More and more varieties of delicious brand-name rice are available as cultivation and storage technologies have advanced, and producers and local governments are working to develop their products.
This year's shipments of new rice are expected to come a little later than usual due to environmental factors such as insufficient sunshine and typhoons. New rice will hit stores in late November.
There is no clear definition of "brand rice," but their names are often composed of their production area followed by their brand name - for example, "Niigata-ken-san Koshihikari" (Koshihikari rice produced in Niigata Prefecture). Rice producers are required by the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry to include the production area and brand name of their products.
There are about 700 kinds of rice produced in Japan that have such names, and many of them are "brand" rice.
The Japan Grain Inspection Association based in Tokyo announces the results of its rice taste-testing contest every year. Last year, a record 38 types of brand-name rice received the highest rank of "Special A."
Twenty experts decide the rankings on the basis of appearance, smell, flavor, stickiness, hardness and overall quality. In 2013, special A recipients included Yumepirika rice of Hokkaido, which debuted in 2009, and Tsuyahime rice of Yamagata, which was first marketed in 2010.
In addition to a variety of brand-name rice with the name of the district where it was grown and its brand-name, there have been other types of new brand-name rice that tote such added value as environmental conservation and social contribution.
They include a brand-name rice called Toki-to-kurasu-sato (A village living with Japanese crested ibis), which is Koshihikari rice produced in Sadogashima island in Niigata Prefecture, and Fukko-mai, which is Sasanishiki rice grown in the disaster area of the Great East Japan Earthquake.
"Fukko" means happiness, but also has the implication of reconstruction from the disaster.
Finely tuned tastes
"Rice is already considered a luxury product," said Toyozo Nishijima, the director of Suzunobu, a rice sales company in Meguro Ward, Tokyo. Nishijma is recognised by the Japan Rice Retailers Association as a five-star rice master, indicating his in-depth knowledge of rice.
More than 80 kinds of rice are displayed in Nishijima's store. Prices range from about ¥2,700 (S$32) to ¥7,400 per five kilograms. Customers can buy rice in one kilogram units.
"You can find your favourite rice just like your favourite wine and sake," Nishijima said.
Hitomebore rice produced in the Tohoku region is good for donburi rice bowl dishes as it absorbs soup well. Sasanishiki, Akitakomachi and Nanatsuboshi (Hokkaido) have a simple taste and are good for sushi.
Even among the same brand-name rice, there are differences in texture and taste according to the area where it was grown. For example, Koshihikari produced in the Uonuma area in Niigata Prefecture and in Fukushima Prefecture is "sticky, sweet and soft," Nishijima said.
However, Koshihikari from Nagano and Toyama prefectures is elastic, springy and tough.
"This Koshihikari is fit for curry and rice because it doesn't form lumps," Nishijima said.
Stores where rice masters like Nishijima wait on customers are listed on the website Okome Maisuta Zenkoku Network (http://www.okome-maistar.net/).
For best results with one's chosen rice, it's also important to pay attention to the best way to store and cook it. Nishijima recommends buying one or two kilograms, preserving the rice in small quantities in sealed plastic bags and storing them in the vegetable compartment of the refrigerator.
"Be careful when washing your rice," said Noriko Shirai, a researcher on cooking. "If you wash the rice too hard, it will break and absorb too much water."
Yukiyo Kashiwabara, a nutritionist and representative of the Japan Health Education Association, suggests,
"When rice is a little too hard, you can feel full quicker because you end up chewing more. It's also good for digestion."