Utsunomiya Japan >> The use of kyogi, a traditional Japanese food wrapper made of paper-thin sheets of wood, is getting a second look during the pandemic to reduce the use of plastic.
After the rise in plastic use, food containers made of kyogi sharply declined. In fact, only two manufacturers currently operate in Tochigi prefecture, where production once thrived.
Shimakura Sangyo in Nasu-Shiobara city, founded 70 years ago, is one of them.
“I hope people will become aware of all the good things about kyogi,” said Akihide Shimakura, company president.
Suzue Seki, the proprietress of the Yunohanaso restaurant and ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) in Nasu-Shiobara, is a fan of kyogi.
“It makes food look more delicious,” said Seki. “It’s also nice to embrace the spirit of ‘local production for local consumption.’”
Since last summer, Seki’s ryokan has given departing guests meals packed in a bento box made of kyogi. Customers had been unhappy that local restaurants were closed for lunch due to the pandemic, leaving them nowhere to eat on the way home.
Kyogi, which has an antibacterial effect, was commonly used in the past.
The now-disbanded Nihon Kyogi Rengokai, a national association of kyogi manufacturers, at its peak in the 1960s had 800 members. Of the 800, 38 were in Tochigi, and 18 of those were located in the now-defunct town of Nishi-Nasuno, part of Nasu-Shiobara today.
The town was the prefecture’s center of kyogi production, but manufacturers shut down one by one as plastic bags and Styrofoam containers became widespread.
These days, sushi restaurants and butchers use Shimakura Sangyo’s kyogi as plates and wrappers.
About 10 years ago, the company began making kyogi bookmarks and wrapping material and sold the products at roadside rest areas. Since last year, monthly sales have been 10% to 20% higher than an average year.
Part of that increase includes supplying kyogi to a natto shop in Tokyo since February and a major hotel in the town of Nasu since July. The company also has started discussions with the city about using kyogi bento boxes at a sports festival scheduled in the prefecture next year.
“Environmental concerns and the increase in takeout due to the pandemic have given us the chance to reexamine new possibilities for using kyogi,” said Hiroaki Shimakura, 39, who is set to succeed his father, Akihide, as the third-generation president of Shimakura Sangyo. “I’d like to inherit the manufacturing techniques and aggressively promote the appeal of kyogi so the product doesn’t disappear.”