Where (and how) to buy bento boxes and accessories
(Originally published in April 2008, and updated continuously since. Last updated March 2011.)
A very frequently asked question is where and how to buy the bento items and boxes mentioned here, especially in the Bento Item Spotlight (formerly Bento Item of the Week) feature, as well as on other bento blogs and sites. I've listed you several options, which I hope will be useful.
Shopping for bento supplies locally
As much as I love online shopping, I believe in shopping at your local stores first. You're supporting your area's businesses, and you don't have to pay shipping costs. Besides, it's arguably a bit better for the environment (especially if you take public transportation!) since the goods have already travelled to your area.
Even if you local stores don't carry 'genuine' Japanese bento boxes, it's always possible to find alternatives for lunch boxes, dividers, picks and other accessories. As I wrote in one of the earliest articles on this site, it's not necessary to buy a box that is labeled as a Bento Box in order to bring bento lunches. You can use cupcake cups, paper or silicon, as bento dividers, picnic utensils, and so on. Check out the JustBento Bento Gear Flickr pool for a lot of creative ideas from fellow bento enthusiasts. Any general housewares/kitchenwares store or megastore with such a department is a good place to prowl for bento-friendly goods.
If you live in an area with Asian dollar stores, aka 100-yen stores, they are usually a good source for cheap and cheerful bento boxes and equipment. In the U.S. these for now are mostly in California and the west coast, though New York also has a few. Japanese or Asian housewares stores may also carry some things. To locate Japanese grocery (and related) stores near you, consult the reader-contributed and commented Japanese grocery store listings (go to your geographical area page from there) on Just Hungry. Also check out the Bento Store Locator on Lunch In A Box, another user-contributed listings page (Note: this hasn't been updated in quite a while, along with the rest of the site, unfortunately).
General Japanese grocery stores used to not carry a lot of bento gear. Their non-food sections tend to concentrate on things like proper ceramic tableware and traditional gift items. However, this is changing as bento lunches continue to grow in popularity. Even if your local Japanese grocery is tiny, you may still be able to find some accessories like plastic baran (dividers) meant for sushi or decorative picks. You will, of course, find all kinds of food items. In addition, while bento lunches are not part of other East Asian cultures such as China and Korea, many such stores are also stocking bento boxes these days to meet customer demand. (Example: H-Mart or Super 88 in the U.S., Paristore in France, etc.)
Japanese bookstores and giftstores can also be worthwhile looking around in. Kinokuniya for example carries a decent selection of bento boxes. I was at the Kinokuniya US flagship store in New York in January 2011, and the gift department manager told me that bento boxes are becoming so popular, she has increased the shelf space for them by 5 times in the last couple of years. That's great news for bento fans!
Bento gear shopping meccas
Of course Japan is the best place to buy bento stuff. Be sure to check out Where to buy bento boxes and accessories in Japan. if you're planning a trip there.
Besides Japan, where are good places to shop for bento gear? You might not necessarily plan a whole trip around buying bento stuff, but it might be handy to know if you are in the midst of a bento mecca, just in case!
U.S and North America:
- The San Francisco and San Jose area in California - home to Ichibankan stores, a Mitsuwa Marketplace in San Jose, and more. See the Japanese food shopping in California page.
- The Los Angeles/SoCal area has several Mitsuwas as well as Marukai and Daiso.
- The Seattle, Washington area is another great bento-shopping area. I was there in January 2011 for a week. Uwajimaya, the Japanese/Asian supermarket mini-chain, stocks plenty of bento boxes, as does H-Mart and Daiso. The Kinokuniya bookstore adjacent to Uwajimaya in Downtown Seattle stocks plenty of bento books, including mine of course. ^_^
- Honolulu, Hawai'i has a huge Japanese-American population and plenty of stores that cater to them. I spotted bento boxes at Marukai (you may need to purchase a 1-day membership), Shirokiya, and so on. See Bento Sightseeing in Hawaii.
- The New York-New Jersey area is less of a mecca than California or Hawaii due to a smaller Japanese-American population, but it has a Mitsuwa, several small Japanese grocery stores, and the biggest overseas branch of Kinokuniya. See the Japanese food shopping in the NY-NJ-CT area page.
- Düsseldorf, Germany has a large Japantown, though when I was there my Düsseldorf report) I didn't spot a whole lot of bento gear per se. It's worth looking around there though - try the bookstores and gift stores as well as the food shops. (Note: German readers have reported that Takagi, the bookstore I wrote about, now has a pretty good stock of bento boxes.)
- Paris also has a fairly large expat community, and the Japanese quarter is quite worth a visit if you are a Euro-based Japanophile. See A Frugal Eats Japanese blitz through Paris and Bento sightseeing in Paris, and Workshop Issé.
Online merchants that sell bento boxes and accessories
If your heart is set on getting a 'real' Japanese style bento box, for most people mail order is the only option. The good news is that the number of international shipping-friendly online bento supply stores is increasing, and getting in better stock, all the time!
About buying from overseas vendors
Some people have a mental hangup about buying from suppliers that are not located in their country of residence. While international shipping costs are expensive, you should always compare the price of an item sold by one supplier vs. another, including shipping costs and sales tax or VAT, and see which ends up to be a better deal for you in the end. Personally I order from merchants based in Japan all the time. Shipping from Japan is usually very fast and efficient. I usually select SAL as my shipping option, which takes a little longer than EMS or FedEx (about 2-3 weeks), but is cheaper. SAL shipments usually (though this is a crapshoot really) don't incur customs fees. FedEx or DHL are usually the most expensive shipping options, though they are reliable. FedEx shipments seem to always incur customs fees. EMS is the best choice if you want to receive mail via the postal system fast; EMS shipments incur customs fees about 50% of the time for me. I don't have the patience for sea mail usually (and most vendors do not offer it since it's rather unreliable).
You may or may not be charged customs fees when your shipment enters your country. I've found that generally speaking, smaller orders tend not to be charged customs, though there doesn't seem to be a hard and fast rule that applies all the time.
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I have tried most of these stores myself (ordering as a regular customer, no special treatment!) and have been very happy with their services. I think you will be too.
- Bento&co (English site); (French version of the site); is based in Kyoto, Japan. Owned and operated by husband and wife team Thomas (from France) and Erico (from Kyoto). Very attractive website, clear listings. Their selection leans towards the sleek and elegant rather than cute-kawaii. I've been a longtime customer since I love their taste and the quality of their products, and am always happy with their shipping speed and communication. Ships worldwide.
- J-List and its PG-rated part (same store without 'adult' products) JBox. This store remains one of the most reliable sources of bento supplies, with a large selection of all kinds of styles. They ship just about anywhere in the world.
- Japan Centre carries a small selection of bento items from Daiso, the major 100-yen shop. Non-food items are shipped worldwide, and food items are shipped throughout Europe. (Their physical store in London carries a bit more than is listed online. If you want them to carry more online I think it's worthwhile to let them know about it.) Ships mostly in Europe but will also ship worldwide.
- All Things For Sale is a US based seller of bento goods and more. They have a large selection of affordable bento boxes and such. Flat rate shipping within the U.S., also ships worldwide.
- CasaBento carries a wide selection of bento boxes of various styles (cute, traditional, modern), accessories and supplies, as well as kitchenware, including 220V rice cookers. They guarantee fast shipping and response times, and ship worldwide. Quoted shipping times: 2-3 days to the UK and Europe; 5-8 days to the U.S., Australia/NZ, and other countries. The online catalog in English, French and German. Ships worldwide.
- Amazon.com also has an increasing selection of bento supplies for sale. There are also lots of goods sold on Amazon that can be used for bentos, such as silicone cupcake liners that are great as bento dividers. Please check out my Amazon aStore.
- You can find also find plenty of bento goods on Amazon Japan of course, but none I've seen so far ship internationally. But you can try using the shipping services for shopping from Amazon JP - see below.) Check out my Amazon Japan aStore (note that listings are in Japanese).
Other stores that I have tried
- From Japan With Love carries a very nice selection of reasonably priced bento boxes and accessories such as face punches, inner cups, bags and a lot more. You'll especially love this site if you like cute/kawaii designs. Ships worldwide from Japan.
- ILoveObento is a US based online store with a variety of attractive bento boxes. Ships worldwide. Note: As of March 2011, they are only carrying the Gel-Cool line of bento boxes.
Stores I haven't tried personally that have been recommended by readers
- Bento Crazy is an online store run by Myria, a mom of 2. Formerly based in Japan, the store is now based in Maryland. Mostly cute and kid-oriented selection Check out the blog here. Ships within the U.S. only.
- Sugar Charms is a cake decorating supply store that also carries a lot of bento things. Ships within the US only.
- J Flair Homestyles carries many bentos with the popular Shinzi Katoh designs, and other cute bento boxes.
- Japonmania carries a good selection of bento boxes and supplies, as well as many other products from Japan such as clothes, household goods and more. Ships worldwide.
- Omiyage - a Canadian bento, zakka, and crafty products seller. Besides their bento supplies, check out their very cute stationery from both Japan and South Korea.
- Lunch A Porter - A Canadian bento seller.
- Ichibankan USA. The online store of this California based 100 yen (dollar) shop sells 'cheap and cheerful' bento boxes as well as higher quality ones from Hakoya (a well known bento box maker). Shipping is within the continental US only at the moment but is scheduled to start shipping elsewhere soon. Update: Ichibankan USA has now closed their online store indefinitely, but their San Franciso area-based brick-and-mortar "100-yen" (dollar) stores are still in operation.
Getting the most out of eBay
The main source of the widest variety of bento gear for non-Japanese speakers and residents is eBay. There are now dozens of merchants selling bento related supplies. Whenever you are buying something, make sure to comparison shop (some merchants are way overpriced). Most merchants are based in Japan or Hong Kong, and ship worldwide, but expect to pay quite a lot for shipping. I like to stick to the merchants who have clear descriptions of the dimensions and capacity of the bento boxes they sell.
Did you know that eBay offers RSS feeds of their listings, based on search terms? You can set up one and subscribe to it in your favorite news reader. For bento things, go to Advanced Search and enter bento in the terms to search for, and enter amy, cd, music, mac, osx, software in the terms not to search for. This filters out all, or most, mentions of Amy Bento (an aerobics instructor), CDs and music related items from Brazil or Portugal (Bento is a popular nickname in Portuguese it seems), and listings of Bento the software program. You can also select House and Garden as the category. Once the search results page is generated, scroll down until you see the RSS button, and click on it to subscribe. You will get a nice listing with prices and thumbnail pics. This is how I generate the eBay Bento listings page (which you can just bookmark if you don't want to bother with the searching).
Buying directly from Japan using shipping services
The items listed on eBay, J-List and such are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to bento gear - a lot, lot more is available only in Japan. Unfortunately, most of the online stores that sell them are in Japanese only, and do not ship overseas.
But you don't have to give up there. If you don't have a handy friend or relative that lives there, there are an increasing number of shipping service web sites that will get the stuff you want and then ship it to you, for a fee. The fee varies but is usually around 10-15% of the purchase price, plus the actual cost of the goods and shipping. Some sites also charge a membership fee. This route may only be for serious collectors, but considering that they are offer a combination of translation, buying, shipping and payment services, it's a fairly good deal.
An updated list of shipping (or shopping) services is maintained on this page. One that has gotten several positive comments is i-tm4u. For instance commenter Anna from Russia used them to buy a handcarved wooden bento box, and ODG from Hong Kong also had a positive experience.
Tenso is another popular service. I have now tried them several times, mainly for shipments of Rakuten purchases, and they have been really reliable and prompt. (They have an official relationship with Rakuten.)
A new service that looks interesting is Flutterscape if you want a 'friend who shops for you in Japan' kind of experience, albeit with strangers of course.
Searching Yahoo! Japan Auctions and Rakuten Ichiba
Update: Rakuten now has an International section - see this forum discussion. A Rakuten shopping guide is in the works.
There are two huge online sources in Japan for bento stuff: Yahoo! Japan Auctions (which is so popular that eBay had to give up in Japan), and Rakuten Ichiba (marketplace). Both sites are in Japanese only (Rakuten now offers machine translation of some of its pages, and their information pages are in real English). Here are some direct links to bento-related search results (let me know if you'd like to see some others):
Yahoo! Japan auctions:
- Bento 弁当
- Bento bako (bento box) 弁当箱
- Lunchbox ランチボックス
- Handmade bento ハンドメイド 弁当 - you can find things like handmade bento bags
- Wooden bento box 木 弁当箱
- Stainless steel bento box ステンレス 弁当箱
- Aluminum bento box アルミ 弁当箱
- Character bento (kyaraben) キャラ弁 - this one is good for searching for cute bento making equipment like face punches and molds