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More Japanese "Boxing" their Lunches

Innovative Bento Boxes Hit the Lunch-Hour Scene


Decorated bento can be enjoyed at the office. ©Muku AR Relations

The lunchtime landscape at Japanese workplaces is changing. Come midday, an increasing number of individuals can be seen popping the lids off Japanese boxed lunches, or bento. Rising food prices and the continuing boom in health consciousness have prompted more people to make their own lunches and bring them to the office. Amid this trend, it has become increasingly popular for people to jazz up their bento by arranging the food decoratively. Meanwhile, new bento boxes with innovative features are helping to make lunch even tastier and more enjoyable.

A Lunchtime Tradition
Bento, boxed meals designed to be carried around and eaten away from home, have long been a part of the Japanese lifestyle. In the past bento were simple affairs consisting largely of hand-pressed rice balls known as onigiri. In modern times, however, numerous varieties of bento have evolved, including some that are so elegant and colorful in their presentation that they might easily pass for works of art. A boxed lunch typically contains a serving of rice and various small servings of side dishes, including a simple salad or some fruit.

Children take bento to school trips and sports days, while adults often take them to work and to outdoor events like cherry-blossom viewing parties. Another variety of bento is known as eki-ben (“station bento”). Rail passengers purchase these meals at stations and eat them at their seats as they watch the scenery go by. Many eki-ben feature delicious local specialties, and these boxed meals have become a highlight of long distance rail journeys for many travelers.


A boxed lunch featuring an angel. ©Muku AR Relations

Lunch Becomes Art
While boxed lunches can be bought at stores, many men and women bring homemade bento to their workplaces. An increasing number of them are devising ways of making their boxed meals pleasing to the eye with decorated bento, or deko-ben for short. Some design faces on their rice using strips of dried seaweed to form a mouth, nose, and eyes; those with a flair for color coordination may arrange orange pumpkins, red tomatoes, green cucumbers, and the whites and yolks of eggs into fun patterns.

Deko-ben were originally popularized by mothers looking for ways to get their children to enjoy eating a nutritious lunch. One variety of deko-ben that has proved especially popular among kids is kyara-ben, or bento with food arranged in the shape of anime characters. A homemade boxed lunch is now regarded as a meal that is not only delicious but also attractive.


A lunch box that keeps food warm. ©ZOJIRUSHI

Cutting-Edge Lunch Boxes
The growing popularity of homemade bento has been accompanied by the appearance of lunchboxes with a variety of new features. Some are insulated, for example, enabling people to enjoy a warm lunch even several hours after preparing the food. Vacuum-insulated containers incorporating technology similar to Thermos bottles make sure that soup stays hot until lunchtime. And when temperatures rise, antibacterial silver ion bento boxes and boxes with refrigerant gel and insulated sheets in their lids prove especially useful. Such handy boxes provide all the more reason to look forward to lunch. (November 2008)