In Japan’s rural prefectures, where rice fields abound, coin-operated seimaiki, or rice milling machines, are a common sight. Insert a hundred-yen coin, pour unmilled rice into the machine and out comes enough freshly milled rice for your next meal. It’s rare to find seimaiki outside Japan, but Tomohiro Deguchi is working to change that. Deguchi is the founder of The Rice Factory, which is bringing Japanese rice to the world and milling it on the spot. The Rice Factory has locations in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and—beginning in June of last year—Honolulu.
Tucked away in industrial Kaka‘ako, the Honolulu store has uncooked rice samples displayed on the counter and instructions for the uninitiated written on a chalkboard: Choose a type of rice, determine what quantity you want and decide how finely you would like it milled. Through a window you can peek into the milling room where two seimaiki do their work. They are roughly the size of washing machines, with console buttons for selecting the degree of milling, from lightly processed brown to highly polished white.
Deguchi carries four types of rice that are household names in Japan: Koshihikari from Nagano, Tsuyahime from Yamagata, Yumepirika and Nanatsuboshi from Hokkaido. Each has a distinct flavor and texture. In addition, Deguchi sells the rare Kamiakari variety of rice, which he grows himself. Simply selling freshly milled rice wasn’t enough for him, so two years ago he bought a farm in Nagano and became a rice farmer in order to learn everything he could about the beloved grain.
Most of the rice eaten in Hawai‘i comes from California, and nobody pays attention to when it was milled. In Japan, milling dates are printed on the package, and nobody would consider buying rice more than a week old. Why? “Oxidation begins as soon as rice is milled, so taste and smell start to degrade,” Deguchi says. He speaks of milled rice as if it’s a living thing. “Rice needs time to rest,” he says. “If it’s always in a hot climate like in Hawai‘i, it loses its energy. It thrives when it’s hot in the day and cool at night.” His personal favorite is the Nanatsuboshi rice, which is famous for going well with sushi. “It has a clean, crisp taste,” he says. “I could eat bowlfuls of it day and night.”