Shortage of Wooden Boxes Bites into Toyama’s Masuzushi Bento Sales

The Yomiuri Shimbun
An employee packs salted trout, rice and bamboo grass into plastic containers for masuzushi boxed lunches in Uozu, Toyama Prefecture in February 2023.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and other factors have slowed the import of lumber, resulting in a shortage of wooden containers for masuzushi, Toyama Prefecture’s famous trout sushi bento meals.

The shortage has forced some makers of these meals to use plastic containers, which don’t match up to wood.

Masuzushi, a popular ekiben, or train station bento box, is made by stuffing salted trout and vinegared rice on top of bamboo grass laid on the bottom of a wooden container.

“Wooden receptacles absorb the excess fat and vinegar from the trout and sushi rice just right,” explained Kinro Takata, 77, the president of masuzushi maker Takataya in Toyama.

The sides of these wooden containers are usually made with thin sheets of wood. Many makers of the wooden containers in Toyama Prefecture purchase these thin sheets from Hokkaido.

According to Masaharu Kagaya, 73, the head of a cooperative of wood producers in Hokkaido, its members used to import most of their pine logs from Canada, but switched to imports from Europe after the U.S. housing construction boom that began in 2021 drove up lumber prices. However, shipments from Russia and Ukraine, which were the main production areas, tapered off completely for a while and only resumed recently.

A maker of wooden containers in Toyama City has turned down about half of the orders it received from about 10 companies, partly because of a 20% increase in the price of materials.

The president of Sakana Oroshi Ton-ya Haritaya, a masuzushi shop in Uozu that continues to use plastic containers as a substitute, lamented, “I want to return to wooden containers as soon as possible.”

Meanwhile, containers made of new materials are also attracting attention.

Spac, a packaging materials company in Takaoka, Toyama Prefecture, has developed a container with a lid and bottom made of wood and sides made of a mixture of paper and plastic. The wood on the top and bottom absorbs excess liquids from the contents.

The company developed the container in 2016 and had only six business partners in fiscal 2021, but is now expanding production after receiving new orders from 10 companies since around November 2022.