Japanese Bento: What You Need to Know
Japan’s culture teaches us that scarcity unlocks craftiness.
With their skills of making the most out of their limited resources, Japan offers us their capsule hotel, minimalism lifestyle strategy, shinkansen and bento box among other things.
Those creative output prove that you don’t need to sacrifice quality and convenience even if you are living in a busy and hectic paced place like Tokyo.
More than that, those seemingly little things actually represent Japan’s way of life and how it has evolved through the years.
Let’s take a closer look at a small box that satisfies not only our eyes because of its visual appearance but our tummy for its nutrients and taste, as well as our heart and mind for its cultural relevance to the Japanese --- Bento Box.
About Bento Box
The word “bento” can trace its origin from the Southern Song Dynasty slang term biàndāng, which means “convenient.” There are different accounts on the exact period when Japanese Bento began. Despite those nuances, Bento represents different functions at different times for different Japanese. For farmers, hunters and warriors in the 5th century and for the Japanese salarymen of today, bento provides their need for a wholesome meal which contains a balanced diet. For the families and friends living during the Azuchi-momoyama period, Bento serves as the main food for social gatherings and festivities such as hanami (cherry blossom viewing) and koyo (autumn leaves viewing). And the different types of bento also showed how its function evolved to fit the changing activities in Japanese.
Hinomaru (patriotic) lunchbox
The simplest type of bento which can also be considered as a patriotic lunch meal. Hinomaru means “circle of sun” which would make you think of the Japanese flag. The two main components of this bento are rice topped with a single red umeboshi (pickled plum) and a side dish of fish or meat. Aside from representing the red dot in the Japanese flag, plum is a natural preservative keeping the meal fresh.
Makunouchi (theater) lunchbox
In the Edo period, this bento is usually eaten during the break between first act and second act. It was this time when the curtain (called maku) was down. Fast forward to today, this is the usual lunchbox that can be found in convenience stores, supermarkets and department stores. It is safe to say that today it is eaten during the break of Japanese workers between the morning and afternoon work.
Aisai bento (homemade)
While bento was made to ensure that busy Japanese would not neglect its health, this does not mean that bento is prepared in a hurry without any care and love. This bento which means “bento made by loving wives” are typically handmade by Japanese women. A wife would prepare this bento for their husband to bring to work that would remind them of their home while he is away. A young women would also prepare aisai bento for her significant others for social occasions like hanami.
Kyara-ben (character-based bento)
The most famous type of bento around the world because of its “kawaii” look. This is the best example of a mother’s attempt to lure their kids into eating healthy food and the popular saying “eating with the eye.” Drawing inspiration from characters of anime, mange, video game or cartoon shows, food are creatively cut and arranged to create a visual feast. You can see a pikachu, totoro and gundam transformed into rice with the help of sliced fruits and vegetables. You can also expect seasonal animals and natural sceneries reflected in kyara-ben. Seems like the creativity of Japan knows no season and no limits.
Ekiben (railway station bento)
As a tourist especially in Tokyo, you would like to see as many things as possible. With shinkansen, it allows you to quickly hop on to different places leaving you little time to try the cuisine of each local prefecture. However, with Japan’s advanced thinking they have solved this problem through the must-try eki (train) lunchbox. Incorporating the staple food of the area – local ingredients and specialities and drawing design inspiration of its tourism aspect, ekiben is an experience of its own. With the distinctive nature of bento, bite-sized dish neatly organized into multiple compartments make it easy to eat while you are on-the-go and less messy too. Another proof of Japan’s penchant for creativity, convenience and cleanliness.
If you are planning to bring home this Japanese culture, you might want to know the essential ingredients of Japanese bento.
The main base is rice which can be cooked in different ways:
Hakumai (standard white rice)
Genmai (brown rice)
Sekihan (rice cooked with red beans)
Zakkokumai (rice with mixed grains)
Noriben (rice covered with a sheet of nori seaweed)
Wakame gohan (rice mixed with seaweed).
Now you can freely choose what to put with your bento. You can include umeboshi (pickled Japanese plum), salads, tamagoyaki (Japanese rolled omelette), agemono (deep-fried foods), grilled fish, nimono (slowly simmered food), stewed beef, and Japan’s fresh sushi.
Taste and nutrients are the most important traits of Japanese bento.
You can achieve them by knowing the best source for fresh and preservative-free vegetables, fruits, fish and meats. How do you easily find those ingredients during your Tokyo trip? Or how can you try the locally-recognized best bento? Through making friends with a local. And finding friendly locals who can share tips is easy when you join free walking tours in Tokyo!
Luckily, Tokyo Localized offers day tour in Tokyo which allows you to interact and make friends with your local guides. In the morning, you can join the Meiji & Harajuku Culture Tour to understand the history of Japan. After the tour, you can ask your tour guide for the best place to grab your Japanese bento! He might join you and tell more stories about Japanese culture especially its cuisine!
They say that food is the language of international friendship so don’t miss out on trying the famous Japanese bento while you are in Tokyo! Plan ahead and don’t forget to include joining free walking tours in Tokyo!
Tokyo Localized provides visitors and travellers to Tokyo with a unique perspective of this great city, what makes us unique is that our tour guides live and work in Tokyo, have a passion for this city and love meeting and welcoming new faces. Find out more about our Unique Day and Night Tours of Tokyo - we can't wait to meet you!
About the writer
Rocel is a believer of living life to the fullest through creating memories with her loved ones – family, friends and self. One of the things she enjoys doing with them is travelling where they get to experience new cultures, new cuisines, new stories to share and memories to look back. In 2018 alone, she travelled to 5 continents which exposed her to the world’s wonders. After all those trips, Japan is still one of her favorite countries because of its unique and rich culture and natural resources. She lived and studied in Tokyo, Japan for one year where she developed deeper love and appreciation towards the country.