What's Inside a Bento Box?

Unbox the revolutionary, popular, and practical styles of bento

By NHK Educational

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BentoNHK Educational

What is bento?

A bento is a portable meal of rice and side dishes packed into a small container. A variety of bento are made for different settings, such as school or work lunches, leisurely outings, or trips to the theater.

Makunouchi BentoOriginal Source: Kandamyojinshita Miyabi

An intermission meal

Makunouchi (literally meaning "between acts”) is a type of bento developed in Edo (now known as Tokyo), which is typically eaten at the theater during intermissions. Because the intermissions are short, the rice is divided into small portions to be easily picked up with chopsticks. The other side dishes are also bite-sized.

"NAKAMURA-ZA Kabuki theater" National Diet Library Digital Collections by Utagawa ToyokuniOriginal Source: National Diet Library Digital Collections

Where did Makunouchi bento originate?

The Makunouchi bento was developed in the Edo period (1603-1868 CE). The name derives from the fact that it was eaten between the acts of kabuki performances.

"Shidashi", catered bento ("Oridume" bento)Original Source: Hishiiwa

Packed with style

Shidashi is a term used for bento delivered by professional caterers. These box meals are traditionally ordered for important guests or special occasions. Shidashi bento are filled with a wide variety of colorful, artistically arranged side dishes.

【Bento】"Shidashi", catered bentoOriginal Source: Hishiiwa

Shokado bentoOriginal Source: Koraibashi Kitcho

Four dishes, one box

An innovative new type of boxed meal known as the Shokado bento was developed in Osaka at the beginning of the Showa period (1926-1989 CE) by the chef Yuki Teiichi. A Shokado bento has four different types of dishes, arranged into four sections of a lacquered bento box. This type of bento condenses the traditional multi-course Japanese dinner, known as kaiseki ryori, into one box.

【Bento】Shokado bentoOriginal Source: Koraibashi Kitcho

Ekibenya MatsuriOriginal Source: Ekibenya Matsuri

Filled with flavors

Ekiben (station bento) are boxed meals sold in railroad stations for the purpose of eating on the train. These are sold across Japan from north to south, but the flavors of ekiben vary wide depending on the locality. Enjoying ekiben meals that are available only in specific places is one of the special pleasures of train travel in Japan.

Kakinoha sushiOriginal Source: Yanagiya

A sushi specialty

Kakinoha zushi (persimmon leaf sushi) is a specialty of Nara. To make each individual piece, a thin slice of vinegar-pickled salted mackerel is placed on top of vinegared sushi rice and wrapped in a persimmon leaf. This local delicacy is prized for the glossy appearance of the mackerel and the pleasant fragrance of the persimmon leaf.

Tougeno-KamameshiOriginal Source: Oginoya

Home-cooked bento

Kamameshi (potted rice) is a kind of ekiben made in Gunma. This warm, home-style bento is traditionally cooked and served in an earthenware pot produced in the kilns of Mashiko. When it was first introduced in 1958, Kamameshi was considered a revolutionary bento and became wildly popular.

IkameshiOriginal Source: Ikameshi Abe Shoten

Fill your fish

Ikameshi is an ekiben sold in Mori Station in Hokkaido. This bento emerged during the rice shortages of World War II. Squid, which were being caught in great numbers at the time, were used to add volume to the meal.

Masu-no-shushiOriginal Source: Minamoto

A local delicacy

Masuzushi is a kind of Oshi-sushi (pressed sushi) made of vinegared trout salmon and vinegared rice, and wrapped in bamboo leaves. It is a local delicacy of Toyama prefecture.

Hipparidako meshiOriginal Source: Awajiya

Match the container to the dish

This bento consists of rice, octopus (tako), conger eel (anago), and vegetables arranged in an earthenware container that resembles an octopus trap used by fishermen. Consumers enjoy both the flavor and the intriguing container.

Sanin Tottori Kani meshiOriginal Source: Abe Tottori Do

Let's hope you like crab

For this bento, rice is cooked with crab and then arranged with crab meat and claws. It comes in a fun container shaped like a crab.

Yonezawa beef bentoOriginal Source: Matsukawa bento ten

Beef in a box

This is an ekiben made using the famous Yonezawa beef raised in the region of Yonezawa, Yamagata prefecture.

Tai-no-maiOriginal Source: Shioso

Fresh from the sea

For this bento, sea bream (tai) caught in the sea near Wakasa Bay is lightly sprinkled with salt and then combined with vinegared sushi rice.

【Bento】Uni (sea urchin) bentoOriginal Source: Sanriku Rias tei

Credits: Story

Kandamyojinshita Miyabi
National Diet Library Digital Collections
Koraibashi Kitcho
Ekibenya Matsuri
Ikameshi Abe Shoten
Abe Tottori Do
Matsukawa bento ten
Sanriku Rias tei

Photography by Tadayuki Minamoto

Music by Kazuki Sugawara

Supervised by
Maezaki Shinya, Associate Professor, Kyoto Women's University
M. Rinne, Kyoto National Museum

Produced by NHK Educational Corporation


Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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