiyoken has a wedding hall, complete with a chapel and several restaurants at the Yokohama Honten store. I’m told that their popular Chinoiserie Wedding with the jumbo shumai-cutting ceremony is quite the riot!

Many factory tours, especially the newer ones, are not “real” factory tours. The PR department along with an ad company set up a virtual museum factory, Disneyland style, with sanitized representations of their products and how they are made. Very little is authentic, and visitors leave with the desired effect--an idealized image of the brand.

The Kiyoken factory tour is the real deal, and you see it all, as is, from the ingredients being dumped and molded into a glob that gets wrapped in skins, all the way to the rotating factory workers in a long assembly line packing shumai into "bento" boxes with painstaking perfection, one by one, then covering each box with paper and tying it with string.

In 1908, the founder of the company, Hisayuki Kubo, started selling run-of-the-mill bento boxes at Sakuragicho Station, but because of its proximity to Tokyo Station, not many sold. Thinking this wasn’t going to cut it, he decided to sell a local specialty: shumai. Odawara has its "kamaboko" (steamed seasoned fish paste) and Shizuoka has its "wasabizuke" (pickled Japanese horseradish), so why not? Unfortunately, shumai back in the day tasted good when hot, but once cooled, the pork would start to stink.

He enlisted the help of a local Chinese chef who in 1928 created a minced pork-and-scallop version that tasted good even when cold. Still, it wasn’t until after the war that business took off.

How? Cute "shumai-musume" women in red dresses carrying boxed shumai in baskets started selling them on train platforms. A novel, and then a movie, about the girls became a hit, after which people literally hung out of train windows to buy from them.

Kiyoken’s rice is delish because they steam it so that it stays chewy even when cold. And, instead of adding a green pea on top of each shumai, it’s mixed inside, so it’s hit or miss you’ll get multiple or perhaps not a single pea in your shumai. But on the taste side of things, Kiyoken’s shumai bento is a dependable home run every time.

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This article by Lisa Vogt, a Washington-born and Tokyo-based photographer, originally appeared in the Nov. 18 issue of Asahi Weekly. It is part of the series "Lisa’s In and Around Tokyo," which depicts the capital and its surroundings through the perspective of the author, a professor at Meiji University.