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?

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My husband and I were both born and raised in Kansas, but for the past 20+ years we have been living in Atlanta, Georgia. Now, with our children grown and out of the house, we have the opportunity to spend two years living in Tokyo. My husband will be working with the Japanese counterpart to his American company.

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