‘Bento’ means convenient, and is a home-packed meal contained in a box, traditionally a lacquered box. A typical bento contains a serving of rice, either meat of fish, cooked vegetables and pickles. Japanese homemakers often spend a lot of time, waking up early in the morning and spending hours in the kitchen making the most delicious bento box for their loved ones. Mothers often create colorful and cute characters with ingredients styled after popular anime characters in their bento boxes called kyaraben. You can find bento everywhere in Japan such as convenient stores, railway stations or even at specialized bento shops called ‘bento-ya’.
The earliest traces of bento date back to the Kamakura period (1185 – 1333), during that time rice was cooked and dried and stored in a small bag allowing it to be carried to work where it was eaten as is or by adding boiled water. In the Edo period (1603 – 1867), ‘koshi-bento’, meaning waist bento, emerged. Onigiri (rice balls) would be packed in a simple woven bamboo box and carried around to be eaten outdoors or during Hanami (sakura blossom viewing). During the industrialization in the Meiji period (1868 – 1912), special lunch boxes were sold at train station called ‘ekiben’. This consisted of a simple serving of two onigiri and pickles. After the decline in popularity of bringing bento boxes to school during the Taisho period (1912 – 1926) due to it reflecting a student’s wealth and a uniform food system was adopted, bento boxes regained popularity again in the 1980’s. With a whole variety of healthy foods stuffed into a box, it is easy to see why bento are so loved by so many.