Andrew’s World in Japan 2019/November

Artist & researcher based in KL since 2009, passionately exploring the creative process & connecting with other creative people.

Share The Love Of Bento
Ode To Lunchboxes

“O ne cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” – Virginia Woolf, A Room Of One’s Own.

Changes in technology and society do not change the importance of eating well. The Japanese Royal class that established the original forms of packed meals and today’s student’s bento lunches always served to nurture their recipients creatively. As people have become more mobile, it only makes sense that their food will follow suit. Not every bento has such lofty goals as those fancy student ones.

Today though, there are many categories of bento. Some of the most famous are the ekiben, koraku, makunouchi, aisai and the one that captures the bulk of social media of attention, kyaraben. Each has its unique attributes and place in history.

Japan is well known for its impressive train system and with that is paired a key attraction, the ‘ekiben’ (駅弁). The word is formed by the combination of train station, ‘eki,’ and bento. When the railways began and peaked during the Meiji period (1868-1912) was the peak for this style. Somewhere records say that the year 1885 saw the first ekiben sold at Utsunomiya Station. It was probably like onigiri, rice balls with umeboshi inside. As airplanes became the more common form of transportation in the 80’s fewer passengers meant fewer customers. Today it is still possible to find and actually, some people love to travel to specific stations for their famous ekiben. Can you believe there are even annual fairs held at department stores? Visit any major train station today and you can surely try an ekiben.

Koraku bento is known for its common sightings during hanami season. Literally translated, it means “picnic lunchbox” and meant to be shared among groups. Reflecting on the cultural appreciation of seasonal changes, items are frequently curated to accentuate those unique times. Regardless of the season, items that keep well and are easy to share like onigiri and maki-zushi rolls are likely to be found.

The one that I have probably sampled most is called makunouchi bento (幕の内弁当). Today it is standard in most convenience stores and supermarkets. This style developed during the Edo period served as makuno-uchi bentō (“between-act bento”) for those performing in and attending kabuki and noh theatre performances. Within each partitioned meal is organized for the rice to have a section and other side dishes to have theirs.

I look back fondly to the time I received an aisai bento (愛妻弁当) from my then-girlfriend. It floated the line between kyaraben maybe because that style had not fully formed yet. The lunch box she made me was full of character and almost too cute to eat. Translate aisai bento and it means “bento made by loving wives.” I think this is a great way for anyone to show their appreciation for someone they care about. It reminds me of the classic mixtapes we used to make for friends and loved ones.

I would like to share more about the times I’ve eaten bento, but I believe you get the idea. Hopefully, when you visit Japan you can taste one for yourself. But there’s no need to wait. Watch some tutorial videos and try to make one for yourself or someone you love.