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Japanese Bento Culture

It's amazing how much the Japanese like bento.It's amazing how much the Japanese like bento.

Park Euna (Korea)

It is probably from “eating" that people coming to Japan from abroad first know the difference between their own country and Japan. Japanese food such as sushi, tempura, ramen, matcha green tea and sake are known throughout the world. Of all the Japanese food, bento is something that cannot be left out. Looking at the bento section at convenience stores, the bento for travelers sold at stations called ekiben which is a fun part of a travel, the home-made anime character bento, etc.; you can tell how those who make, sell or eat bento do not compromise about bento.
 
The bento shops on the streets may be the ones that prove how much Japanese people like bento. There are many national bento chains, and independent bento shops are also found everywhere. Many of the restaurants and teishokuya (diners) sell bento during lunch time. What surprised me is that there are 24-hour bento shops. “Is there any need for bento shops to open 24 hours when there are many 24-hour convenience stores and family restaurants?" This was what I thought initially in my astonishment. As the major bento chains put an effort to get people's attention by running TV commercials or using idols for their ads, I think the bento industry is always enthusiastic.
 
Many of the bentos at convenience stores are also amazing. There are: the usual bentos of course, hearty bentos that will make you full, healthy bentos with rice with cereals added, low calorie bentos for dieters, Hiyashi Chuka (cold ramen) in summer, pop-in Tonjiru (pork miso soup) or pop-in stew to enjoy hot food in winter, etc. You will find almost everything. In addition, they offer bentos produced in collaboration with popular restaurants for a certain period of time.
 
Originally, however, bento used to be made by a mother for the children to take it to the school and the husband to the work and for a family picnic or the sport festival at the school. Many of the schools serve lunch nowadays, but there still are many who make bento. I think the standard home-made bento that evokes the Japanese characteristics is Hinomaru Bento (Japanese flag bento) containing rice and an umeboshi (pickled sour plum) in the center. Today some say it is a poor bento. But the umeboshi prevents rice from going bad in hot weather and I think it is also nutritious.
 
Speaking of Japan, we cannot miss the manga or anime characters. The Japanese put them in bento and that is what you would expect from Japan. When I first saw a character bento, I cried out in admiration. The Hello Kitty or panda onigiri (rice ball), Anpanman made with chicken fried rice, Picachu that seems as if it would jump out of the bento box, star or heart-shaped nori (dried seaweed) on rice; the Japanese mothers who wake up early in the morning and prepare nori or hams beautifully because they want to see the child's happy face are just great! But I think it is the mother's love that they do everything if the child eats up all his/her lunch or if it helps the child to eat the food he/she does not like. These days many goods are available for making a character bento including the molds for various purposes such as cutting nori, making onigiri, shaping boiled egg, cutting vegetables, etc. With these, people who are a little clumsy will be able to make a cute character bento. Although Japanese people are good at making small things by their nature, I am especially impressed with the character bentos.
 
Among all the bentos, the most notable one is probably “ekiben (station bento)." It can be said the ekiben, the bento that cannot be found in everyday life, is sheer fun for travelers. I have heard there are people who travel just to have ekiben. The ekiben already existed over 100 years ago. The dining car or food trolley on board is available in other countries. But I do not think there is any other country where one can find so many sorts of ekiben that varies from region to region; it seems as if one can map Japan with those ekiben. People who eat the ekiben would feel privileged to eat something that is not available anywhere else. And for the people who sell the ekiben, they are a good means of drawing tourists. Another charm of the ekiben is the rationality of finishing a meal during the journey on a train.
As many of the ekiben offer regional cuisine, it presents us a small window onto the regional cuisine and the local culture which the travelers would be grateful of. For example, there are the Kani-meshi (crab bento) of Hokkaido, the Gyutan (ox tongue) bento of Sendai, the Shumai (pork dumpling) bento of Yokohama and the Hipparidako-meshi (octopus bento) of Kobe. And there are many unique bento containers on which the Japanese creativity shines. To name but a few bentos with the unique container, there are the Toge-no-kamameshi (bento in a pot at a mountain pass) in an earthenware pot, the Yukidaruma bento of Niigata in the shape of a snowman, the Ikkoku Ichijo (one castle in one country) bento that has the container in the shape of the Himeji Castle and the Inro (samurai's seal case) bento in the shape of the Inro of Mito Komon (Tokugawa Mitsukuni, the 2nd feudal lord of the Mito domain in the Edo period).
 
The “Ekiben Festival" to sell a variety of ekiben is often held at the major department stores. This tells how popular the ekiben is. A long line is formed here and there at the festival and the ekiben are often sold out very soon. I think this is one of the unique scenes in Japan where people are particular about food. There are always the pages for the ekiben in travel guides. There also are manga and TV drama in which the ekiben plays a major role. This shows the Japanese people's love for the ekiben.

The bento changes in many ways as the times, the lifestyle or the trend changes. Lately, bento is attracting attentions in terms of ecology. I often see the garbage bins on the bullet train being filled up with the empty containers of bento. To make it more ecologically friendly, the ekiben wrapped in a bamboo sheath is now available. I hope more and more wonderful ekiben that is ecologically friendly are coming.
 
Park Euna
Korean, resident in Japan for 7 years
Studied in a Japanese university and was employed in Japan
Currently works as a freelance translator and interpreter of Korean language