Visiting the Shu Mai Factory

The children attend St. Maur International School, which organizes all kinds of events and outings for parents through its Adult Enrichment program. I decided to join some fellow mothers on one such outing.

Last Friday was St. Patrick’s Day. As a Polish American married into an Irish American family, I decided to celebrate the day by visiting a factory that makes Chinese shu mai dumplings. In Japan. With friends from Japan, Thailand, France, the United States, the United Kingdom, and South Africa. As one does.

Led by our able guides Emi and Noriko, we boarded the train and headed for the Kiyoken Yokohama Factory Tour.

The Kiyoken Shu Mai factory near Shin-Yokohama

Unlike the glitzy Cup Noodles Museum in a fancy part of Yokohama, The Kiyoken factory sits in an industrial area and actually makes the shu mai in question on site. Our enthusiastic tour guide eagerly described the history of the company in Yokohama, when they started making shu mai, how shu mai guys and gals sold boxes through train windows, and so on.

The real deal of Selling Through a Train Window….
…and our re-creation, saying”Shu Mai!” for the camera

But let’s back up a little. What is a shu mai, anyway?

Like gyoza and ramen, shu mai originated in China but were brought to Japan by Chinese tradesmen in the late nineteenth century. Unlike gyoza, ravioli, pierogi, and other filled dumplings with completely sealed edges, shu mai have an open top. The meat filling is exposed on the very top and held in place by the dumpling skin. Shu mai are steamed and not boiled like pierogi or ravioli. The filling can vary, but ground pork is the most common. Shu mai are usually served with hot Japanese mustard called karashi and soy sauce. Yokohama is known for Kiyoken shu mai, and they are a popular choice to eat on long train trips.

A model of a shu mai bento

So back to our factory tour! Our tour guide enthusiastically explained the history behind the soy sauce container tucked into every box of Kiyoken shu mai, a tiny ceramic gourd called Hyo-chan who is also the mascot for Kiyoken shu mai–because every Japanese town, event, and company needs an adorable mascot. Hyo-chan comes in a dizzying array of designs, and collecting them is A Thing.

Emi skillfully translated all of this while holding a gourd like a natural.

Emi and her gourd


After studying many lit cases of Hyo-chan samples, it was time for the main event! We headed out to see the production lines themselves. We started with the packing line, where we observed workers in coveralls, boots, and face masks manning the automated packaging machines. We were expressly forbidden from taking photos, which of course meant I had to sneak one in, because I am such a Rebel. Doesn’t this look like an exposé photo from 60 Minutes or something?

My Totally Forbidden photo, shot from waist high

After watching the packaging operation it was time for more lit cases, including an overview of the manufacturing process…..


….and models of the ingredients. Then with a dramatic flourish our guide unveiled the windows showing the shu mai production line itself. Alas, no sneaky photo this time.

After the tour we enjoyed a snack of complimentary shu mai. Then it was time for a stop in the gift shop before heading home.



2 thoughts on “Visiting the Shu Mai Factory

  1. Donald Kane

    Hi Marta, Love getting your posts.  Hope you are saving each one for future presentations to your grown children and grandchildren. Since you are in a world new to you and chuck full of discovery opportunities (the school programs for parents are unique), I wonder how you will find a similar world of discovery opportunities when you return to DC in 18 months.How to overcome the “been there; done that” situation and seek out many new and exciting (or at least informative) discoveries.   We are sure you will find a way. Don


  2. Pingback: Living Flowers: Adventures in Ikebana – martayaki

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