The History and Artform of the Bento Box in Osaka

Osaka: A city to go hunting for bento boxes

What is the craze about bento boxes and how did they get so popular? Let’s explore the history and find out together!

A Bento box, at its core, is simply a Japanese to-go box containing an entire meal, often for lunch. It all started back in the Kamakura period of the 12th century when workers would bring cooked rice to work in a small bag. Later, they started to use wooden boxes during parties. By the 17th century, the art of bento boxes became more well-known and travelers would use them to carry their meals, which often consisted of onigiri, rice balls. In the late 19th century, commercialized versions of bento boxes were sold and students often brought these to school. 

Now, people can either buy pre-packaged bentos or prepare them at home. Mothers often take pride in neatly placing each component (rice, meat, and pickled vegetables) within the bento and fully utilizing the containers. These are called aisai bento. If the wives are feeling “revengeful”, they may create shikaeshiben, where insults are written within the boxes. These bento boxes are a great way for people to have fun with their food. There are also many other ways to pack a bento box and enjoy the meal!

In restaurants, shidashi bento boxes are made with rice, tempura, and pickled vegetables. These can be catered and delivered to large gatherings. Another common box for groups is the koraku bento, which are to be shared amongst a few people. Typically, onigiri and makizushi (rice balls and rolled sushi) are placed in these boxes, although other foods can be used for different occasions.

Koraku Bento

Ekiben is a bento box specifically sold on trains or at train stations. These commercial boxes are often cheap, but high quality, and come in disposable boxes with utensils. With the widespread use of trains across Japan, stations and the trains themselves have became a popular location to sell meals for travelers. One great local place in Osaka to try these is at the Shin-Osaka Station.

A typical type of ekiben sold is makunouchi, which is a box of mostly rice and a combination of fish, meat, eggs, vegetables, and a pickled plum, umeboshi.

Ekiben

Sometimes fun designs are created in the bento boxes. A famous one is the hironmaru, for the Japanese flag. Usually, white rice fills the box and a single pickled plum is placed in the center.

Bento with hironmaru

Kyaraben is a fun way to eat a meal for children. When they open up their lunch box, children will find a pop culture character. They are designed with food itself, such as shaped rice decorated with seaweed or other toppings. These colorful and animated meals encourage children to eat all their food.

Kyaraben
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