Bento, Japan’s Cute And Tasty Boxed Lunches

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Bento (or obento) is a single-portion takeout or homemade meal common in Japanese cuisine. 

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Bento for Picnic

A traditional bento holds rice, fish or meat, with pickled or cooked vegetables, usually in a box-shaped container. Containers range from disposable mass produced plastic to hand crafted lacquerware. 

Bento are readily available in many places throughout Japan, including convenience stores, bento shops, railway stations, and department stores. However, Japanese homemakers often spend time and energy crafting a carefully prepared lunch box for their spouse or children.

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Shake-Ben of convenience stores

The bento box through the ages

Bento in Japan can date back to the Heian period (794-1185). An onigiri (rice ball) called tonjiki was eaten at that time. Later, a lacquer lunchbox that can still be found today was introduced.

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Onigiri

During the Edo period (1603-1867), bento culture spread and became more refined. Travelers and sightseers would carry a simple koshibento (waist bento), consisting of several onigiri wrapped with bamboo leaves or in a woven bamboo box. One of the most popular styles of bento, called makuno-uchi bento (between-act bento), was first made during this period. People came to see Noh and Kabuki ate specially prepared bento between maku (acts).

In the Meiji period (1868-1912), the first ekibento or also called ekiben (train station bento) was sold. There are several records that claim where ekiben was first sold, but it is believed that it was sold on 16 July 1885, at the Utsunomiya train station, and contained two onigiri and takuan (pickled Japanese radish) wrapped in bamboo leaves. As early schools did not provide lunch, students and teachers carried bento, as did many employees. European style bento with sandwiches also went on sale during this period.

In the Taisho period (1612-1926), the aluminum bento box became a luxury item because of its ease of cleaning and its silver-like appearance. However, a move to abolish the practice of bento in schools became a social issue. Disparities in wealth spread during this period, following an export boom during World War I and subsequent crop failures in the Tohoku region. A bento too often reflected a student’s wealth, and many wondered if this had an unfavorable influence on children both physically, from lack of adequate diet, and psychologically, from a clumsily made bento or the richness of food.

After World War II, the practice of bringing bento to school gradually declined and was replaced by uniform food service provided for all students and teachers.

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Obento for chirdren

Bento today

 

Bento regained popularity in the 1980s, with the help of the microwave oven and the proliferation of convenience stores. In addition, the expensive wood and metal boxes were replaced at most bento shops with inexpensive, disposable polystyrene boxes. 

However, even handmade bento have made a comeback, and they are once again a common, although not quite universal, sight at Japanese schools. Bento are still used by workers as a packed lunch, by families on day trips, and for school picnics. 

The bento, made at home, is wrapped in a furoshiki cloth, which acts as both bag and table mat.

Airports also offer an analogous version of the ekiben: a bento filled with local cuisine, to be eaten while waiting for an airplane or during the flight.

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Kyara-Ben

You might have heard of kyaraben

Kyaraben are bento lunches decorated to look like popular characters from Japanese anime, manga or video games which are made by mothers for their children.

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Bento for business men

Now, numerous cookbooks are published detailing how to cook and pack bento, as well as what to prepare for special occasions like Hanami. Why don’t you pick one up as a souvenir when you visit Japan?

Check out our:

JAPANESE COOKING EXPERIENCE TOUR

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