Our rice cooker broke the other day. The magic smoke has escaped; it's gone, passed away, pushing up the daisies, taken down the sign, wearing a wooden overcoat. Bereft of life, it's gone to meet its maker. It is an ex- ... you get the idea.
When I first came here I was just a little bewildered over the rice cooker. Sure, people eat rice everyday, but why have a separate machine taking up space in the small kitchen just to cook something? I used to eat pasta almost every day (and had the waistline to prove it), but I never felt a need for a pasta cooker or anything.
Pasta or potatoes are simply boiled until done. But rice is rinsed, soaked for half an hour or more, then slow cooked until dry. It's a slower process, where you need to measure rice and water precisely, wait for it to soak, then monitor the cooking pot so it doesn't burn. It's a hassle, it keeps you around the kitchen for almost an hour, and if you forget the pot you'll eat burnt, crunchy rice, and perhaps even get to explain the wailing smoke alarms and the black, smoldering pot on the balcony to the frowning fireman standing at your door.
With a rice cooker you never burn your rice. They run the cooking process without any help. You can fill the cooker with rice and water in the morning, set the timer, go to work, and have soft, fluffy rice waiting when you get home at night. They can keep the finished rice warm and soft for hours and hours, so it doesn't matter if you end up eating much later than you thought. And they're insulated so they're more energy efficient than a stove - and they don't heat up the kitchen in the hot summer.
Our stove has a rice-cooking function that monitors the temperature and turns off the gas when the water runs out in the pot. This works fairly well, actually, and has given us some time to shop around for a new rice cooker. And we've needed it - it's amazing just how many variations there are on this simple theme. From basic rice cookers for a couple thousand yen or so, up to SuperUltraDeluxe models in the nosebleed-inducing 70000-80000 yen range.
They all do much the same thing of course. It's basically an enclosed metal pot with a heater and temperature sensor in the bottom and a tight lid with a pressure valve at the top. Put rice and water in it and press the button. It will let the rice soak, then heat it until it slow boils. When the water is absorbed the temperature starts rising in the bottom, and the cooker cuts the heater temperature until it just keeps the rice warm. The remaining steam in the pot can't escape through the tight lid so it keeps the rice moist and soft.
As you move up in price you get better brands, larger capacity, induction heating (apparently improves on the keeping time and energy use), non-stick and copper pots, better design, steamer function and so on. Seems that paying much more than 15-20k yen won't really get you any better functionality or quality though. We'll see, but we have to get one soon - they're too convenient to go without.