Bento Box—part of the Japanese culinary culture
Buy them in stores, at train stations, or make them at home.
A Japanese Bento is a take-away meal in a compartmentalized box, often throw-away, but many times re-usable. Office and lab workers buy them for lunch, school kids eat from them at their desks, and business travelers have them, often with a beer, on the bullet trains.
They are always beautifully packaged and presented and seem like small works of art, almost too pretty to eat sometimes. In the neat, individual sections of the basic boxes there will always be a large serving of rice, perhaps with black sesame seeds sprinkled on top; a main serving of meat or fish; pieces of Japanese rolled omelette; some vegetables; and a selection of pickles. But part of the charm of the bento is that anything goes, and it’s always an adventure. You may open your bento to find a whole small octopus or a tiny whole fish gazing up at you; small edible flowers decorating a mound of grated daikon; or a scoop of red salmon fish eggs on seaweed.
Apparently it’s a tradition to buy a bento box when you go on a long train trip, so we were happy to comply! Before we set off for the port of Hakodate, Satoshi and Chikako instructed us about the eki-ben, the special bento boxes you can buy inside the train stations (eki=station, and ben is short for bento). Prices range from 650-1100 yen typically. The stations have special little stalls that sell a variety of bento boxes and usually the boxes reflect the local cooking traditions, so what we find in Sapporo will probably be different to what we can find in Hakodate, for example. Some of the differences are small and subtle and we as foreigners might not catch them, but the locals do. In fact, the Japanese in general seem very proud of the different regional cuisines and go to great lengths to explain them to us (for example, how to prepare soba or udon noodles and the different types of dipping sauce for each, some heavier or lighter, depending on the amount of soy sauce).
We also had gorgeous eki-ben on the shinkansen from Tokyo to Nagoya. Mine had a samurai theme (see top pic), and Rod’s was a local prefecture theme (above), even with a post card of kids waving goodbye to someone going on a train.
What fun, and so much more exciting than a sandwich!