Ultimate Guide to Japan’s Bento Box
By The Japan Switch Team | July 10th, 2023
As Japan has, in recent decades, become increasingly more globalized, so too has Japanese culture been slowly winning over the Western world. It’s not uncommon now to see traditional bento boxes in your local supermarket, cafes, and even restaurants. If nothing else, it’s bound to be a staple of your visit to Japan, which is why we wanted to delve a little deeper into the rich bento culture in Japan.
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What is a Bento Box?
Bento (弁当) essentially refers to a traditional Japanese lunch box consisting of only one portion of food. While bento boxes may be seen in sushi restaurants and expensive establishments in the West, according to Japanese culture, they’re actually supposed to be an unassuming meal.
The term bento hails from the Chinese biandang (便當) and basically translates as “convenient”. True to the name, bento boxes often contain simply prepared dishes like rice, or noodles, as well as some kind of meat. They’re also sometimes packed with leftovers, and serve as a nutritious, cheap, homemade lunch option for children (as well as students and adults at work).
What sets the bento box apart from an average piece of tupperware is compartmentalization. While many lunch boxes pack all the different parts of the meal clumsily into the same space, the bento box features several smaller compartments for each individual part of the meal
So, a bento box will typically be arranged as such:
- A compartment for plain noodles or rice
- A compartment for meat or fish
- A bunch of small compartments, typically stuffed with vegetables, sushi, and sauce
The main idea behind the bento box is that this way, your meal is already assembled, and offers the consumer easy and quick access. So that when you need to eat, you’ve got all your food neatly arranged, and ready-to-go.
The Significance of the Bento Box
While many of us in the Western world are familiar with the concept of the bento box, and recognize it for what it is – easy, convenient lunch transportation, few know the role bento plays in Japanese culture.
In Japan, the bento box is not just a lunchbox but is considered something of an art form. Basically, it’s believed that the visual appearance of a meal bears at least as much importance for the consumer as the taste and nutritional benefits of the meal. And there is quite a bit of truth to that. It’s why, for instance, restaurants go to great lengths to present a visually appealing meal, decorating, and neatly arranging one’s meal.
The more presentable and pleasing a bento box is, the more it will activate in the consumer anticipation, and presumably heighten the satisfaction of consuming it.
In Japan, a beautifully prepared bento box represents a symbol of affection between the person who prepared it and the consumer. Since bento boxes are a staple for most Japanese schoolchildren, they’re associated with the parent’s love for their child.
As such, the bento box is more than just a meal. It’s a means of communication between the person who prepared it, and the person who eats it. Likewise, it can carry a message of affection between spouses, or even represent an act of self-care, since many homemakers prepare bento boxes for themselves.
The History of the Bento Box
Because a version of the bento box is featured in most, if not all, Asian cultures, its origin is a highly contested one. In Japan, the bento box is said to be traceable as early as the 5th century. The concept first appeared among hunters, workers, and farmers, who needed a way to carry food with them as they worked, or traveled.
However, it wasn’t until the 12th century that a more recognizable version of the bento box appeared. Under the Kamakura shogunate, this moment in time is largely referred to as the Kamakura Period. It was around this time that dishes of dried rice became a popular meal since they were easy for workers and farmers to bring along with them to work.
Originally, this hoshi-ii (糒 or 干し飯), or dried meal, was carried to work in a small bag, but in time, the traditional wooden boxes that we now know as bento came into existence, specifically for this purpose.
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When was the term “bento” coined?
Although several versions of the bento box existed down the years, the term itself was first recorded during the Sengoku Period (1477-1573). More commonly known as ‘the samurai period’, the Sengoku years were very brutal ones, not to mention highly significant in the country’s history. It was during this time that power moved away from shoguns, and more into the hands of smaller, local lords. It was also during this time that the term ‘bento’ was first recorded officially.
It’s said that Oda Nobunaga (織田 信長), a powerful magnate of the era and one of the great unifiers of the Sengoku Period, first ‘created’ the bento box, because he wanted his castle staff to be served individual, simple meals. As we’ve seen, it’s likely that some concept of the bento box was in existence long before this, but the creation of the modern bento is typically attributed to Oda Nobunaga.
Bento Boxes in the Edo Period
The Edo Period (1603-1868), another hugely significant moment in Japanese history, also brought with it the popularization, and alteration of the bento box. Where traditionally, the bento box was prepared for workers and farmers, it was during the Edo Period that small bento boxes became fashionable.
Typically consisting of simple rice balls, sometimes sprinkled with sesame seeds, these bento boxes were known as “between the scenes bento”. The idea behind them is that the person could consume them rapidly, between the acts of a theater play.
Bento Boxes in the Meiji Period and Beyond
Finally, the traditional bento box saw one big leap that cemented the important role that bento boxes have in society today. The Meiji Period (1868-1912), as in many other places around the world, was a time of heavy industrialization. Around this time, travel saw a massive advancement thanks to the development of trains, which reinforced the need for easily-accessible, convenient snacks. Enter the bento box.
Because passengers needed a meal they could consume quickly, and cleanly, on the train, stations all over Japan started serving ekiben (駅弁 えきべん), or “station bento”. First served in 1885, ekiben continues to be a staple of travel in Japan to this day. You can find ekiben at train stations all across Japan. The great thing about this on the go bento is that it’s typically made with fresh, local produce, and often includes typical local dishes. So that, you’re not just grabbing some food as you travel, you also get to experience a little bit of the country’s rich culinary history.
In the ensuing 140 years, bento boxes have, of course, changed and adapted to the times. Now, it’s rare to go into any supermarket, station shop, or airport, without encountering a wide array of bento boxes, to suit the dietary preferences and busy schedules of travelers, corporate employees, students, and everyone else in the country.
If you're finding yourself a little overwhelmed by the whole Japanese Supermarket experience, check out our Ultimate Guide to Shopping in a Japanese Supermarket here for a breakdown!
What do you put in a bento box?
Naturally, every bento box is a little different, and if you’re thinking of preparing a bento box for yourself or for a loved one, then it should typically reflect your preferences. However, if you’re angling for a traditional bento box, these tend to follow a simple structure, largely because it’s been tried and shown efficient down the centuries.
Your traditional bento box follows a simple 1:1:1 ratio, of rice, meat, and veggies in equal amounts. This really sets bento boxes apart from other, Western-style fast food options, because the bento box is created in such a way to provide good nutritional balance to the consumer. You’ve got grains, protein, and veggies, all of which should be part of a meal, no matter how quick or convenient. (Check out our 15 Staples of Japanese Cooking to get the real low-down on the right ingredients!)
It’s interesting to note that the first known examples of bento boxes featured rice heavily (if not solely), and it continues to be an important part of bento culture today. Alternatively, some bento boxes might swap rice for noodles, or onigiri (お握り), a triangular ‘ball’ of steamed rice, typically wrapped in nori seaweed. Onigiri is often eaten plain, but can also include a bit of fish, or vegetable, or be topped with a sauce.
The second important part of a bento box is the protein category, which is typically made up of some kind of meat, or fish, depending on preference. While any meat or fish is considered alright, ideally, you want to pack a type of meat that is easy to eat on the go, so one might like to avoid heavy sauces or excess grease. A popular meat choice for bento boxes in Japan is karaage (唐揚げ). Karaage is a traditional fried chicken dish, where the chicken is shredded into small, bite-sized portions. The meat can be salted, or spiced, but also works well plain, and lightly dusted in flour. The chicken is then deep-fried in oil, and voila, it’s a very convenient piece of meat to pack in your bento box.
While traditionally, a bento box featured some kind of fish dish, modern boxes have undergone a strong globalization process. It’s not unusual to find sausages, for instance, in a modern-day bento box.
Finally, we cannot overlook a fair share of steamed, boiled, or pickled vegetables (often a combination of the three). Carrots, broccoli, and beans are all popular bento choices, but really, you can include any variety of vegetables that strikes your fancy.
If you like, you can also include a sauce, such as soy, of sweet-sour sauce, though you might want to pre-package that in a special plastic container, to avoid spillage.
Is a bento box supposed to be cold?
Yes, a bento box is typically designed to be consumed just as it is. This can be something of a cultural shock, particularly for travelers from countries where lunch is, normally, a hot meal. While you can, technically, reheat the food inside a bento box, to give that ‘hot meal’ feeling, all of the food is designed to be enjoyable cold. To that end, Japanese homemakers deftly use in-season spices, and produce, to make the meal more flavorful.
But no, while a hot lunch might be the norm in other countries, the bento box is supposed to be enjoyed cold.
Is it still a bento box, no matter what I put in it?
As the bento box has changed and adapted to modern times, it’s a sensible question – is it still a bento box, if you don’t put any traditional bento dishes inside? Technically, yes. Nowadays, the term ‘bento’ is used to refer to a convenient lunch box, with separate slots for separate dish portions.
Even as you travel through Japan, you’ll find the bento box has come a long way from the simple rice ball that used to be the on-the-go solution of the 12th century. So, a modern bento box can include things like wraps, sushi, salads, and even sandwiches. You can include your favorite veggies, portions of sliced fruit, as well as a selection of nuts, seeds, or trail mix, to provide a nutritious power ball to your day.
Although the traditional version features some kind of meat, modern bento have been adapted to suit all dietary choices. Many stores now offer vegetarian or vegan options, as well as boxes with a higher meat-content for carnivores.
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As we saw before, the bento box is more than just a convenient way to have lunch. It’s a message and a form of affection. In other words, to show your care, you won’t just want to pack a meal, but you may also wish to decorate it.
What is kyara-ben?
Naturally, in the old origin days of bento, it was enough for the wives to pack their husbands a meal in a bag, and that was the end of it. However, as the bento box moved from hunters to schoolchildren, it also started to receive certain artistic flourishes, which is how kyara-ben (キャラ弁) started.
Kyara-ben, short for character bento, is thought to have originated during the 1980s and 1990s, with stay-at-home mothers who would pack their children a meal in the morning. Wishing to put a smile on their children’s faces, the mothers would often arrange the meal ingredients in such a way to represent a popular cartoon character or emblematic moment.
It’s customary for the person preparing the box to engage in a little character art (which is the literary translation of Kyara-ben). Modern bento boxes can often be seen to represent a character from an anime, manga, or children’s program. Kyara-ben can also be imbued with more traditional symbols or characters, and even reference Japanese myths, sagas, and so on.
The original idea behind kyara-ben was to inspire schoolchildren to eat a larger variety of vegetables and dishes. Using healthy veggies in clever, fun decorations was a way for mothers to introduce new factors to their child’s diet in a child-friendly way.
And though it started as a simple enough idea, kyara-ben evolved way past its original scope to become its very own art form. Nowadays, contests are held all over Japan, where artists and chefs can show their creativity by creating elaborate bento designs.
Where to Get the Best Bento in Tokyo
As we mentioned, you don’t necessarily need to go to a fancy restaurant to enjoy a delicious bento meal. You can stop by at your nearest convenience store while traveling through Tokyo, which is great news for tourists with a busy schedule – you’re guaranteed a healthy, yummy meal without wasting any time.
Nevertheless, because bento boxes are an important part of the local culture, dedicated stores have started cropping up all over Tokyo, as well as other big tourist cities.
Located near Tokyo’s famous Ueno Park, Inshotei is one of the city’s most sought-after bento stops. First established in 1875, during the Meiji Period inside the manor that still houses it today, Inshotei was known as the manor with the sound of the lingering bell (that is, essentially, the translation of the manor’s name). And it owed this fame to the bell located outside of the manor, surrounded by cherry blossom trees (since replaced by equally charming pine trees). The bell would ring out three times during any given day – at 6am, noon, and then finally, at 6pm, each heralding one of the three essential meals.
Although guests can enjoy meals at all hours nowadays, much of the manor’s enchanting scenery remains unchained. With a view of Ueno Park, the Ueno mountains, and the Shinobazu Pond, Inshotei is a beautiful, tranquil location to enjoy a traditional, nutritious Japanese bento box.
Nestled in the heart of Toranomon, Tokyo’s largest new development area, Nobu Tokyo is one of the most well-known restaurant chains in the country. Albeit lacking the tranquil, natural setting of Inshotei, Nobu Tokyo boasts the expertise of Chef Nobu Matsuhisa and his team of skilled cooks. Customers can choose between sitting at the bar, in the general dining area, at the sushi lounge, or even hiring a semi-private room for a more intimate event. The entire restaurant features classy, high-end decor, and the food is first-rate, while also remaining very affordable.
What’s great about the Nobu restaurant chain is that it doesn’t need to be a one-time meal. Enjoying tremendous success, Nobu restaurants can be found all across the planet, from Malibu to Las Vegas, to Barcelona, to Sydney, Hong Kong, and Cape Town. So avid travelers will have many chances of dining in Nobu restaurants again, though, of course, the true bento experience is only in Tokyo.
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Ain Soph. Ginza
If you’re looking for a vegan bento experience, look no further, because Ain Soph. is the place to go. Founded in 2009 by Yuri Shirai, and with a name that means ‘infinity’ in Hebrew, Ain Soph. is a fascinating concept restaurant chain. The design aesthetic is very simple, minimalist, with a back-to-basics focus. According to the owner, that’s because Ain Soph was itself inspired by a tea ceremony, which invited the owner to go on a self-discovery journey, which then led to the founding of this wonderful restaurant chain. Everything from the interior design to the way the bento boxes are served is very simple and aesthetically pleasing, and the menu is 100% plant-based, so suitable for vegetarian or vegan diets.
With locations also in Ikebukuro and Shinjuku, Ain Soph is a growing restaurant chain (though the most popular among tourists remains the Ginza location, as it’s the most convenient). Ain Soph also boasts a delightful location in Kyoto, and no doubt, looks to open many more restaurants across the country in the years to follow.
Interested in experiencing a Japanese tea ceremony in English? Check out our full breakdown of the dos, don'ts, what happens in a ceremony, and where to participate in our Ultimate Guide to the Japanese Tea Ceremony.
Finally, also in the Shinjuku district, Junisoh is one of the several restaurants owned by the Hilton Hotel chain. While the hotel also features an authentic grill restaurant and a pub-style bar, Junisoh is a dining area focused on traditional Japanese dishes, with a strong focus on sushi.
A pivotal aspect of the Junisoh concept is blending old traditions with new ideas, both in design and on the plate. The restaurant features a simple, wood-focused interior, while also sprinkled with modern, high-concept lighting and design elements. As for the culinary aspect, Junisoh is a thrilling adventure, with the menu changing regularly to reflect the twelve months of the Japanese calendar.
Enjoy your Bento!
Because all these restaurants are quite popular, you’ll probably want to book a table ahead of time, to make sure you get to enjoy your bento box in style. For a more well-rounded experience, you can book a table at one of the above restaurants, then also grab a quick bento box at your nearest convenience store, or at a train station. That way, you get to enjoy both a fancy dinner, but also get taken back to the on-the-go, convenient quick meal roots of the much-loved bento box.
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