Translated by Lester Somera
Fun, Colorful and Delicious: Japanese Bento Boxes
Written by Mami Wakamatsu
Bento boxes are part of Japanese food culture, full of traditional menu standards and all sorts of flavors. Every traveler to Japan should try a bento box once!
What Goes Into A Bento Box?
Bento boxes are part of the food culture in Japan.
Most of the time, a ‘bento box’ refers to a lunchbox, but a bento box can be any box which has been packed with rice and several different meal items. Bento boxes contain a variety of flavors to enjoy and possess a vivid color palette, and homemade bento boxes can also be quite nutritious. Bento boxes are often eaten at schools and in company lunchrooms.
Some mothers will add a little extra flair to the bento when their children have sports festivals or school field trips, and there are also people who bring bento boxes to spring events and hanami parties. You could say that bento boxes are an indispensable part of the Japanese lifestyle.
Character Bentos and Deco-Bentos
There are also special homemade bento boxes, known as kyara-ben (character bento boxes) or deco-ben (decorative bento boxes), which feature animal-shaped rice balls as well as other cute, colorful designs. These bento boxes are often the subject of attention.
There are many goods sold in Japan to help make bento box-making a little easier, and many of them can be found of the shelves of stores like Tokyu Hands. Instead of just eating a bento box, it might also be fun to look for bento box items to bring home.
Other Ready-Made Bentos
Not all bentos are made from scratch. Japanese restaurant chains like “Hokka Hokka Tei” and “Origin Bento” specialize in bentos. The bento selection at your local supermarket will include grilled salmon bentos, the ever-popular fried chicken kara-age bentos, and more. Plenty of staple Japanese dishes are packed into these bentos, so we recommend trying a bento box meal at least once during your stay.
We Also Recommend Station Bentos!
Another thing that you can’t forget when talking about bentos is the ekiben, or station bento box.
These extravagant bento boxes, which are sold at train stations, contain items which are made from locally-sourced ingredients, including meat dishes and many other delicious treats. There are so many different kinds of bentos, with all sorts of regional specialties, that you can’t even begin to count them. One regional specialty that features in station bento boxes is oshi-zushi (*1), a traditional preserved dish that has been made since olden times.
When traveling a long distance by train, station bentos are something to look forward to. The feeling you get when you gaze out at the scenery of your destination - while eating your bento - makes it taste even better. You will see these bentos at almost every station, so if you find one that interests you, by all means, taste it for yourself.
*1: Oshi-zushi is vinegared rice packed tightly into a box and covered with a topping. The box is then sealed by adding pressure. Oshi-zushi was created as a way to preserve food.