Article updated on May 23, 2020
Text & photos: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
The Tokyo station is a crazy maze! Japanese people walk around like ants, workers in their white shirts, black pants and black leather shoes hurrying to catch their train, tourists running to make it on time… But there is this specific spot where people seem to be motionless, waiting online. Curious, I get closer: this is Matsuri, one of the most popular bento shops of the busiest station in Japan!
If you like… healthy food on the go,
…you will love bento!
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What is a bento?
Bento (弁当) are single portion boxed-meals, often eaten at lunch time on the go. They are readily available throughout Japan from cheap food bought in supermarkets to refined boxes from luxurious hotels or specialised shops (bentō-ya: 弁当屋), without forgetting the sacred convenient stores like 7/11, Family Mart or Lawson. These boxes contain rice as staple food, often flavoured in different ways, fish or meat, with pickled or cooked vegetables, and sometimes a small serving of fresh veggies or fruits. Nutritionally balanced, the food is also aesthetically arranged and separated by partitions to ensure tastes do not interfere with one another. When bento should look colourful and varied, some take the challenge to the next level with kyaraben (or character bento) in which food represents a manga, cartoon or a video game character!
The variety is impressive: Matsuri is said to carry more than 200 different ekiben (駅弁 the bento found in train stations)!
Yesterday & today: bento over time
If rice-to-go for workers has existed for almost a thousand years, it is the 15th or 16th century that the first wooden lacquered boxes appeared. The Japanese warriors, the samurai, needed a nutritious and portable solution during their campaigns. The etymology of the word comes from a Chinese slang (biàndāng) meaning convenient.
Today, it is quite common and even expected for Japanese wives to make bento for their husbands before they head off to work or for their kids to go to school everyday. The bento made at home is wrapped in a furoshiki, a piece of cloth which acts as both bag and table mat.
More than just a boxed-meal, bento are part of the Japanese culture. A highlight of the sakura (cherry blossoms) season for the Japanese is to sit and enjoy their bento with friends under a blooming tree in a park, or during festivals.
A typical bento experience
We would often buy a bento in the morning while road tripping in Kyushu, Shikoku or Hokkaido, giving us a lot of flexibility regarding where to eat. While riding the train, buying the bento at the station is ideal, and for the Japanese, it is a full part of the experience. When many bento can be eaten cold, it is easy to warm them up as supermarkets and convenient stores provide microwaves, and they represent a tasteful alternative to instant ramen!
Great souvenirs reducing your footprint!
On top of being delicious, bento are also very practical as they come with disposable chopsticks. Going through at least a pair a day, we started wondering about the environmental impact to find out that in 2013, 57 billion of disposable chopsticks were manufactured in China and 24 billion of them used in Japan. This is roughly 200 a year per person for Japan only! This is creating a massive pressure on forests for which the solution is fairly straightforward: buy your own pair of chopsticks and carry it with you! It is a great souvenir from Japan and reduces your footprint.
Another fun souvenir to bring back is your own bento box. Specialised stores sell some made of aluminium, sturdy plastics or lacquered wood. The designs are always amazing! Once back home, using your stylish Japanese bento box to package healthy homemade food is a great way to keep reducing your environmental footprint while remembering your trip to Japan!
Where to enjoy bento in Japan: a bento is a full part of a train experience in Japan. If in Tokyo, go to Matsuri in Tokyo station and choose your bento before boarding. Some come in collectible containers!
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