Either homemade or easily picked up from a convenience store or specialty store, bento boxes are beautifully presented packed lunches in Japan, tasty goodies organized into different sections of a box and divided into separate compartments. A compact lunch to eat on-the-go, the word bento was taken from the Song Dynasty Chinese slang term for “convenient.” Indeed, bento boxes are easy to make and easily carried to school or work, but the uniqueness comes from the careful presentation of bento boxes, usually balancing an array of colors and ingredients to make a very appetizing and nutritious meal. Boxes can be made from disposable plastic to hand-crafted lacquerware, usually including rice or noodles, and your favorite morsels of meat and vegetables.
This dish is historically rooted in Japanese cuisine since the Kamakura Period, and is now a regular staple meal. Popularly eaten during the intermission of a kabuki show or noh performance, bento boxes are also perfect to bring along for a picnic, particularly handy for a day trip or hanami (cherry blossom viewing party). Children enjoy kyaraben, decorative bento boxes designed to look like colorful characters from anime series or manga comic books. Bentos sold at train stations showcasing local produce are known as ekiben, featuring aesthetically pleasing snacks like Kyoto’s gorgeous vegetables or anago (conger eel) from Hiroshima. Widely eaten in Japanese cuisine, join a bento cooking class to make your own cute kyaraben, or enjoy a tasty local bento on a lunch stop during a food tour. Luxurious or homemade, bento boxes are far beyond your average packed lunch.