"Many tour buses use the expressway, but we’ve never heard of a service area providing halal food", said an official at the Japan Tourism Agency.
The bento will be produced and sold by Toyotan Honpo Corp., a company in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture that develops regional specialities. The company has opened its store at the Okazaki service area.
The rest stop is a prime location as it is situated halfway between the Kansai and Kanto regions, with Toyotan Honpo keen to take into account the dietary needs of group tour passengers traveling long distances.
There are four main dish options, including Chicken Teriyaki and Gyukakuni "beef cube stew", with all meals created using ingredients that have been certified halal.
The bento is served with Aichi no Kaori rice, a local brand produced by the chairman of Toyotan Honpo, 40-year-old Etsushi Ohashi, and comes with side dishes of boiled carrots, shiitake and taro from Mikawa, Aichi Prefecture.
The move to halal foods is not an entirely new one.
There are many Indonesians working in Toyota-affiliated companies in the city of Toyota. The deli section of a supermarket run by Masahide Itakura, 48, offers halal food as well. The supermarket has won the trust of local Muslims by separating and strictly managing ingredients and seasonings, as well as all cooking utensils used.
Toyotan Honpo would prepare the bento in Itakura’s store so it can benefit from their experience.
With tourists from Muslim countries often limited to eating light food, such as Onigiri "rice balls", when visiting Japan, Toyotan Honpo has already received orders from travel agencies for the product.
Located between the junctions of Toyota-Higashi in Toyota and Hamamatsu Inasa in the city of Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, the Okazaki Service Area is the biggest one in the Tokai region operating.
The halal bento is priced at ¥2,000 and must be reserved beforehand.
The company also sells non-halal food and souvenirs, such as Mikawa beef skewers, Nagoya Cochin sausage and an assortment of Japanese and Western confectionery in the service area.
"This is our chance to sell Mikawa products and I want to promote them to the increasing number of inbound tourists", said Ohashi.