Through various media, traditional Japanese bento boxes have become emblematic of their country. Nice-looking yet practical at the same time, they are more than just a gimmick or a cultural quirk.
East Asian countries are famous for their perfectionism, and Japan is no different. If something doesn’t work, the Japanese discard it. If it does, they not only make it a part of their culture but refine it as much as possible. And bento is one piece of history that has withstood the test of time.
Traditional Japanese Bento Boxes Explained
So what is bento? Simply put, it is a packed meal, except, in this case, the word applies to both the food within the container and the container itself. Originally meaning “convenience” or “convenient,” the term has evolved along with the box.
The Japanese have a long tradition of eating on the go, dating back to the late Kamakura period (1185 to 1333). Back then, people would carry cooked and dried rice, and either eat it as such or cook it again.
It was only during the Edo period (1603 to 1868) that everyone started commonly using actual boxes. These were made from woven bamboo and were hardly works of art. However, bento was slowly turning into an arms race between wives. Whoever failed to make an appealing lunch for her husband or children would face social scrutiny!
This led to an explosion of styles and decorations for something as humble as a simple lunch box. Presenting a beautiful-looking meal became a social obligation. In fact, the race became so extreme that there was an attempt to abolish the very tradition of bento.
Eventually, things did get better. In the 1980s, bento made a grand comeback. Now, takeout is sold in cheap polystyrene containers, functionally identical to the boxes of old. Children take bento boxes to school, and adults carry packed lunch to work.
With Japan opening up to the outside world, everyone can witness the style and utility of bento boxes. And with the help of online stores, getting a locally made piece of that tradition has never been easier. As it stands, traditional Japanese bento boxes are here to stay.
Bento Boxes vs. Regular Boxes
So what makes a bento box stand out? The answer is simple: everything it has to offer that your common lunch box doesn’t. In the case of high-quality bento boxes, this means that:
- They are built to last, so you won’t need to get another one for a long time.
- The food bits will often be separated into compartments and won’t mix until you want them to.
- The whole thing will be safe to carry and won’t open on its own.
- There is a wide array of designs to choose from, so you will surely find one you like.
- A piece of foreign culture will be with you, no matter where you go.
Common Construction Materials
It all depends on the bento model, of course, but food-safe plastic is always a popular choice. However, such boxes often have a metal exterior.
Wooden boxes, on the other hand, provide excellent insulation and keep the contents warm. Nevertheless, wood will degrade if it is put in a microwave.
Metal boxes are also an option when you want everyone to know that you mean business. Still, these tend to be in less demand since they are heavy and not microwave-friendly.
The Best Traditional Japanese Bento Boxes
We will list these in no particular order. In the end, your choice will come down to preference.
Made from food-safe plastic, this is an all-rounder. It looks somewhat modern but has all the functionality of a classic bento box.
- It can hold a lot of food, despite its compact size
- The box is leakproof
- Dishwasher- and microwave-safe
- It comes with chopsticks
- The inside compartments aren’t leakproof
- The plastic may lose its finish after prolonged use
- Some parts may deform with time
This one is more about function over form. It has two large containers that fit one over another, and a utensil holder — no frills, just a bento box.
- Two containers
- Fully leakproof and airtight
- Dishwasher-, microwave-, and freezer-friendly
- Comes with utensils
- No inner compartments
- Something so cumbersome in shape should have a carrying handle
- The containers are a bit small
Another no-frills product, this one comes with everything you need to eat your food on the go.
- Two large containers, a third smaller one, plus a utensil holder
- Also fully leakproof and airtight
- Fridge-, freezer-, and microwave-friendly
- All containers are on the small side
- Again, there is no carrying handle
Though it looks as traditional as they come, this bento box is actually made of lacquered plastic. However, while it is a thing of beauty, it’s not exactly meant to be taken outside.
- Easy on the eyes
- Great size
- Plenty of compartments
- No cover, so it can’t be taken outside
- The black color may wear out with time
- Above all, this is a functional ornament
If you want something closer to the original thing, Miraclekoo has you covered. Its bento box is made of wood and features three compartments.
- Wooden, so your food will stay warm for longer
- Will last for a long time if you take care of it
- Certainly not microwave-, freezer-, or water-friendly.
- It could use a carrying handle
- If care instructions are not followed, it will degrade rapidly
Made of stainless steel, this one doesn’t look traditional at all. Still, it does its job admirably and can take a solid hit.
- Good size; the box can fit a lot of food
- Sturdy and long-lasting
- Dishwasher-, freezer-, and fridge-safe
- Not microwave-friendly
- A bit on the heavy side
- Not traditional-looking
In contrast to the previous product, here we have a wooden bento box in an entirely retro style.
- Beautiful to look at
- It’s wooden, so it will keep your food warm
- Neither leakproof nor airtight
- Also not microwave-friendly
- It will rapidly degrade from exposure to heat, cold, etc.
There’s more to this model than sugary cuteness. This box actually separates into three containers.
- Three bowl-sized containers
- Cute to look at, if that’s your thing
- The top bowl is not leakproof
- All three containers are small
- You may not like the design
To Sum Up
With its rich history, unique culture, and peculiar visual flair, Japan has proved time and time again that it has plenty to give to the world. Traditional Japanese bento boxes may not be its flashiest contribution, but they are one of the more practical ones. And with the assortment of locally made models available online, there’s bound to be something for everyone. Whichever box ends up striking your fancy, it should be well worth the investment.