Answer / Introduction
There is no single, set definition, as the word means different things to different people.
If you’re talking to a sushi aficionado with a preference or reverence for Edo-style sushi (also known as ‘Tokyo sushi’), then most likely they use the word makimono to refer to a type of sushi consisting of dried seaweed wrapped around rice and the dried shavings of kanpyō, which is a variety of calabash gourd.
This type of sushi roll is supposed to be no more than about 1.2 inches thick (3 cm), and that’s where it gets the name hosomaki, which translates to ‘thin roll.’
Calabash gourd was the original filling, but other ingredients such as cucumber (kappa maki) and tuna (tekka maki) soon followed, so even a purist definition is likely to include these two variants, as well.
There is, however, a broader and perhaps more common definition, which essentially establishes the word makimono as a synonym for sushi roll.
As evidenced by a simple image search on Yahoo! Japan, this broader definition indeed includes futomaki, which are twice as thick and round-shaped, and even sushi hand rolls.
Depending on the person, this common-parlance definition can even extend to egg rolls, which, as the name implies, substitute dried seaweed as the wrapper.
Sushi Rolls in Kanto and Kansai – a World of Difference
This may not be readily apparent to the casual restaurant-goer elsewhere in the world, but one area in which the influence of television and the Internet has not led to a total convergence in tastes and food culture (even within Japan) is sushi – especially of the makimono variety.
To wit, historically and still to this day, futomaki rolls combining a variety of ingredients have a much stronger gastronomic presence in Western and Southern Japan than in the capital.
Admittedly, while technically part of Chiba Prefecture, the Bōsō Peninsula is just a stone’s throw away from Tokyo, and yet boasts as one of its prized culinary traditions the habit of eating colorful and ornate futomaki rolls on festive occasions.
This is true, but traditionally, the preparation and consumption of futomaki has primarily fallen under the gastronomic remit of the denizens of Osaka and Kyoto, while their Tokyo counterparts have always favored the hosomaki variety.
In the age of the Internet and of fast, affordable travel by air and train, the Kansai (Western Japan) delicacy of futomaki has become a fixture on supermarket aisles all over Tokyo.
This type of sushi has also firmly established itself as a go-to home-cooked meal to celebrate certain seasonal and milestone events, like the start of the cherry blossom season or a school graduation, for example.
The same cannot be said for the original Edo-style recipe of kanpyō rolls.
Indeed, many people in Kansai have never ever tried kanpyō rolls, in no small part because this type of sushi just isn’t commonly found on restaurant menus and supermarket aisles in the region.
According to an interview by J-CAST news with a representative at the parent company of the sushi chain Rikimaru, this absence comes down to a simple lack of demand, as local consumers tend to prefer more flavorful and diverse varieties.
This strikes me as a bit of a chicken and egg situation, but nevertheless, the end result is that this type of sushi is only commonly available in the Kanto area and Northern Japan.
In light of the above, it is interesting and thought-provoking to observe that, despite having originated in North America only fifty-or-so years ago, the California roll now boasts a much higher degree of brand recognition among vast swaths of the population, when compared to the crowning jewel of Edo-style makimono and its close to 200 years of tradition.
Ehōmaki – Another Successful Kansai Export
Ehōmaki is inexorably linked to the traditional celebration of Setsubun, which marks the final day of winter according to the old calendar in Japan.
In the Gregorian calendar, this festivity falls between the second and fourth day of February.
At some point in the early twentieth century, it became tradition to eat a long sushi roll – called ehōmaki – containing seven ingredients corresponding to the seven deities of good fortune.
What’s more, ehōmaki is meant to be eaten whole in one bite, in complete silence, and facing that year’s auspicious cardinal direction, e.g., north-northwest, etc.
Those who successfully comply with these instructions are (supposedly) granted a wish of their choosing, usually one of a relationship-related nature.
The observance of Setsubun includes other interesting rituals, dating back hundreds of years in some cases. It would therefore make a degree of sense to assume ehōmaki shares a similar pedigree, if you will, but such an assumption is not borne out by the historical record.
Indeed, in a paper published by the University of Tsukuba’s Comparative Folklore Studies Association, Hiroyuki Kutsuzawa argues that the earliest written record associated with the tradition of ehōmaki is a promotional leaflet from 1932.
His study indicates that the tradition already existed in the period between 1912 (corresponding to the Taisho Era) and 1941, but that it was, in all likelihood, a regional practice limited to Osaka.
It was by no means a national tradition, as evidenced by an opinion poll showing that in 2002, only 53% of respondents were aware of ehōmaki and its related tradition.
By 2005, however, this number had grown to 88%, thanks to an incredibly successful campaign by the convenience store chain Seven Eleven.
This marketing campaign, started in 1989, would, over time, elevate this obscure regional tradition into a national observance.
What’s more, it was this campaign that birthed the word ehōmaki in the first place, as previously this type of sushi was called “Setsubun maki-zushi” or alternatively, “good-fortune maki-zushi.”
Had it not been for this convenience store chain’s marketing efforts, there is a strong likelihood that the tradition of eating maki-zushi on the day before the start of spring would not have caught on.
So, there you have it!
Sushi comes in many forms, ranging from works of art prepared by chefs in restaurants that are too exclusive to even be listed on the revered Michelin Guide, to convenience-store or home-cooked sushi to celebrate certain seasonal festivities and family events.
What’s more, there is a surprising degree of regional variance when it comes to makimono, with the Kansai variants having somewhat stolen away the spotlight from their Tokyo counterparts.
– J-CAST News; 06/16/2018
– Kutsuzawa, Hiroyuki; Univ. of Tsukuba – Comparative Folklore Studies Association; 2009