Japanese Food: What is A Bento? (弁当はなんですか?)

I wanted to do a short post about an item that is quite common in Japanese culture, the bento. A bento, べんとう(弁当), is the word for a Japanese lunchbox. There are two main images that the word “bento” conjures up in my mind. When I think of a bento, I’m reminded of the ready-made meals that you find in the 7Elevens, Family Marts, and other convenience stores in Japan. You can simply just heat them and eat them. Actually at a convenience store, you usually don’t have to do any of the work. When you a buy a bento, the clerk will usually ask “あたためますか?” (atatamemasuka?) which means “Would you like to heat your bento?”

You will also find bentos aplenty in train stations because people are constantly on the go, and it’s a relatively inexpensive way to get a decent meal. When riding on the Shinkansen, Tokyo’s super-fast bullet train, train attendants have bentos selections on their carts to offer their patrons.

Not all bentos are created equal; there are different sizes and many different types of selections. In general, a standard bento has rice (gohan), sliced pickles/pickled vegetables (tsukemono, つけもの ), some form of meat/fish (niku/sakana にく/さかな), and a small helping of vegetables (yasai, やさい). For the convenience store bentos, they even have the number of calories that each bento contains (which vary from bento to bento). Prices can also differ from bento to bento…it depends largely on what’s in the bento. If the meat or fish is more expensive, like unagi for example, the bento is going to be a bit more expensive. Not being the best of cooks, I think bentos can be really convenient, but I can’t say all of them are healthy.

On one hand we have the convenience store bento, and on the other we have the homemade bento. You can usually tell if someone has a homemade bento because their lunch box is probably wrapped in a furoshiki, ふろしき, which is a wrapping cloth that is folded, wrapped around the lunch box, and tied for easy carrying. These wrapping cloths generally have pretty focal colors and (to me) are an elegant Japanese touch to something even as simple as a lunch box.

It is quite common for Japanese wives to make bentos for their husbands before they head off to work everyday. In my opinion, the homemade bentos usually look so much better than the store-bought ones…it always seems a like a little more care goes into the homemade ones. I guess it makes sense, though, because a wife would only be preparing one bento for her husband and one for each child, whereas in a convenience store it’s providing bento after bento after bento, to meet customer demand.

The bento is a huge part of Japnese culture, and if you’re coming to Japan, I’m about 95% sure you’ll eat one at some point in time. Earlier I mentioned that some bentos aren’t very healthy, but by an large it’s far healthier than going to a fast food restaurant. I think eating balanced meals is a big thing in Japan; you can even see evidence of that in these pre-packaged meals. I hope you found today’s post useful.

Thanks for reading,

Donald Ash

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  • Amanda

    Ah yes, thank you. I’m sure I will be eating bentos for a while when I first get to Japan, so thanks for the tip on “atatamemasuka”. Now I’ll know what it means!

    Only about two weeks to go eeek!

    • Donald Ash

      It’s getting down to the wire, huh? I know you must be feeling anxious, excited, and all kinds of other crazy emotions. When you get here, those bentos can be a life-saver. I so excited for you!!

  • Kayla

    I’m actually looking forward to cooking fancy and cute Bento foods for my boyfriend when we move to Japan in a few years. ^_^

    • Donald Ash

      That sounds cool, Kayla.
      I kinda need to work on the whole cooking thing…I kinda suck to be honest.

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