Cute, compact and customizable, the Japanese bento box is quickly becoming a lunchtime darling all over the world.
With origins dating back a thousand years, the bento box is a style of Japanese lunch container that holds individually portioned, ready-to-eat foods. A typical bento box is packed with a balance of foods, usually fish or meat, rice and pickled vegetables. While many Japanese parents pack simple homemade meals, others have taken the bento challenge to new heights, preparing eggs shaped like little mice and rice balls that look like cartoon bunnies, complete with accessories.
Japan’s love of both bento and adorable, animal-centric kitchen gadgets make it the ideal place to stock up on lunch prep tools to take home with you. Check out where to shop — and what to buy — below!
Where to shop
Bento gear is available at every price point throughout Japan. Most 100-yen stores (the equivalent to the American dollar store) offer a large selection of goods, primarily made with colorful plastic or decorated with characters. Often, the lower prices indicate that the boxes are made of less-durable materials.
The home goods sections of department stores can be fun to peruse for bento products, especially kitchenware hot spots like Tokyu Hands and LOFT. Both places are packed with quality home goods, from boxes to the accessories that go with them. Travelers with a minimalist vibe can also check out the many MUJI stores in Tokyo to pick up some of the legendary brand’s mix-and-match storage containers, which only come in black, white and aluminum.
In reality, the only true bento essential is the box designed with separate compartments. Box options abound in a variety of colors, shapes and materials — and designs cater to every style. Take, for example, this minimalist bamboo option or the plastic character shapes decorated with familiar faces like Hello Kitty. Boxes often come as sets that include matching silverware, chopsticks and carrying pouches called kinchaku.
Inside the boxes is where the fun really kicks in, thanks to an endless number of whimsical kitchen gadgets. Though many stores in Japan stock extras like citrus peelers and egg cutters that slice hard-boiled eggs into flowers, there are other basic tools that will help elevate any packed lunch to new levels of cuteness.
1. Bento picksCrowd favorites worth purchasing: Little plastic toothpicks or forks made of reusable plastic or wood and shaped like animals, letters or cartoon characters. Also known as bento picks, they can be used as substitutes for utensils, making them perfect for young children or just for decoration. These animal friends picks make adorable lunch companions.
2. Food cupsSilicon or paper food cups in bright colors and patterns neatly separate food and condiments. This whimsical set is reusable, washable and microwave safe.
3. Sushi rice molds
These easy-to-use rice molds create rice balls, or onigiri, in the shape of pandas, cats, flowers and more. For Americans who may be less likely to pack rice, they also work for shaping hard-boiled eggs. This set of five molds also acts as a scoop to make cute bite-sized rice balls shaped like an elephant, rabbit, cat, dog and plain sphere.
4. Seaweed cuttersIf you really want to dive into the bento world, consider buying sheets of nori seaweed from your local health food store. Bring seaweed cutters home from your Japan trip to easily decorate foods with smiley faces using these nori punches.
With the right basics, bento boxes can come together with minimal effort. Armed with a stylish container and a few key tools, you can bring this smile-inducing Japanese culinary approach home with you.