Three times a month I go to my husband’s company for a Japanese class and luncheon with the other expat spouses. We have about a 90 minute language class, followed by a bento — Japanese box lunch — and some type of cultural lesson while we eat.

Japanese bento are amazing. If you are unfamiliar with the term, just Google “bento” and look at all the images that pop up. This is the bento box that I had today:

As bento boxes go, this one is pretty simple. A ground beef patty served on salad, with a vegetable sauce, rice, a couple of slices of cooked potato, a single-bite scoop of potato salad, steamed Japanese pumpkin, and Japanese pickled vegetables. Seems like a lot, but the portion sizes are very reasonable. Colorful, and very tasty! Also… napkin, chopsticks and wet wipe (and toothpick!) are included in the box.

Bento is the term used here for a boxed lunch, but calling it a “lunch box” is almost an injustice. Bento — in Japanese culture — has almost been elevated to an art form. Sure, you can find very simple bento boxes, and strictly speaking, any boxed lunch is considered a bento here. But, a true bento not only nourishes the body with the foods it contains, it also nourishes the eye and the soul with its beauty. Brightly colored foods, artfully arranged — aesthetically  pleasing to the eye. Color, variety, and contrasting flavors are key to a good bento. That may sound silly, but here in Japan, lunchtime is considered to be an important time to recharge the body, mind, and soul. Wolfing down a burger and soda in the car as you run errands is just not the same.

Bento boxes can be purchased everywhere here. Meal choices of all kinds can be found in any convenience store or supermarket in disposable or recyclable containers. At lunchtime there are lunch carts that park on the sidewalks in front of office buildings with many choices for hungry workers — usually for 400¥ to 800¥ each (roughly $4 to $8. Restaurants usually set up tables outside to sell bento boxes from their lunch menus. All the department stores here in Tokyo have food sections (usually on the basement level) to sell all manner of lunch foods and bento boxes. There are specialty stores that sell only bento. They even sell bento boxes in train and bus stations for passengers to take with them as they travel. Office workers may take their bento boxes back to eat at their desk, but many people here opt to sit outside in the parks or — here in Shibaura — on benches along the canals.

Stores also sell fancy re-usable lunch boxes for lunches brought from home, and there are all manner of gadgets available to carve and shape foods into fancy shapes. Kids’ lunches often follow a theme with a cartoon character or favorite animal. Moms (and dads too, I am sure) spend much time, energy, and creativity to fashion a fun, delicious, AND nutritious lunch for their children. There are YouTube videos and Pinterest pages galore on how to make cute bento boxes.

Sure… it is only lunch, after all… But why not make it something special. Aren’t we worth the effort?


Walking back from the supermarket today, I took photos of some of the signs I saw. Everywhere I look there are street signs, signs on businesses and buildings, advertisements, notices, and announcements… All written in Japanese.

We have been learning and studying Japanese since we arrived in Tokyo 20 months ago, but still… we are baffled by most of the signs we see, unable to read the characters well enough to understand the message. Pictures help, but a lot of the signs have no pictures. We have learned the katakana, the hiragana, and really… quite a few kanji, but with more than 2000 commonly used kanji (and about 8000 total kanji), it will be awhile before we can read it effectively. And in written Japanese, they mix all three character systems, so it becomes even more of a challenge for us. We try to read the kana, and then there are kanji characters mixed in. Lol… frustrating. Here are some examples:

A sign from the supermarket. I can only guess what it means from the pictures. As you can see, they do use regular numbers a lot of the time, but there can also be numbers written in kanji.
I walk by this sign everyday… A business. I can read some of the kanji. The red kanji characters say “Shibaura” which is where we live in Tokyo. The big kanji characters may say “Migiyama.” 

As text is in English, Japanese characters can be highly stylized — essentially with different “fonts.” We often use Google Translate to help decipher text here, but the more stylized it is, the less likely that Google Translate can read it. Pretty hit and miss, actually…

Along the sidewalk near our apartment. the first three characters are katakana: “ba-i-ku” (bike), followed by the three kanji for jitensha (bicycle.) The last four kanji, according to Google Translate, say “no entry.” Yeah… I figured that is what it meant.
This is a notice posted at our apartment building… Yes I probably know a few of the kanji, but not enough to read it. My only clue here is the graphic. “Please be considerate of your neighbors, and be quiet!” Lol… 


Just a couple more… These are both posted in the elevators at our building, and I know that they have something to do with elevator safety during an earthquake or fire disaster. In the second sign, the first two red kanji represent “fire,” and the second two, are for “earthquake.” This one says not to use the elevator to evacuate during a fire or earthquake. Ok… that makes sense.

Despite the fact that we are still pretty much “Japanese illiterates”, we get along here just fine. We want to continue learning this language, and certainly we wish we could read and understand Japanese better, but we are doing alright without the language proficiency. So, if you ever have the chance to visit Japan… don’t let the language stop you! It is an amazing place.