The last couple of featured bento boxes have been strictly practical. This week I’m returning to the realm of the sublime, with these handcrafted wooden and lacquered bento boxes from Akita prefecture in northern Japan.
Like the unlacquered white wood bento box featured previously (which was from the same artisan, Yoshinobu Shibata), these bento boxes are made of Akita sugi (秋田杉）, commonly called “Japanese cedar” though it seems that that is a misleading name since sugi is not related to cedar (botanical name cedrus). In any case, the sugi tree (botanical name cryptomeria) is indigenous to Japan, and has a special cultural signficance - old sugi trees are often planted in and around Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples.
The box construction is magewappa, like the white wood bento box, but it’s also protected with an interesting ingredient - the juice that drips out of a shibugaki (渋柿), a bitter, unripe persimmon. Bitter persimmons are hung out to dry in the fall, and the bitterness slowly drips out of the fruit. When it’s done the line-dried persimmons turn into hoshigaki (干し柿) or dried persimmons, which are as sweet as candy. Here’s a photo of some persimmons hung out to dry from the Wikipedia Japan page on hoshigaki.
Frugal farmers would collect the bitter juice, and use it to protect their wooden wares. The wares are then painted with natural lacquer (朱合漆) for further protection. This kind of lacquering method is called shibaki nuri （シバキ塗り). Shibaki nuri wares start out life looking almost black, but mellow to a dark, transparent caramel color that shows off the wood grain. (According to the maker’s web site, you might see a few brush marks or drips in the finish. I wouldn’t mind this at all - it just shows it’s really handmade.)
Is it practical to spend so much on little bento boxes? Probably not, but how nice would it be to eat your bento from such handcrafted treasures?
(If you are interested in buying any of these featured Japanese bento boxes and you don’t have a relative or friend in Japan to help you out, try the overseas shipping services listed on this page. Note this is not an endorsement of any of these services since I have not tried them myself, but they do get positive reviews from readers.)
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