A list of articles about bento culture, especially in Japan.
My mother sent me photos of a gorgeous Mother’s Day bento my stepfather got for her (and for himself too of course!) yesterday. It’s from Hikagejaya, a restaurant in Hayama, a town near Kamakura in Kanagawa prefecture (where Yokohama, where my mom lives, is too). I’ve written about Hikagejaya  previously ; it’s one of my favorite restaurants in Japan, and their bentos are just wonderful.
It came in two layers in a faux wood bento box (I guess using real wood is not possible because of the price unfortunately). One had three kinds of rice - two of them, red bean rice (osekihan) and white rice molded together in kind of a yin-yang shape, and a bite sized horse mackerel (aji) sushi wrapped in the bamboo leaf, which I think is their signature.
The other compartment has a bewildering array of items - my mother said she counted about 30 in all; fried, simmered, grilled and so on. The green leaf is a tiny molded bit of broad bean (fava bean) puree covered with matcha and fried. Can you even imagine trying to make that yourself? I can’t .
I am planning to go back to Japan in the fall, hoping I’m strong enough to travel by then (I’m still need to work on my fitness level…you need to be pretty fit to get around in the Tokyo area) and I can’t wait to have another Hikagajaya bento myself then!
If you’d like to try their bentos, or their excellent restaurants (they have two, one a traditional Japanese one that has one Michelin star, and a French cafe) their website is in Japanese only  unfortunately, but they are easy to find in Hayama. They also have a little shop in Kamakura, where you can pick up a bento or an excellent super-buttery poundcake, and they also sell their bentos in the food hall at Yokohama Takashimaya.
Bentos are just starting to penetrate the consciousness of people outside of Japan, though judging from the growing interest in bento sites like this one and several others, it’s definitely trending up. However, the bento or obento (the more polite honorific term) in its many guises is an integral part of life in Japan. Here are the many different types of bento that a typical Japanese person might eat at different stages of life.
Pre-school institutions in Japan are nursery school (保育園 ほいくえん hoiku-en), which is for children aged about 2 to to 4, and kindergarten (幼稚園 ようちえん yoh-chi-en), for age 5 to 1st grade. Most pre-schools do not have school lunch facilities, so children are required to bring bentos for lunch. For mothers, making bentos every day for their children can be a stressful yet exciting challenge.
Some mothers (and even a couple of fathers) knock themselves out making charaben or kyaraben (キャラ弁）, those highly decorated, cute bentos that still get the lion’s share of attention outside of Japan when it comes to bentos. The most-often stated reason for charaben is to encourage picky eaters to eat their food, but I’ve always thought that their role as a creative outlet for the mothers, as well as the urge to compete against other kids’ bentos (and by extension, their mothers’ bento skills) are just as strong incentives. Every lunchtime can be a contest of sorts as to who has the cutest bento. There are also numerous formal contests that a charaben enthusiast can enter to win prizes, money and more.
Most elementary or primary schools (小学校 しょうがっこう shoh-gakkou) have school lunch programs, so mothers are relieved from everyday bento duty. However, bentos are still necessary for school outings (遠足 えんそく ensoku), which occur once or twice every school year. (Read about my ensoku bentos  when I was a kid, which were a lot simpler than this one.)
Another occasion when bentos are needed is the annual Sports Festival （運動会 うんどうかい undohkai). This is a school-wide event where the kids are divided into two teams, Red and White, and compete in various athletic events. Parents are supposed to attend, and at lunchtime the whole family sits somewhere within the school grounds and tucks into a big family bento. This is another opportunity for the creative bentoist to show his or her skills off.
And of course, during summer vacation the family might go on a trip to the mountains or the seaside, with some onigiri (rice balls) or even a picnic basket.
High school is divided into junior high, or middle school (中学校 ちゅがっこう chuugakkkoh) and senior high, or upper school (高校 こうこう kohkoh or 高等学校 こうとうがっこう kohtoh gakkoh). Many high schools don’t have cafeterias or school lunch programs, so it’s back to bento again. Boys of this age are growing rapidly and have huge appetites, so their mothers pack them big bentos (ドカ弁 dokaben). The boys are often still hungry, so they supplement their bentos with sweet (お菓子パン）or savory (おかずパン）filled breads like a yakisoba pan (a roll filled with fried noodles), anpan (a roll filled with sweet red bean paste), hotdogs and so on, bought at a convenience store or bakery.
Some girls are as hungry as the boys (especially if they participate in after-school sports) and require big bentos too, but others like small, pretty bentos that help them to watch their weight （ダイエット弁当, diet bento), made by their ever obliging mothers.
In Japan, the best way to assure future success in life is to enter a good university. Because of this, competition for entry into the best schools like Tokyo University is extremely fierce - so fierce in fact that if someone doesn’t get in on the first try (they can take the entrance exams in their last year of high school) they will try once, twice, even more times, going to exam prep schools. These in-between students are called 浪人生 (ろうにんせい rohninsei), which comes from the word 浪人 (ろうにん rohnin), which were what out-of-work samurai were called in the olden days.
Rohnin-sei, as well as college kids, have notoriously poor eating habits, especially the boys. These students rely a lot on what’s available at their local konbini (コンビニ, convenience store). Konbini stock a lot of readymade bentos. They aren’t necessarily healthy choices, since they tend to have a lot of deep fried or otherwise high-fat foods in them, but they are probably better than cup noodles and hamburgers.
Girls of this period in life might also go for pretty food with a pseudo-European flair. This is typically served at cafes and is called ‘Cafe style’. Cafe style bentos (カフェ弁当, cafe bento) come in alternate packaging and in small portions. There’s usually a dessert too. (For some reason, desserts, fruit and other sweet things are considered the domain of women in Japan, and not very manly.)
(See also: Take a virtual bento trip in Japan , a photo trip through a department store food hall’s bento section.)
After graduating from university, both single guys and girls continue to rely on konbini bento and the like for their sustenance, though many women, and some men, start making their own, health-conscious bentos. (Incidentally, this type of bento is what Just Bento is mostly about!)
Once they get married, a guy might be lucky enough to get a wife who takes the time to make him ‘Loving Wife Bento’, or 愛妻弁当 (あいさいべんとう aisai bento). These tend to be cute, colorful bentos, nutritonally balanced, often with little love messages (edible or not) in them - sort of a grown up version of charaben.
The honeymoon period does not last long for most couples.
When the kids come, there’s no time to make heart shapes on Dad’s bento, so his bentos become purely practical, tasty and nutritious. The thermal bento packed with hot rice (hokaben, ホカ弁）is popular amongst men of a certain age.
Also popular amongst those men of a certain age, but across all ages too, are train station bentos (駅弁, ekiben). Many people dream of taking a leisurely trip around the country, riding local rail lines and enjoying regional bentos. Most people don’t have that kind of time though, so they content themselves by buying ekiben in the food halls of department stores.
Once the kids are bigger, Mom has a bit more leisure time. She might take advantage of that by enjoying lunches out with her friends. They might enjoy an elegant bento lunch (幕の内弁当, makunouchi bento) at a traditional Japanese restaurant, but might keep it a secret from their husbands. These ladies of a certain age have a lot of influence on which restaurants become popular. (A cliché is that if you see a lot of middle-aged women at a restaurant around lunchtime, that place is bound to be good and a good value too.)
A retired couple, if they don’t get divorced (‘retirement divorce’ is an increasing phenomenon in Japan) have a lot more leisure time. With the kids grown up and hopefully gone (though many adult children in Japan continue to live with their parents, especially if unmarried) they can indulge in things like home delivered bento （お取り寄せ弁当） without breaking the bank.
The older a Japanese person gets, the more they tend to prefer simple, traditional food. Simple onigiri (rice balls) , perhaps filled with homemade umeboshi, are a perfect bento snack or lunch. In fact, onigiri are universally loved - they are soul food for Japanese people .
And just in case you were wondering, all of the bentos in the photos are Re-ment  miniatures.
One sign that bentos are becoming trendy, if they aren’t already, may be that they are being made into iPhone apps. There is of course the database app from FileMaker, Bento  (which messes up searches for bento recipes!), which uses the divided bento box as a metaphor for organizing data. But there are a few apps that actually use the edible box of food we love as the main theme.
First up is A Bento Box: Virtual Sushi, from Escape Plan B .
This is actually not a bento app - it’s a sushi-arranging app. The object of the game is to push items of sushi around in a ‘bento box’ (the kind you encounter in restaurants) until you’re happy. Then, you can save it to a gallery and use as wallpaper. It’s sort of pointless, but pretty, and you can marvel at the drag-and-drop action for the few minutes that you will enjoy it. For further use, it definitely needs more sushi items, but I’m not sure I’d want to actually shell out more money for them. (It’s rather similar in concept to a game that’s been eh, hot lately, Barbeque .) A Bento Box: Virtual Sushi is priced at $0.99.
Obento! is a much simpler app. You get a random bento box every time you start up the game. When you tap on each item in the bento box, you get a descrption of it. And…that’s about it really. The bento box does not even rotate. You can make screen shots using the iPhone’s built-in screen shot taking facility. The items are limited, but they encourage you to make requests for new items.
One big plus: As you can see, the illustrations are just super-cute. Obento! is also $0.99.
Last but not least is Charaben  by Hands-Aid Corporation. This is the one most likely to be of interest to Just Bento readers, since it features real charaben from some talented Japanese charaben/kyaraben artists. There is a menu of categories, from which you can navigate to individual bento photos and descriptions.
The bentos themselves are beautiful and very cute, there’s no question of that. You can rotate to landscape mode to see the bentos in more detail. But I do have some problems with Charaben. First and most seriously, the translations are inadequate for a non-Japanese audience. Take a look at the following screen shots:
The leftside panel shows a nice photo of the lady who presumably supervised the selection of bentos in the app, Yuko Tokumitsu aka Muku, a well known charaben artist, teacher and blogger (her blog in Japanese ; I’ll review her book shortly on these pages). It describes her as a ‘Charisma Character Food Artist’. You’re probably thinking, “huh?” because Charisma (pronounced karisuma) something or other is wasei eigo （和製英語）- an English phrase that has been imported into Japanese and its meaning totally twisted around from the original. Basically it means she’s a well known ‘expert’ in her field. The rightside panel shows the description of the Santa Bento. I can imagine someone unfamiliar with Japanese ingredients being totally puzzled by this. What seaweed? Fishcakes? Sausage - what kind of sausage? You get the idea. This is a problem that is shared by direct translations of Japanese cookbooks too, but exacerbated here because of the limited space. Perhaps a glossary would help some. (There is a Japanese version of the Charaben app, but I can’t purchase it since it’s only available from the Japanese iTunes store.)
Some other quibbles with the app: While it acknowledges the contributors by their online nicknames, it doesn’t link to their websites. Also, on the About page there is a “book recommendation” for two bento books from a certain publisher. It seems like an ad for those books, which makes me wonder if the publisher was sponsoring this app - and if so, why are we being charged for it at all? As it is, the app is priced at $2.99, but there is a free Lite version that you can check out to see if you want to buy the full app. It does provide a lot of nice bento eye candy.
What would be in your ideal bento-themed app?
(First off, my apologies for the long silence around here. I’ve been terribly sick since getting back from Japan last week, due to a bad cold that I seem to have picked up on the long journey home. I’m slowly getting back into the swing of things though. Anyway, back to bentos!)
I’ve always contemplated getting a Japan Rail (JR) Pass  to do some extended travel around Japan by train, but until this most recent trip back I’ve never done so, due to time and budgetary constraints. This time around, I knew that there were two long trips on the Shinkansen bullet train in the works, so I took that as an excuse to splurge on a 14-day JR Pass. I didn’t ride the rails every single day of those 14 days, but I did take several trips and got to see parts of Japan that I’d never seen before. And of course, I indulged in several ekiben or station bentos along the way.
I’ve talked briefly about ekiben before. Of all the different manifestations of bentos that exist in Japan, ekiben occupy a special place. They’re not just dull meals to fill up hungry travelers, like airline meals or the boring sandwiches and such that you get on European trains. The best ekiben provide a small window into the regional cuisine and culture of the place where the bento is produced. The people who make and sell these bentos do so with great thought and pride in what they do. They’re regarded as a means of drawing tourists and bringing fame and fortune to the region. For travellers, they’re just plain fun.
In urban areas, ekiben are sold mainly at train stations with long-distance trains going in and out. You won’t find ekiben at stations with only regional commuter lines or subway/metro lines. So for example, while Tokyo Station has hundreds of ekiben for sale by multiple vendors, Ginza Station has none (or just a couple that target residents and commuters). Out in the countryside, you may find ekiben for sale at larger train stations on local lines, though the number of really regional ekiben sellers is sadly dwindling.
If you’re taking the Shinkansen anywhere, you will be spoiled for choice when it comes to bentos. Every Shinkansen platform has at least one store or pushcart selling ekiben. Here’s an ekiben kiosk at Tokyo Station.
Here’s one at Sendai Station, with the nose of a Shinkansen train passing by.
And this more elaborate booth is at Morioka Station in Iwate prefecture up north.
You can also find other ekiben vendors along the corridors going to the platform, as well as in the shopping malls and depachika (department store food halls) that are attached to large train stations. And if you forget or just don’t have the time to buy one before you get on the train, don’t worry - most long distance trains, including the Shinkansen, sell bentos, snacks and beverages from food trolleys on board.
Soraben (空弁) are basically ekiben that are sold at airports (kuukou) rather than stations (eki). In the Tokyo area Haneda airport has far more ekiben sellers than Narita does. Presumably domestic travellers buy bentos more than international ones. (Note: Haneda has recently resumed international flights.)
Buying ekiben is simplicity itself. They are set up to be easy to choose and just grab and go. More often than not you’ll see a display of the bentos for sale, either the real thing or plastic models, with prices clearly marked. All you have to do is point and buy. This is the display at Morioka Station.
Prices range from as low as 300 yen for a small snack bento to above 3000 yen for elaborate bentos. Most full meal size bentos are in the 700 to 1200 yen range.
Yes - in Japanese only though. You don’t really need one unless you are dead serious about trying particular ekiben. Just grab what appeals to you, or ask someone from the area what they recommend.
Most ekiben are rice based, but you can also find noodle bentos, dumplings and more. You can also go for sandwiches, donuts or sweet pastries at the bakery/coffee stalls if you wish.
Anything that is sold at a Japanese kiosk or from a vending machine is available, from hot or cold teas or coffees to soft drinks and more. You can also buy beer, sake and other alcoholic beverages. (If you’re on a long distance train at night, you may encounter people eating ekiben and getting tipsy. Most of the time they don’t get drunk enough to be bothersome.)
These are just some of the ones that I had in the past few weeks. I think I have a few thousand more to go before I’ve tried every single ekiben in Japan. Not only do I love eating ekiben, they also give me tons of ideas for homemade bentos.
These are small snack bentos (4-600 yen each) that we ate for breakfast on an early morning Shinkansen departing from Tokyo Station. There’s a packet of 3 onigiri wrapped in a real bamboo leaf, and a packet of delicate ham and butter sandwiches in a pretty retro design box.
The sandwiches may look boring, but were really delicious. The box proudly proclaimed the provenance of the ham used (kurobuta pork cured by an old charcuterie in Kamakura).
This is a bento sold at a regional train station, Ohdate in Akita prefecture. It’s called torimeshi bento (chicken-rice bento) and is so famous that people make a detour to Ohdate just to pick up these bentos. They feature free range happy chicken meat cooked in a soy sauce-based sauce in rice. This huge, filling and delicious bento is just 850 yen (about US $10).
This is a wappameshi bento, packed in a wappa or bent “wood” box, also from Akita. (Sadly the box isn’t made of wood, but of disposable wood grain-printed styrofoam.) The actual contents look remarkably like the photo on the kakeshi or paper wrapping. There’s a bed of delicious akitakomachi rice under all the goodies you see. It, too, was delicious, if a trifle salty.
This is a yakisoba (stir fried noodle) bento, with a twist. When you pull on a string on the side of the bento box, the box heats up with a whooshing sound. It sounds good in theory, but in practice the box gets a bit too hot to handle with bare hands or balance on ones knee, while the insides don’t get that hot. Plus, it makes the whole train compartment starts to smell like halfway-heated noodles, which may not be appreciated by your fellow passengers. At least it was fairly tasty, filling and cheap (800 yen).
On the other end of the price scale is this elaborate bento for two, purchased at Kyoto Station. It cost 3200 yen or so, but was worth it I think - it was so beautiful and delicious.
Here are several sushi bentos. Most sushi sold as ekiben features cooked or processed (salted, marinated, smoked, etc.) fish. If raw fish sushi is sold, you’re reminded several times to eat it right away. This temarizushi bento from Kyoto Station is a favorite that I keep going back to again and again. It’s about 1300 yen. (Yes, Kyoto tends to be more expensive.)
This is a kanizushi (crabmeat sushi) bento bought and consumed on the Hokuriku Honsen line going from Kanazawa to Echigo Yuzawa, along the Japan Sea side of the country. It’s a chirashizushi - a bed of sushi rice with tons of sweet cooked crabmeat on top. I thought about saving the cute crab shaped baran, but it was a bit too crabby.
This is another kind of ekiben sushi, oshizushi (pressed sushi) purchased at Matsumoto Station, in Nagano prefecture. All the fish used here is pre-processed (salted or marinated in vinegar). Each piece is wrapped individually in plastic, which isn’t too eco-friendly, but is handy if you’re too full to finish the sushi in one go.
These little wrapped sushi are a definite step up. They are wrapped in fresh persimmon (kaki) leaves and are called kaki no ha sushi. They’re from Kyoto Station again, from the Isetan department store food hall. Each one features a small square of pressed sushi rice topped with a piece of crabmeat, cured salmon, omelette and so on.
And finally, here’s the ekiben that is still my favorite - the scallop rice bento from Kiyoken in Yokohama, featured here in detail . I like it so much because it’s so well balanced, and even includes a little dessert. It’s available at Yokohama and Shin Yokohama stations and is 980 yen.
So there you have it. I hope that it gives you some inkling as to the variety of ekiben available. If you decide to go on an ekiben trip of your own after reading this, please let me know. ^_^
I’m back from Japan after a 3 month stay, minus an unplanned trip to New York for a family emergency in February. The first part of my stay was totally taken up by keeping my just-out-of-hospital mother company, as well as work for my upcoming book , including a marathon photo session and lots of editing and re-writing work. (Incidentally, the book now has an official title: The Just Bento Cookbook. I know, not that imaginative, but straightforward, yes? I’ll put up an image of the front cover as soon as it’s available!) Then there was that emergency trip to New York. So couldn’t get all the things done that I wanted to, but I did get to do quite a lot of research related to bentos. See my Bento supplies shopping guide in Japan  for example, which involved dozens of trips to various stores. I did get to do a little sightseeing, mostly in the Tokyo-Yokohama area, but I also spent a week in Kyoto. I’m posting my trip reports over rather slowly over on Just Hungry .
One conviction that I came back with, and a principle that has guided this site since its inception, as well as the content of my bento book, is that for those of us who live outside of Japan, a bento is not about trying to emulate made-in-Japan, Japanese bentos. It’s about taking the concept of a healthy, homemade (or at least mostly homemade) meal that is packed into a compact, portable box so that it appears delicious and appetizing several hours later. Of course I do and will continue to post bento-friendly Japanese recipes to this site, as well as general Japanese recipes to Just Hungry  - after all I am Japanese, and many Japanese recipes are of course very bento-appropriate, and are easy to make even outside of Japan. But many more foods that are just taken for granted in Japan are either hard, or even impossible, to find outside of it (except in some regions with large Japanese immigrant or expat populations), or are simply too expensive. While it’s fun to emulate ‘authentic’ Japanese flavors once in a while, bentos should, in my opinion, be above all practical and economical.
So, I have a renewed enthusiasm for finding or coming up with recipes that are not necessarily Japanese, but are still great for packing into that little box - as well as adapting the ingredients that we can get easily to Japanese cooking methods and flavors. I hope that you’ll find it fun to come along with me on that journey!
By the way, as I mentioned earlier, the photos for the book were all shot during a 2-day marathon session in February. I had to shop for and prepare all of the food by myself basically. Almost half of the recipes are not Japanese, and I’d devised them while living here in Europe as well as a few weeks I spent last year in New York visiting my dad. (The kind of vegetables sold in western Europe and the east coast of the U.S. are fairly similar.) I was careful to stick to widely available, not too expensive ingredients of course.
But that became an issue in Japan, especially in February. Things like zucchini, bell peppers, and even celery stalks were prohibitively expensive. A plain old greenhouse-grown pepper, which even in Switzerland (often cited as a very expensive place to live) is only about $3 for three big ones, costs 200 to 300 yen each ($2.20 to $3.30 or so). A single celery stalk (yes…a single celery stalk) is around the same price. And zucchini, a vegetable that is a perennial standby for me, was an astonishing 300 yen ($3.30) for a single, smallish fruit. (Note: they were still around that price in the 2nd week of April, shortly before I left.) On the other hand, in-season, fairly locally grown vegetables like turnips, spinach and daikon radish were cheap and delicious. Button mushrooms are expensive and sold arranged like little jewels in a single layer, while shiitake mushrooms are sold in sacks for a lot less.
I guess the moral of this story is that the availability issue goes both ways, at least for those of us on a budget!
Regular readers of JustBento may know that I like to report on takeout bentos  in Japan and elsewhere, wherever my travels take me. Takeout bentos differ from homemade bentos, but there’s plenty to learn from them too in terms of presentation, flavor and ingredient combinations, and so on, especially in Japan, where bentos are sold everywhere.
Previously I’ve shown you the bentos available at a local supermarket , from 7-11  (a konbini or convenience store), and an ekiben or ‘station bento’/department food hall bento from a famous Yokohama vendor . The ones I’m showing you today are even higher up the bento scale in terms of taste, presentation and price. We bought them in the ancient historic city of Kamakura , which is just a short train ride away from Yokohama (and is about an hour away from central Tokyo), but they are actually made in the nearby town of Hayama, by a famous tea shop/cafe called Hikagejaya or Hikage Chaya (Japanese only website ). We were in Kamakura for a workshop and were in a bit of a hurry, so we ate these bentos sitting on a bench.
You can tell even before opening them that these are a bit more special than the bentos I’ve shown previously. They are packaged in disposable bento boxes made from takekawa, the outer husk of large bamboo shoots. The bigger box uses the takekawa in large sheets, and the smaller box is woven with thin strips of it. Both boxes are sewn around the edges with cotton thread. I liked them so much that I brought them home with me. They are really lightweight but quite stable, and of course biodegradeable.
We bought a Hanagoyomi bento (Flower Almanac Bento), which was 2100 yen (about US $27), and a Katsuo Gohan bento (Bonito Rice Bento), 1360 yen (US$17). The bentos change according to the season, so you may not be able to get these exact bentos, but you can see the quality. They may seem quite expensive for takeout bentos, but they are worth every yen. Take a look at the oshinagaki or list of contents for the hanagoyomi bento for example. (Sorry the paper is all scrunched up - I rescued it when it was about to be thrown away!)
It lists 23 different items. I don’t even know what some of them are exactly, but there was chestnut rice (kuri gohan), a rice-cracker coated fried shrimp, tamagoyaki of course, simmered satoimo (taro) and satsumaimo (sweet potato), a tiny seafood salad of sorts packed into a sudachi (a type of citrus), a tiny grilled eggplant, and even two bitesized grilled aji (horse mackerel) sushi. It tasted as good as it looks.
The simpler katsuo gohan bento was just as good. The rice was the star here for sure - sweet-salty bonito fish cooked with rice, formed into small cylindrical onigiri. I’ll have to figure out how to reproduce that flavor somehow - it was so good. There was also a plain shinmai (new harvest rice) onigiri, which was just as delicious.
You can get bentos like this all over Japan. There’s so much else here that is good to eat that it’s hard to justify just living off of bentos, but it sure is tempting to contemplate that possibility. Maybe next time when I can finally drag The Guy along with me, we’ll do a bento-fest trip around the country. Or…maybe a JustBento reader trip someday? ^_^
Incidentally, I don’t have a lot of photos to show of Kamakura since I wasn’t there for sightseeing, but I’ll try to go back there before I leave Japan. It is well worth a trip if you’re in the Tokyo area and are interested in Japanese history.
I’m busy getting ready for the photo shoot for the bento cookbook, which starts next week, so I don’t have a lot of time for long posts at the moment. So I thought I’d do a brief write up of this bento I had for lunch today. It’s a good example of a higher-end takeout bento, of the kind you might buy in the food hall of a department store, at specialized stores or stalls in the bigger train stations, and so on. They are of a much better class of bento than supermarket bentos  or combini bentos . They are also more expensive of course - the one here is 1,000 yen, compared to the 400-600 yen you might spend for a supermarket or combini bento.
This bento is from a famous Yokohama establishment called Kiyoken, spelled in kanji 崎陽軒 (Japanese only website ). Their primary claim to fame is shumai/siumai dumplings, but they also make other foods, including bentos. Kiyoken bentos and shumai dumpling gift sets are available in some department store food halls (I got mine in the fabulous food hall of the Yokohama Takashimaya department store, of which I’ll have a lot more at a later time), as well as several major train stations in the Tokyo/Kanto region, including Tokyo, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Shinagawa, Shin Yokohama and of course Yokohama stations.
The hexagonal bento box is held together with a gold elastic band. The box is made of microwaveable polyurethane type material that is printed with fake wood grain. (I guess real wood is too expensive these days…) The lid is printed with the name of the bento (Hotate Gohan Bento) and the Kiyoken name/logo.
So let’s open up the box…
The contents are protected by a thin plastic sheet that is stuck onto the rim of the lid. Chopsticks and a smal otefuki (moistened napkin) are included.
In the leftside top section are: Two of Kiyoken’s famous shumai dumplings, a piece of salted salmon, some kind of sesame-flavored side dish with crabstick (surimi), a small soy sauce bottle and a mustard packet for the shumai. In the rightside top section: A tiny pink gyuuhi maki (mochi dumpling filled with sweet azuki paste), a whole fried shrimp, a steamed satoimo (taro root) with miso, stewed carrot (cut into a flower shape of course), shiitake mushroom, konnyaku and whole scallop, and a small tamagoyaki. In the center compartment is a shrimp mixture wrapped and steamed in a yuba (a type of slightly chewy tofu skin). And in the big compartment is some steamed sweet or mochi rice that was redolent with the flavor of scallops, the star of this bento.
The bento was absolutely delicious, and well worth the 1,000 yen price. Here’s a closeup of the shumai:
The tiny dessert dumpling perfectly formed, soft and sweet without being cloying.
When you consider the price of eating lunch in any major city, 1,000 yen doesn’t really seem that high to me - what do you think?
Way back in January when I posted my first Bento Tidbits from Japan  article, Jason asked about  the availability of ready made bento components. There are many traditional food products that are used in bentos with no or minimal cooking, such as furikake and pickles, but I went looking for things that are usually home made and are available readymade at a regular supermarket. Basically, it’s possible for someone in Japan to assemble a complete bento without cooking anything barely, should they want to, using pre-cooked, pre-packaged foods from the supermarket - and, I guess, call it a homemade bento.
Let’s start with the rice, the basic staple of a Japanese meal. Here are some ready-to-microwave precooked, vacuum packed rice packets. These no-refrigeration needed rice packets are available in the U.S.  and elsewhere too. Quite convenient, though rather expensive compared to cooking your own. Besides plain white rice, brown rice and various mixed rices are available.
Ready-to-eat fried foods have been around for ages; korokke (croquettes), menchikatsu  (breaded and deep-fried hamburger steaks), tonkatsu  (fried pork cutlets) and so on. Readymade foods like this are called osouzai (お惣菜), and every supermarket and department store food hall has a big section dedicated to them.
Here are some pre-portioned osouzai from the refrigerated section of 7-11 - a packet of meatballs in sauce, and potato salad. (They also have things like stewed chicken and vegetables and braised pork belly .) Each packet is priced at around 100 to 150 yen, and last for a week refrigerated and unopened. Very handy - and not that bad actually.
The frozen food section is stacked with all kinds of ready-to-go foods for bentos. Here’s some breaded fried fish with egg, and heat-and-go chicken karaage .
Looser foods come pre-packaged in paper cups. Many don’t even require heating up in the morning - they can be packed frozen in a bento box. Here you see some butter-sautéed spinach and corn, kaki-age (a kind of tempura), yakisoba noodles, and pre-flavored spaghetti, all in ready-to-pack paper cups.
Frozen Spaghetti Napolitan , a favorite with Japanese kids. The serving suggestion on the bottom half of the package says to stuff the pasta into a bread roll. Mmm, double-carbs. (This kind of noodle-stuffed sandwich is quite popular in Japan.)
A creamy gratin in a cup…also ready to pack and go, says the package. Defrosted cold cream sauce…yummy. (Yes I’m being sarcastic.)
Even charaben parts are available ready to go. For instance, those tiny cute quail eggs - so fiddly to peel, yes? No worries, you can buy them precooked and packed in water.
Here’s some cute cheese-and-kamaboko (fish paste) rolls…
Speaking of kamaboko…how about a kamaboko with Pikachu’s face in every slice? Instant kawaii for your little one’s bento box. (You can see some Minnie Mouse kamaboko on the bottom shelf too.)
I actually bought one of these decorative kamaboko…one where each slice is a little pig face. The top part even has ears. The taste? Well….
When the kamaboko is sliced, indeed each slice is a little pig face. Aww.
Moving on to another charaben standby, tiny sausages. These ones (which I previously uploaded to flickr) are just plain sausages with clever, Hello Kitty packaging….
These ones go a step further: the casing is printed with an image of Kamen Rider , an old time favorite superhero, especially with boys. (You are supposed to only cook them carefully on the other, unprinted side, to preserve the printed image.)
Hmm, these tiny sausages remind me of the ones I’ve seen in a certain American lunch product…
But the ultimate charaben wee sausage has to be the tako (octopus) wiener. And, yes, they too are available ready-made.
This is how they look straight out of the package.
And, after a couple of minutes in a frying pan, this is how they are transformed. They even have eye-holes.
The taste? Well…they look about as good as they taste, and vice versa. I cooked them in a dry (non-oiled) frying pan. The oil and that red stuff came out of the sausages.
Do Japanese moms (or wives, or dads) make bentos entirely out of these ready-made components? Probably not, but the fact that so many of these things are available shows that there is a demand for them. In fact, companies like Ajinomoto (maker of many frozen foods) regularly popular charaben bloggers to make bentos featuring their products.
So, the next time you read somewhere that all Japanese mothers spend hours lovingly creating homemade, healthy bentos in the morning…you’ll know that that’s not always the case.
What do you think? Would you use such products in your bentos? What kinds of readymade bento components do you wish were easily available to you?
I am not quite sure what to make of the Michelin Red Guides for areas other than Europe. I think they still remain relevant and important for sussing out the best restaurants and hotels in France and elsewhere on the continent, but for other areas? In any case, they do manage to get a lot of PR whenever they produce a new yearly guide. For the 5th year in a row Tokyo has more 3-star restaurants than Paris  and Japan has more 3-stars than France . The latter is pretty remarkable considering that the France guide covers every nook and cranny of the country, while the Japan guides only cover two regions, albeit the most populated ones (the Kansai area, mainly Osaka and Kyoto, and the Tokyo metropolitan area of Tokyo, Yokohama, and the Shonan area).
So what do Michelin stars have to do with bentos? If you are looking to sample the wares of some of those fine starred restaurants relatively inexpensively, look for the bentos that they sell - usually in the food halls of the top department stores in their respective areas. In the following Japanese news report, one of my favorite restaurants, Hikagejaya or Hikage Chaya, which is located in Hayama, a town near Kamakura and Shonan, (about 30 minutes by train from Yokohama) is featured from around the 0:40 mark. They have one Michelin star. (By the way, the bento in the video is a shokado-type bento that is meant to be eaten in-house, not taken out.)
A multicourse dinner at Hikagejaya is not cheap, but you can get a taste of their food by ordering a bento. They sell their bentos in Kamakura, as well as the food halls of the Yokohama Takashimaya department store on occasion.
I’ve featured one of Hikagejaya’s bentos here before . Here’s another one from early June.
The bento is in a dried bamboo-leaf box again - traditional and eco-friendly - and covered with a blue-green washi paper, very appropriate for the season. (June is the rainy season in Japan.)
Open up the box…and it’s full of seasonal tidbits. The marinated young ginger shoot dominates, and there’s also young sweet carrot, baby eggplant, and early edamame. You may notice the stem of a young green bamboo leaf sticking out in the middle…
…that is a little packet, that contains…
…a perfectly formed temarizushi , made with marinated white fish (I forgot to note down the kind of fish, sorry!).
One more detail: every bento has to have a piece of tamagoyaki, and theirs is branded with their name in hiragana, saying higage. Note that the brand is on the cut side, so the chef has to slice the tamagoyaki and carefully brand each piece precisely. Wonderful.
The prices for Hikagejaya’s bentos range from around 2500 yen to 3500 yen - not cheap, but much more affordable than going to their restaurant. (Some fine-dining restaurant bentos are way more expensive, especially in Kyoto - but still cheaper than dining in!) As I’ve mentioned, many other restaurants sell bento lunches at local department stores (not necessarily from the restaurant premises themselves, though a few do). So, next time you’re in Japan, keep an eye out for high-class bentos from top restaurants!
In April, I had the opportunity to pay a visit to one of my favorite Japanese bento box makers. Hakoya  (Tatsumiya K.K.) is located in Kaga Onsen, a quiet town in Ishikawa prefecture, Japan, on the Japan Sea side of the main island of Honshu. Kaga Onsen is known for two things: its hot springs (‘onsen’ means hot springs in Japanese), and fine lacquerware. Founded right after the end of World War II by a refugee from burnt out Tokyo, Hakoya specializes in the manufacture of plastic dinnerware using the traditional, labor-intensive methods used for wooden lacquerware. For the last couple of years they’ve been concentrating more and more on bento boxes. If you have been making bentos for any length of time, or just looking at the bento boxes that are available, you have probably encountered the beautiful boxes made by Hakoya.
If you’ve never compared a Hakoya box to the cheaper plastic bento boxes, you might wonder why they can cost 2-3 times or more. Once you’ve handled one and seen the quality, it is quite obvious. And the way in which they are made is really impressive. While they are plastic, they are not just spit off some assembly line. Hakoya does not have a big factory; their boxes are made by about 30 small subcontractors or shitauke gyousha, skilled artisans who work with small, specialized equipment.
For instance, the deep, lacquered look of their more traditionally designed boxes is achieved by applying multiple layers of food-safe lacquer. The color is not just flat, since it’s applied individually. Here is one of the small workshops, where a mother assists her son, who’s airbrushing each box with precision.
Here you can see how deep and rich the layers of colors are. Unless you hold it in your hands it is difficult to tell it apart from lacquered wood.
Here’s a rack of finished boxes, ready to be put in a special kiln for drying. It’s hard to imagine this is a ‘just’ plastic.
The colorful, sometimes complicated designs on the boxes are silkscreened. Here is Mr. Eno, who is a makie-shi or master silkscreen craftsman, at work. He cuts the screens himself; each color requires its own screen. He’s been a makie-shi for more than 35 years, and his workshop is basically the front room of his house. His wife assists him there, mixing colors and so on.
Here are some finished lids. It’s hard to see from the photo, but parts of the flower design have some irridescent color that is slightly raised, adding texture and substance to the design. If there’s even a tiny flaw, it doesn’t make it out of Mr. Eno’s workshop.
Here are some of the Hakoya products displayed in their showroom. These brightly colored, modern ones are a fairly new line.
These gorgeous traditional design boxes are really tactile. They look almost as good as wooden lacquerware, and are much more practical.
Here are some boxes that are silkscreened with a woodgrain pattern that looks just like wood. You can only tell it’s not wood when you pick it up.
You may have seen these kokeshi doll shaped boxes  on the various bento seller sites. They are silkscreened in Mr. Eno’s workshop in fact, using a special press that can print precisely on rounded objects. Aren’t they adorable?
I loved these onigiri boxes, printed with typical onigiri fillings. (I did actually buy a set later on at a store and they’re now in my collection ^_^)
I also loved the ’70s-retro vibe of these flower pattern ones. Hakoya mostly does original designs (rather than say, licensed images from other companies). It’s really nice to see the mix of traditional and modern colors and designs.
I asked Mr. Saikan, managing directory of Hakoya, what the trends were in bento boxes. He said that in terms of functionality, they are moving towards making most of their boxes totally microwave-safe, by using silicone for flexible elements and so on (currently most of their boxes are only microwave safe if you remove the upper and inner lids). Colorful ‘pop’ colors are popular, but traditional designs continue to sell. His company is always trying to stay ahead of their less expensive competitors. He said, and rightly so I believe, that once holds one of their boxes in their hands and compares it to a cheaper model, the difference in quality is obvious.
To me, the way Hakoya operates is quite typical of a fine quality Japanese company. Skilled tasks are done by skilled, experienced artisans, with great attention to detail. Everyone I met had obvious pride in what they produced. It was really lovely to see.
Many thanks to Mr. Keiichi Saikan of Hakoya for showing us around all day, as well as to the artisans we met. Merci beaucoup to Thomas Bertrand of Bento&co  for the introduction also!
[Update: Here finally is the next Great Bento Makers article: Yoshinobu Shibata Shoten  in northen Akita. Enjoy!]
Odate (pronounced oh-dateh) in the northern prefecture of Akita near the border to Aomori prefecture, is a quiet, rather nondescript town. There are no must-see tourist attractions to speak of, though it’s surrounded by some beautiful scenery, and not even much of a history as a town - it was only formed in 1951, by consolidating several villages. However, Odate and its immediate area are known as being the original spot for some famous things: Akita-ken, perhaps the most famous kind of Japanese dog breed; hinai-dori, a very tasty kind of freerange chicken; and kiritanpo, a pounded rice dumpling on a stick. Perhaps most important of all is the dentou kougeihin or Traditional Japanese Craft designation given to Odate magewappa by METI  (the Ministry of Economics, Trade and Industry).
A magewappa is a bent wood item or container, made by soaking or steaming long strips of wood and bending it into circular shapes. Odate magewappa is made from the indigenous Akita sugi (often called Akita cedar, though botanically it’s a cryptomeria ). A magewappa bento box is considered by many Japanese people to be the best container of all for a rice-based bento, since the uncoated Akita sugi wood makes plain rice taste wonderful.
There are several manufacturers of magewappa in Odate, but arguably the best of them all is mayde in this small workshop that is as plain and unassuming as the town they reside in. It belongs to the Shibata Yoshinobu Shoten.
The boss is Mr. Yoshinobu Shibata, who at the age of 71 is still hale and hearty. He no longer sits in the workshop every day, but does make the occasional special item for some favored customers. His sons now run the day-to-day operations, though Mr. Shibata still travels around the country for the various ‘traditional wares’ fares held in department stores, where most such craft items are sold these days.
When I took his picture, he was sitting in the small office of the workshop, one wall of which is taken up not by product samples, but by a big shelf filled with bent-wood items from around the world. Some he’s collected during his travels around world, and some have been sent to him by his many fans; painted boxes from Scandinavia, drums from Africa, milk pails from eastern Europe, a Shaker sewing box from America.
Mr. Shibata has been fascinated by bent wood for almost his whole life. The operation is not a family business he inherited; he was a farmer’s son. But he was captured by the magic of magewappa in his youth, which at the time was a slowly dying craft, and he was determined to preserve the tradition. So he opened his workshop in 1964.
Unlike many other magewappa manufacturers, even those in Odate, Shibata Yoshinobu Shoten does not use mass-production machinery. Each strip of wood is cut, planed and steamed using rather primitive equipment, by one skilled workman. This means that the sides of a typical Shibata Yoshinobu box is thicker and more substantial in feeling than their machine-made counterparts.
Here’s an ohitsu (rice container) split into two to show the construction of a magewappa piece - and the lovely wood grain of the Akita sugi.
Shibata Yoshinobu Shoten is in fact a very well known company, regarded as one of the best magewappa makers in Japan, if not the best. They have exhibited at several exhibitions worldwide, and won numerous awards. Yet, in their tiny workshop each piece is still put together painstakingly by hand. The workers mostly sit on zabuton (floor mats), face masks and hand towels (tenugui) or scarves protecting their hair and faces from the dust, working in a serene silence, oblivious to the chaotic piles of items all around them, with only the sound of a kettle gently puffing away an old kerosene heater as their background music.
In the olden days, the bent sugi wood was secured simply by threading through and typing thin, tough strips of cherry tree bark. These days, for the sake of durability and practicality the wood is secured with food safe glue - otherwise the sides had a tendency to slowly separate if treated roughly. However, the cherry tree bark lacing is still applied for decorative purposes. Functionally it’s no longer necessary, but it adds a feeling of tension and completeness to magewappa piece. A tiny young woman applies the lacing to most of the magewappa wares that emerge from the workshop.
The hands holding this beautiful box belong to one of Mr. Yoshinobu Shibata’s daughter-in-laws, who runs the front office and answers all emails, showed me around the workshop. This is a true family business.
A common question asked about these bare-wood magewappa boxes is, how does one take care of them? How long do they last? They are surprisingly durable. In the front office/reception area, they had on display two models of the same bento box, the Tsukushi model, named after Mr. Shibata’s first granddaughter. The one of the left is brand new and have never been used. The one of the right is about 10 years old. It has been in heavy use, and scrubbed with a tawashi natural bristle scrubber, then always left to dry completely. (A nylon brush will do the job too.) The wood has darkened and the grain become more prominent, but the box still looks beautiful. The idea is to enjoy the way the wood changes over the years, as its lovingly used and washed again and again.
Odate is frankly a bit hard to get to - from Tokyo you have to take the Shinkansen, then either take two local trains or a long distance bus. But to see the full range of what Shibata Yoshinobu has to offer you only have to go to their small boutique just steps away from the famous Kaminari-mon in Asakusa. The banner on the front of their store says “From Parent to Child, from Child to Grandchild / Odate Magewappa / Shibata Yoshinobu Shoten”.
Bento boxes make up about half of their lineup, and start at around 8000 yen and go up from there. Most are bare wood, but some are lacquered.
Besides bento boxes, the store also carries traditional implements like rice containers, as well as modern items like a small butter container and a bread plate, both of which won a prestigous Good Design award  this year, as did some of their bento boxes . All the shapes are timeless, fitting just about anywhere I think. I have an aunt who has a treasured collection of Shibata Yoshinobu items taking up a whole shelf unit. They are that addictive.
Besides the Asakusa store, Shibata Yoshinobu Shoten has a permanent store within the Nihonbashi Mitsukoshi store, and they also make frequent appearances at traditional craft fairs held in department stores nationwide. The schedule is posted on their website , which is in Japanese only unfortunately.
I don’t know if they will ever start to sell their products overseas. I got the feeling that they are operating more or less at capacity at the moment. But who knows? Their magewappa boxes cost 2-3 times what other magewappa boxes do, but they just as much works of art as they are…boxes. I’m very slowly building up a Shibata Yoshinobu collection myself, though it’s quite slow going. And when I donated a box from my collection  to raise money for Bento4Japan earlier this year, it fetched an amazing US $380. Traditional handcrafts are disappearing from our world so fast, that I feel that if it’s within our power to do so, we need to support them as much as we can.
This was actually part 2 of a sporadic series about great bento box makers in Japan. Part 1 was about Hakoya . Whether they are working with humble plastic or fine wood, Japanese craftsmen and women take a lot of pride in what they do. A bento box may be just a food container to some, but to me they mean quite a lot more.
(I visited the Yoshinobu Shibata workshop in Odate last year. It’s taken me a full year to write this article! Many thanks to Mr. Yoshinobu Shibata and the entire Shibata family as well as the staff at the Asakusa store for their kind cooperation. I can’t wait to go back to get another piece for my collection.)
I’ve marked the location of the Shibata Yoshinobu Asakusa store on my Google map of Tokyo shopping destinations . The address is:
Tel&Fax : 03-6231-6477
Hours : 10:30～19:00
It is just down the street from Kaminari-mon , so if you are asking for direction, ask where Kaminari-mon is, then go down the street with Kaminari-mon to your right.
Nihonbashi Mitsukoshi is a huge department store. Just go to the Nihonbashi station (several metro lines stop there) and follow the signs, or just ask for directions.
Shibata Yoshinobu products are carried by several boutiques, but for the most complete selection of products, I recommend going to the Asakusa store or Mitsukoshi.
A new movie opened in Japan in late September called Nonchan Noriben (the rather sparse listing on IMDB ). Here’s a trailer:
The Nonchan part of the title is the name of the little daughter of the main character, Komaki. The Noriben part of the title refers to the name of a classic type of bento. I explained how a noriben is made here , as well as a little bit of the culture behind it. Basically, any bento consisting of layers of rice and nori seaweed is a noriben.
Back to the movie. I haven’t seen it yet of course, but I was a bit surprised that it got made into a movie at all. It’s based on a manga series from the late ’90s with the same title, which was serialized in Morning magazine for 3 years, but never actually came to a real conclusion. Despite that, it’s been made into a TV drama series too. It does have a sort of downtown, warm and fuzzy feel to it that appeals as a subject for “home” dramas and comedies.
Komaki is a 31 year old housewife, who decides to leave her no-good lazy husband and go back home to live with her mother, with her little kindergarten aged daughter Nonchan in tow. Komaki needs to find a job, but she has no skills to speak of - but she is a great home cook. One day, she eats some saba no miso ni (mackerel cooked in miso)  at a small restaurant called Totoya, and is totally inspired by how delicious it is. She begs the owner chef to let her work there. In the meantime, she makes delicious bentos for her daugther Nonchan to bring to kindergarten. Unlike the cute charaben her classmates bring, Nonchan’s bentos are pretty plain looking and traditional, but so delicious. Her favorite is noriben. Komaki finds inspiration for her ‘life work’ - to open a takeout bento store, to make people happy with delicious bentos. Will she fulfill her dream?
The food in the movie is as much of a star as any of the actors it seems. The food stylist who worked on the movie, Nami Iijima, is a bit of a celebrity in her own right in Japan; she’s worked on other food-centric movies such as Kamome Shokudo (Seagull Diner) , and has several popular cookbooks out. Here’s a segment from a Japanese talk show highlighting the role of the food in Nonchan Noriben. One interesting fact: Some of the dishes are explained in little animated segments inserted throughout this live-action movie. Also interesting I thought: The audition for the role of Nonchan was making the child actors eat a bento! The little girl who was eventually cast had, according to the director, a great appetite and loved to eat everything, and that’s why she got the role. There was a bad heat wave during filming, when many of the adults involved in the production got sick, but not the little actress who played Nonchan. She actually gained a little weight!
I thought it was rather interesting that the fact that Komaki makes ‘traditional’ bentos for Nonchan seems to be emphasized as a good thing. I’ve seen it mentioned on some Japanese sites that the plain noriben Komaki makes for Nonchan taste really good, as opposed to the cute charaben the other mothers make. (Watch around 0:57, where several typical kindergarten charabens are shown being opened, followed by a closeup of Nonchan’s plain-on-the-surface yet pretty sophisticated 6-layer noriben.) I’m not sure if this is just the director’s statement about how food should be, or if there is a growing belief that food should taste good first, and looking cute is not that important. Is there an anti-charaben movement in Japan?
Anyway, I can’t wait to see Nonchan Noriben. Unfortunately, this is the kind of warm-hearted little movie that rarely if ever makes it to a wide release, or any kind of release, outside of Japan (think Torasan ). It’s too normal or something I guess. So I will probably have to wait for the DVD to come out, or hope that it’s still in the theatres when I go to Japan in a couple of months. I’ll post a review of it once I have seen it.
(My best friend growing up in suburban Tokyo was called Nonchan, short for Noriko, and of course my name is Maki(ko), so the names Komaki and Nonchan make me smile. I wonder where my Nonchan is now…)
Since some people asked :)
One of the questions asked during the Anniversary Giveaway was why Japanese people like cute (kawaii) things so much, as is evident in the cult of kyaraben or charaben . I’m not really sure of the answer to be honest, but it is true that from children to adults, women and even some men, love things that are cute and childlike. It may stem for the appreciation for detail in small objects like netsuke . Or maybe Japanese people are just a bit childish?
Or, maybe it’s because from a very young age, Japanese kids are exposed to kawaii culture. This is from a childrens’ program that airs on the NHK Education channel (NHK is the state-run TV station, equivalent to the BBC) called いないないばあっ！ (inai inai baa), which is also the name of the game you play with babies ‘Now you see me…Now you don’t!’. It’s aimed at 0 to 2 year olds, and is the highest rated kid’s show on the NHK. This song is called おにぎりぽん！(onigiri pon! - replaced the original one with one with English fansubs!)
The song is just about making onigiri with a ‘nigi nigi’ gesture (see the little girl’s hands) and various places to go with some onigiri packed - the park, the sea, the mountains, with friends. As an uhm, adult, I can’t stand a lot of childrens’ programming, but I can watch this over and over all day. Maybe I’ve been brainwashed from birth.
Some more food-themed tunes from Inai Inai Baa - Ton Ton Tomato-chan:
And, Ocha Ocha Cha cha! (Tea Tea Chacha!) (Also replaced this one since the one I posted before has, uh, disappeared. Now if this one is also made to disappear, then I know that some Powers That Be are reading this blog ^_^;:)
Have a great weekend!
Some bento-related news that caught my eye recently:
Married guys and single women take homemade bentos to work as a matter of course, but up until now single guys have relied on bought bento from convenience stores (conbini) and so on. But now it seems that more single guys are bringing homemade bentos too. Sales of utilitarian bento boxes, even ‘Tupper’ (=Tupperware) are on the rise. Reasons given by these “Bento Boys” as they are dubbed include the worsening economy/to save money, health concerns and for ecological reasons (combini bentos come in landfill-cluttering plastic or styrofoam disposable containers). According to this Japanese article , the hip Single Guy these days saves money where he can, but doesn’t stint on splurging on his hobbies and interests. Presumably these single guys make their own bento (the article says that many rely on readymade bento components that are sold by weight at conbini and supermarkets, and cook their own rice. Rather like buying deli meats and assembling your own sandwich I guess.) (Via the always interesting Mari Diary ). You could follow their example and become a hip, intelligently economizing Bento Boy or Girl too!
Speaking of combini, in recent years some combini chains have come out with ‘deluxe’ onigiri retailing for 200-300 yen each, filled with expensive things like ikura (salmon caviar), tender beef filet, and uni (sea urchin), as well as makunouchi-style expensive bento lunches. Now the trend may be reserving: the Lotteria chain is coming out with small deep fried chicken rice onigiri (more like rice croquettes) that retail for 100 yen called “Koro Musubi”. This adds to their lineup of 100 yen small bite offerings, which include the “Straight Burger Lotteria” (a heterosexual burger for homophobes…I’m kidding, I think they mean it’s a no-frills burger), “Snack Chicken” and “Vegetable Life 100”. Japanese link . Also, people are turning away from the deluxe bentos to more economic versions; a department store in Kagoshima is having success with a line of 260 yen bentos (Japanese link .) The ‘in’ bento is the classic noriben - see my noriben recipe .
You may know Juri Ueno (上野樹里）as the star of the live-action version of the popular anime and manga Nodame Cantabile . She is going to be in a commercial for Food Action Nippon, a campaign sponsored by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (農林水産省, MAFF) that encourages eating local and promoting domestic food production (i.e. ‘food self-reliance’). Here she is being interviewed, with a part of her commercial, where she shows her love of onigiri. (Yep I know, so kawaii. She’s 22, for what it’s worth.)
Every year, various convenience store chains and the like hold surveys of popular onigiri fillings and flavors. They don’t really change much, but perusing such lists can lead to inspiration for different onigiri fillings and flavors…though it looks like mayonnaise with something is overwhelming popular. The list here  is fairly typical. Here are the most popular:
And last but not least: Hormel Foods, makers of the infamous Spam, announced that they are re-commencing a fullblown Spam assault on the mainland Japan market in 2009 (Japanese article ). Spam as you probably know already is very popular in Hawai’i, especially as spam musubi. Since musubi (onigiri) originated in Japan, many people erroenously believe that Spam is also popular in Japan. Not so: it is indeed popular in Okinawa, where it was introduced to the local population by the American military (as it was in Korea), but so far Spam is only available as ‘imported food’ in some department stores and such. Here’s how the Japanese version of Spam will look (this actually says ‘with 20% less salt compared to Classic’):
So…will Spam conquer Japan? We shall see.
This is my last Just Bento post until after Christmas. Happy Holidays to you all! (And yep I’m still working out the details on the January Bento Challenge . Stay tuned for more details after the 26th!)
NHK, the national broadcaster here in Japan, has a new late-night weekly series called Salameshi (サラメシ）. Sala is for “salaryman” (or woman), a wage-earner in other words, and “meshi” is an informal/slightly rude way to call a meal. (If you’re trying to be polite in Japanese, use “gohan” or even more politely, “oshokuji” to mean ‘meal’ instead.) The “sala” part is a pun too, since “sala” or “sara” can also mean plate. (Plate lunch, get it?) Anyway, the show is a light hearted look at working lunches, from all walks of life.
The variety of lunches eaten by people from all works of life is fascinating. There’s the marine biologist who is invited by a local fisherman to eat a sort of miso stew of anything caught that day that’s not sellable; the cruise ship captain who limits himself to tiny portions at lunch since he’s obligated to eat full course meals with his passengers every evening; the elementary school principal who has to eat the same school lunch the kids eat, and who has trouble maintaining his weight because it’s so high calorie; the race car driver who eats sumo-wrestler sized portions but still has trouble maintaining his weight. So far, the most boring lunch is the one a MetLife blimp pilot eats (a sandwich) - though we did learn how he uses a PET bottle to relieve himself. :o They have bits of interesting lunch related trivia, such as the fact that the standard price for a fullsized takeout bento in Nagoya is only 350 yen (about US $4.30). Every week, there’s also a nostalgic look at a lunch that was enjoyed by a famous person, now deceased, such as the unajuu (grilled and steamed eel on a bed of rice) enjoyed frequently by Soichiro Honda, the founder of Honda Motor Corp. They even give a shoutout to bloggers. On last week’s show they featured Mihoko Nishi, the blogger behind Ginza Lunchblog , who’s been diligently chronicling the bargain lunches she’s sought out in this expensive area of Tokyo for 6 years - surely one of the longest running lunch blogs? And there’s lots more. Who knew that working lunches could be so interesting? The Food Network should definitely borrow this idea.
Bentos feature prominently on the series of course, and almost every week there’s at least one bento, usually sought out and photographed by Ryo Abe, co-author (with his wife; she’s the writer, he’s the photographer) of Obentou no Jikan (Bento Time) . To someone who has never seen a ‘real’ bento (one that a regular person brings to work or school) and thinks all bentos look as picture perfect as the ones you see on most bento blogs. If that’s you, it may be comforting to see the bentos been eaten by regular Japanese adults. They’re usually pretty basic; rice, some kind of fish or meat, some vegetable, often a piece of tamagoyaki (rolled omelette). Some bentos are even simpler - a Tupperware container with rice, another container with leftover curry, popped into the microwave.
The reasons for making lunch are varied to, and surprisingly perhaps the men have more interesting reasons than the women. (Women just seem to make bentos as a matter of course.) One salaryman in his 30s recently got re-married - to his former wife. They’d split up partly due to the fact that he never helped out around the house with any chores. This time around he’s making up for that - and part of that is making both their bentos every morning. Every day, he waits for a text message from her, letting him know if the bento was good or not. Or there’s the middle aged engineer who is a tanshin funin - a salaryman living alone away from his family due to a work assignment - who makes precisely the same bento every day. One tier of his two-tier bento is always filled with salad. The other tier is half filled with rice; the other half always has a piece of grilled fish, a piece of tamagoyaki, and some pickles or other vegetable. Everything is arranged with neatness and precision.
If you’re in Japan, Salameshi is on NHK Sogo (or NHK 1) every Saturday evening at 11:30PM. I do hope that the international Japanese TV broadcasting services like TV Japan in the U.S. and JSTV in Europe will pick this show up - it’s a fascinating look at everyday working Japanese people, via their lunches. Here is the official Salameshi web site  (Japanese only).
Takasugi-san chi no Obento (The Takasugi Family’s Bento)  is slice of life manga (comic) series by Nozomi Yanahara. It’s still being serialized in Comic Flapper  magazine, but the first parts of the series have already been issued in paperback form too. (In case you didn’t know, that’s the way Japanese manga series are published - they’re serialized in a magazine first, then if they are deemed to have enough readers, they’re compiled and re-issued in paperback format.)
The Takasugi family is a rather unusual one. It consists of Harumi, a 30-something single guy and post-doctorate in geology who, at the start of the series, still can’t find a permanent job in his field and is getting by by doing arubaito  or part time and temp jobs; and his orphaned 12 year old first cousin Kururi. Kururi’s mother Miya, Harumi’s aunt, was killed in an accident, naming Harumi as her daughter’s guardian in her will. He had never even met Kururi before, or even known of her existence due to a family rift in the past, making it quite an awkward situation for them both.
What helps them to overcome their difficulties and become a true family is bentos. Harumi takes up cooking for the first time so that he can make bentos for Kururi, making plenty of mistakes along the way. Kururi is a rather odd 12 year old, quiet and stubborn and antisocial, obsessed with sales and bargains at the local supermarkets and pinching pennies. But they both remember the bentos that Miya (Kururi’s mother and Harumi’s aunt) used to make for them, and how delicious it was. They also discover new bento flavors together, flavors that are of their new family. It’s not a manga about eating or cooking in the vein of Oishinbo  - it’s really about how food, and specifically bentos, can bring people together. Bentos are the catalyst to Harumi and Kururi becoming a true family. (There’s also an ongoing joke about a classmate of Kururi’s, a boy, whose stepmother(?) keeps making cute charaben for him. He keeps getting teased about them every time he opens his box at lunchtime; what’s worse, apparently they look cute but don’t taste good! Kururi shares some of her plain but delicious bento with him once, and…)
I love these kinds of stories. It’s not the flashy kind of manga that gets translated to English, but if you can read Japanese or can find any fansubs around, take a look!
Keeping with the theme of Takasugi-san chi no Obento, my question to you today is: have bentos, or packed lunches, brought you closer to someone? Or how about the opposite - has a bento, packed lunch, picnic, etc. been the catalyst for a relationship ending or being otherwise affected?
Today, November 3rd, is the birthday of John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich . He was either an inveterate gambler or a very hard worker; either way, he did not want to step away from his desk or the card table to take the time to eat. So he supposedly commanded his manservant to bring him some sliced meat between 2 slices of bread. Thus, according to legend, the sandwich was invented.
I am skeptical about this, since putting something in between sliced bread seems like such a natural thing to do. Regardless, the sandwich is a wonderful, convenient thing.
To celebrate the Earl’s birthday, today is also National Sandwich Day in the U.S.  When I was growing up and living in England, my father used to regale us with tales of the amazing sandwiches available in that mythical land that us kids had yet to visit. “In America, they have sandwiches where the filling is three or four times as thick as the bread”, he’d tell us. My sister and I shook our heads in disbelief. To us, a sandwich was thinly sliced bread, usually with the crusts off, spread with butter and perhaps a little fish paste. Or a layer of thinly sliced cucumbers. Once in a while we might encounter a ham sandwich, with one thin slice of pink ham. These were the types of sandwiches that we encountered whenever we were invited for tea to our friends’ houses. I grew particularly fond of butter-and-Marmite sandwiches, a staple at the weekly teas we partook of at my history teacher’s house after Sunday School. (The teacher had somehow taken it upon herself to take us to Sunday School every week, perhaps under the impression that it was her Christian duty to take care of the little Asian girls. My parents welcomed the opportunity to sleep in on Sundays.)
Once we got to the U.S. when I was 10, we found out that our father hadn’t been lying to us. American Sandwiches! Big club sandwiches filled with juicy pastrami or sliced turkey or ham, the stack so thick that it had to be held together with cocktail sticks decorated with bits of cellophane. And then there was the hamburger. I had never had a hamburger straight off the grill, plopped onto a soft bun and smeared with ketchup, until it was put on my outstretched plastic plate at a school picnic. My initial impressions of America as the land of abundant food, sunny weather (compared to England anyway) and laughing, friendly people, formed during my first few months here (note: I’m writing to you from the suburbs of New York right now) have never faded away completely.
Once back in Japan, I was re-acquainted with Japanese sandwiches via home economics class. One of the first things we were taught to cook were sandwiches. They had to follow a strict formula: Thinly sliced, bendy white bread (close to English bread), spread with a mixture of softened butter and a tiny bit of mustard, one slice of ham, and one well dried lettuce leaf. 3 or 4 of these sandwiches stacked together, wrapped in a well wrung out tenugui (thin cotton cloth), weighted down on top with a cutting board. Unwrapped after half an hour of ‘resting’ the bread slightly damp; the crusts cut off, and the sandwiches cut into four triangles, or three rectangles, to be arranged neatly on a plate.
Japanese sandwiches can be a bit strange. Besides the very British-influenced sandwiches described above, there are a lot of double-carb sandwiches: korokke sando (fried potato croquettes in a hotdog type bun); potato salad sandwiches; yakisoba sando (stir fried yakisoba noodles on a bun). There are dessert sandwiches too, like sweetened whipped cream with strawberries and kiwi, between slices of buttered crustless bread.
I think my favorite sandwiches at the moment are the small yet hearty ones made by Confiserie Sprüngli in Zürich. They not only vary the fillings, they have different types of bread for each type of sandwich too. Roast vegetables on a pumpkin seed covered whole wheat bun; softly cooked asparagus and hardboiled eggs with mayonnaise on a multigrain mini-baguette; smoked salmon and cream cheese on a buttery soft roll. They are expensive, but I look forward to grabbing a few whenever I can. (There is a Sprüngli store handily located in the train station concourse that is attached to the airport. A sandwich there is the best snack to grab before continuing your trip by rail or air.)
For sandwiches that I make for my own lunches, I prefer the deconstructed method, as shown here for example : Filling and other food in containers, bread carried separately, to assemble right before eating. This avoids the problem of the bread getting soggy by lunchtime unless there is a fat barrier (butter, cream cheese, peanut butter and so on) between the bread and the filling. But occasionally I do like to indulge in an English-influenced Japanese style crustless sandwich - thin white bread slices slathered with soft butter, filled with ham-and-lettuce, tuna salad, or egg salad. Three triangles of these come to about 600 calories, but they bring back such great memories. (You can buy readymade versions at Japanese bakeries.)
What is your favorite sandwich? Do you have any sandwich related memories?
Last week, I wrote about tonkatsu , deep fried pork cutlets, for The Japan Times . I did do several ‘test cutlets’ for the article, and most of them were consumed happily by Mr. Guy. He used a small one in this Guy Does Bento , and a couple ended up as katsu sando, or tonkatsu sandwiches.
You’ll readily encounter in katsu sando in Japan - in konbini (convenience stores), bakeries, supermarkets and department store food halls. Katsu sando are always served cold or at room temperature, so the cutlet inside is not hot. Storebought tonkatsu sandwiches vary a lot in quality. When they’re good, they are filling and delicous, but when when they’re bad they can be pretty nasty.
Here are two of the better ones. They take different approaches to the question of what to do with the breaded coating.
This sandwich packet is from Maisen, a famous tonkatsu speciality restaurant in Tokyo. They use very tender Kurobuta (black pig), cut thick, and the breading is smothered in their house brand tonkatsu sauce, which is slightly sweet. By smothering the breading, the texture and flavor change. It’s certainly not crispy anymore but it’s quite tasty. You may also notice that even though each slice is wide, they are also fairly thick - only about 3/4 cm (1/3 inch or so) thick. That means that each mouthful is meaty and satisfying, but you don’t end up feeling overstuffed afterwards.
Maisen’s flagship restaurant is on Omotesando in Harajuku, in a gorgeous prewar building - well worth a visit! Frommer’s info here.  They also sell their sandwiches and bentos at several fine department stores around the Tokyo area and in some other large cities. (Besides their katsu sando, I am partial to their menchi katsu .)
Here’s another, rather unique approach. This katsu sando is from a wonderful bakery in the Motomachi section of Yokohama called Uchiki Pan. They mix sesame seeds into their panko coating, which means the coating stays crunchy even when it’s cold. They only coat one side of the cutlet thinly with tonkatsu sauce (I am not sure, but I think they just use the standard ‘Bulldog’ brand). The finely shredded cabbage also adds crunch. I think this is my favorite katsu sando.
Incidentally, Uchiki Pan is one of the oldest bakeries in Japan, founded in 1888. I’ll write them up in another article (probably over on Just Hungry). Here’s their sandwich display around 11am; by 12, they are mostly sold out.
As you may have guessed by now, sandwiches are called ‘sando’ in Japanese. (Which reminds me: years ago when I lived and worked in Manhattan, I used to pass by a small Japanese restaurant/deli that displayed a sign in their window proudly proclaiming in English: “We have: Chicken Sand, Crab Sand, Potato Salad Sand!” I’m sure that must have confused a lot of people.)
Sandwiches are just as ubiquitous in Japan as onigiri or bento boxes, and are a popular choice for lunch. (If you go to Japan and become sick of rice, there’s no reason to fear: bread is readily available!) Japanese sandwiches almost always use the same kind of bread - sliced shokupan or English-style loaf bread. White bread is the norm, though brown and whole grain bread is making slow inroads. (A recent interesting development on the bread front is bread made from rice flour.)
Here’s the most basic of sandwiches, shaki shaki (crispy) ham sandwiches from 7-11. Costing only 220 yen, it’s quite delicious with paper-thin, slightly sweet ham and crispy iceberg lettuce. Perhaps not the most nutrious of sandwiches, but I am rather addicted to them. In the background you see a packet of “mixed” sandwiches costing 250 yen: a ham and egg, a ham and cheese, and a tuna.
These ham sandwiches are of a higher class. For sale in the Shinkansen if you leave from Tokyo Station, they’re delicate sandwiches made from Kurobuta pork ham from a famous charcuterie in Kamakura. Just bread spread with mustard-butter and ham, but so good. (The yellow ones are disappointingly mediocre cheese. It’s hard getting really good cheese in Japan.)
Finally, these may be my favorite sandwiches in the world. They are certain up there, and are my favorite egg sandwiches for sure. They’re from Shinshindo, another venerable bakery, this time in Kyoto. The egg is cooked to a just-beyond-very-runny softboil stage - I’m guessing 4 to 5 minutes - and very roughly chopped up, so that every mouthful is an eggy delight. Note the two-tone bread too.
I happen to think that Japanese sandwiches are the best. But my (Japanese) mother disagrees vehemently. She says Swiss sandwiches, especially the ones from Confiserie Sprüngli on Zürich, are the best. She periodically sends me photos she took of Sprüngli sandwiches out of the blue by email, saying she dreams of them. We both laugh at each other for our sandwich obsessions.
What’s your favorite sandwich? (Bonus points if you share a photo or a link to one. ^_^)
Now that bentos are becoming more and more popular outside of Japan, the question arises:
What do you call someone who makes bentos?
Personally, I’m inclined to call a bento maker a bentoist. I think this term is in fairly wide use on English language bento blogs and such. I like the term myself because it seems somewhat related to “artist”, and many bento creators are quite artistic. Bento artist works for me too, as does bento creator or bento chef/cook.
A new Japanese magazine called Obento Biyori (お弁当日和） whose premier issue just came out the other week, uses the term Obenter. (I was going to post a review of the magazine, but on second thought I probably won’t unless there’s a big demand for it. Short review: it’s ok.) I have no idea if they coined the term themselves, and Googling the term doesn’t really show it in common use on Japanese websites. But they use it in the English portion of their Twitter profile, which says “This is the magazine of Japanese Bento for OBENTER.”. I’m assuming, perhaps erroneously, that they think that it’s a term used outside of Japan. I tweeted them suggesting (in Japanese) that this was not really used in English speaking circles, but so far no one has responded to me. (I also checked how they spell it out in the actual magazine, and they just do so phonetically in katakana (オベンター), the character set usually used for foreign import words.) Personally, I can’t stand the term. It doesn’t make any kind of sense etymologically speaking. It sounds like the worst kind of wasei eigo, or made-up and twisted around Japanese version of English. (Even though I’m supposed to be like native-level fluent in English, not to mention Japanese, I am quite frequently brought up short by such wasei eigo terms in Japan. It drives me up the wall.) If it does indeed enter the vernacular, I’ll be quite pissed.
Perhaps an equally bad wasei eigo term for a bento creator, especially applied to charaben makers, is karisuma (charisma) character bento (or food) artist. It’s used in the English version of the iPhone app Charaben, reviewed here , and makes no sense when used outside of Japan. Karisuma applied to ‘experts’ in various fields is widely used in Japan, so I’m resigned to its use there even if I hate it personally, but I doubt it will spread anywhere else, because you know, in ‘real’ English terms is pretty silly.
What do you think? If you’re a bento creator, what do you call yourself? What term works for you, and what doesn’t? (Is it even worth thinking of a term? ^_^;)
I try to make every effort to explain what the very Japanese ingredients are in Japanese bentos and recipes. But this comment by Sophie  made me realize that even ingredients that may seem familiar in principle, may be a bit of a mystery when they are used in bentos. Here’s her question:
..when I saw the parmesan cheese in the bento , I just had to ask: Americans (especially me!) love cheese. We put it on everything we can. Usually it’s American cheese, or cheddar or mozzarella. I have a couple recipes from bento cookbooks that say to use a “slice of cheese” like in rolled up tamago or hampen and cheese. What kind of cheese are they expecting me to use? Is there a Japanese favorite? Or did these cookbooks just make these recipes up to appeal to the American obsession with cheese?
The short answer is: no, the cheese reference is not just there for Americans - Japanese people love cheese too. When just ‘cheese’ is specified in a Japanese cookbook, it usually means presliced, processed cheese, just like the kind you get in the U.S. and elsewhere, individually wrapped in plastic. Japanese sliced cheese is a bit firmer than American sliced cheese, but you can use American sliced cheese in the same way.
Delving into the history of cheese in Japan a bit may clarify things further. While there is historical evidence of a cheese-like curd product having been made and eaten in Japan as early as the 12 or 13th century, serious cheese production only started in the 1930s or so. At the time, Japanese people were not familiar with the texture or flavor of cheese, so cheese manufacturers like Yukijirushi or “Snow Brand” (who is still a major manufacturer of cheese and dairy products) made cheese that resembled foods that were more familar, like kamaboko (firm fish paste cake). The standard processed cheese sold by Yukijirushi didn’t even melt when heated - it softened a bit, but retained its shape, rather like haloumi cheese does. A second type of processed cheese was specifically sold as ‘cheese that melts’, for use on pizza, cheese on toast, and the like. I remember these cheese types being sold when I was a kid, but I don’t think they are available as such anymore, although you can buy ‘pizza cheese’, which is a kind of processed mozzarella.
Nowadays, all kinds of cheese are available in Japan, both imported and made domestically; imported cheese is terribly expensive however. When it comes to bentos that you see online or in most Japanese bento cookbooks, usually only processed cheeses are used. The way presliced cheese is used in charaben is really similar to the way other firm yet easy to cut products, like kamaboko, hanpen (a puffy light fish paste product made from fish paste and whipped egg whites), ham, wiener sausages and fish-paste or gyoniku sausage.
Another type of processed cheese product that makes its way into bentos is ‘candy cheese’. This is just little chunks of processed cheese that are individually wrapped to look like candy - and thus theoretically appeal to picky-eater kids. I’ve even seen these featured prominently in a translated-to-English bento book. As far as I know ‘candy cheese’ is not available outside of Japan (unless it’s available in other Asian countries?)…so I can imagine the ‘candy cheese’ confusing quite a few readers of that book.
The last type of cheese that may appear in a bento cookbook is kona cheezu or ‘powdered cheese’. This is the pre-grated stuff that comes in a green canister. (Yes, this is the era of multinational brands.)
Of course, in your bentos you can use any cheese you like. Personally I prefer to stay away from processed cheese, purely for taste reasons.
If for some reason you can’t get a hold of malleable presliced processed cheese, but want to make cheese cut-outs and such for your bentos, I’ve tried the following cheeses with varying degrees of success:
Incidentally, while Japanese people probably don’t eat as much cheese as Americans, I’d actually rank the American fondness of cheese below that of most European nations. There is a blog called Chez Loulou , whose owner Ms. Loulou is attempting to eat every French cheese there is in existence. She’s almost up to no. 170, but still has a long, long way to go! In Switzerland, it’s not at all uncommon to just have cheese and bread or potatoes for dinner, and there’s also fondue and raclette. (We once served a meal consisting just of several varieties of cheese, with wine and bread, to an (older) American friend who was visiting. He later confessed that up until then he would have never dreamed of just having cheese and bread for dinner - to him that was a ‘poor person’s meal’!) There are tons of local cheeses in Italy, Spain, the UK… and on and on.
Do you like to use cheese in your bentos - and if so, what are your favorites, and how do you use them?