(Originally published in April 2008, and updated continuously since. Last updated March 2011.)
A very frequently asked question is where and how to buy the bento items and boxes mentioned here, especially in the Bento Item Spotlight (formerly Bento Item of the Week) feature, as well as on other bento blogs and sites. I’ve listed you several options, which I hope will be useful.
As much as I love online shopping, I believe in shopping at your local stores first. You’re supporting your area’s businesses, and you don’t have to pay shipping costs. Besides, it’s arguably a bit better for the environment (especially if you take public transportation!) since the goods have already travelled to your area.
Even if you local stores don’t carry ‘genuine’ Japanese bento boxes, it’s always possible to find alternatives for lunch boxes, dividers, picks and other accessories. As I wrote in one of the earliest articles on this site, it’s not necessary to buy a box that is labeled as a Bento Box in order to bring bento lunches. You can use cupcake cups, paper or silicon, as bento dividers, picnic utensils, and so on. Check out the JustBento Bento Gear Flickr pool for a lot of creative ideas from fellow bento enthusiasts. Any general housewares/kitchenwares store or megastore with such a department is a good place to prowl for bento-friendly goods.
If you live in an area with Asian dollar stores, aka 100-yen stores, they are usually a good source for cheap and cheerful bento boxes and equipment. In the U.S. these for now are mostly in California and the west coast, though New York also has a few. Japanese or Asian housewares stores may also carry some things. To locate Japanese grocery (and related) stores near you, consult the reader-contributed and commented Japanese grocery store listings (go to your geographical area page from there) on Just Hungry. Also check out the Bento Store Locator on Lunch In A Box, another user-contributed listings page (Note: this hasn’t been updated in quite a while, along with the rest of the site, unfortunately).
General Japanese grocery stores used to not carry a lot of bento gear. Their non-food sections tend to concentrate on things like proper ceramic tableware and traditional gift items. However, this is changing as bento lunches continue to grow in popularity. Even if your local Japanese grocery is tiny, you may still be able to find some accessories like plastic baran (dividers) meant for sushi or decorative picks. You will, of course, find all kinds of food items. In addition, while bento lunches are not part of other East Asian cultures such as China and Korea, many such stores are also stocking bento boxes these days to meet customer demand. (Example: H-Mart or Super 88 in the U.S., Paristore in France, etc.)
Japanese bookstores and giftstores can also be worthwhile looking around in. Kinokuniya for example carries a decent selection of bento boxes. I was at the Kinokuniya US flagship store in New York in January 2011, and the gift department manager told me that bento boxes are becoming so popular, she has increased the shelf space for them by 5 times in the last couple of years. That’s great news for bento fans!
Of course Japan is the best place to buy bento stuff. Be sure to check out Where to buy bento boxes and accessories in Japan. if you’re planning a trip there.
Besides Japan, where are good places to shop for bento gear? You might not necessarily plan a whole trip around buying bento stuff, but it might be handy to know if you are in the midst of a bento mecca, just in case!
If your heart is set on getting a ‘real’ Japanese style bento box, for most people mail order is the only option. The good news is that the number of international shipping-friendly online bento supply stores is increasing, and getting in better stock, all the time!
Some people have a mental hangup about buying from suppliers that are not located in their country of residence. While international shipping costs are expensive, you should always compare the price of an item sold by one supplier vs. another, including shipping costs and sales tax or VAT, and see which ends up to be a better deal for you in the end. Personally I order from merchants based in Japan all the time. Shipping from Japan is usually very fast and efficient. I usually select SAL as my shipping option, which takes a little longer than EMS or FedEx (about 2-3 weeks), but is cheaper. SAL shipments usually (though this is a crapshoot really) don’t incur customs fees. FedEx or DHL are usually the most expensive shipping options, though they are reliable. FedEx shipments seem to always incur customs fees. EMS is the best choice if you want to receive mail via the postal system fast; EMS shipments incur customs fees about 50% of the time for me. I don’t have the patience for sea mail usually (and most vendors do not offer it since it’s rather unreliable).
You may or may not be charged customs fees when your shipment enters your country. I’ve found that generally speaking, smaller orders tend not to be charged customs, though there doesn’t seem to be a hard and fast rule that applies all the time.
I have tried most of these stores myself (ordering as a regular customer, no special treatment!) and have been very happy with their services. I think you will be too.
The main source of the widest variety of bento gear for non-Japanese speakers and residents is eBay. There are now dozens of merchants selling bento related supplies. Whenever you are buying something, make sure to comparison shop (some merchants are way overpriced). Most merchants are based in Japan or Hong Kong, and ship worldwide, but expect to pay quite a lot for shipping. I like to stick to the merchants who have clear descriptions of the dimensions and capacity of the bento boxes they sell.
Did you know that eBay offers RSS feeds of their listings, based on search terms? You can set up one and subscribe to it in your favorite news reader. For bento things, go to Advanced Search and enter bento in the terms to search for, and enter amy, cd, music, mac, osx, software in the terms not to search for. This filters out all, or most, mentions of Amy Bento (an aerobics instructor), CDs and music related items from Brazil or Portugal (Bento is a popular nickname in Portuguese it seems), and listings of Bento the software program. You can also select House and Garden as the category. Once the search results page is generated, scroll down until you see the RSS button, and click on it to subscribe. You will get a nice listing with prices and thumbnail pics. This is how I generate the eBay Bento listings page (which you can just bookmark if you don’t want to bother with the searching).
The items listed on eBay, J-List and such are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to bento gear - a lot, lot more is available only in Japan. Unfortunately, most of the online stores that sell them are in Japanese only, and do not ship overseas.
But you don’t have to give up there. If you don’t have a handy friend or relative that lives there, there are an increasing number of shipping service web sites that will get the stuff you want and then ship it to you, for a fee. The fee varies but is usually around 10-15% of the purchase price, plus the actual cost of the goods and shipping. Some sites also charge a membership fee. This route may only be for serious collectors, but considering that they are offer a combination of translation, buying, shipping and payment services, it’s a fairly good deal.
An updated list of shipping (or shopping) services is maintained on this page. One that has gotten several positive comments is i-tm4u. For instance commenter Anna from Russia used them to buy a handcarved wooden bento box, and ODG from Hong Kong also had a positive experience.
Tenso is another popular service. I have now tried them several times, mainly for shipments of Rakuten purchases, and they have been really reliable and prompt. (They have an official relationship with Rakuten.)
A new service that looks interesting is Flutterscape if you want a ‘friend who shops for you in Japan’ kind of experience, albeit with strangers of course.
Update: Rakuten now has an International section - see this forum discussion. A Rakuten shopping guide is in the works.
There are two huge online sources in Japan for bento stuff: Yahoo! Japan Auctions (which is so popular that eBay had to give up in Japan), and Rakuten Ichiba (marketplace). Both sites are in Japanese only (Rakuten now offers machine translation of some of its pages, and their information pages are in real English). Here are some direct links to bento-related search results (let me know if you’d like to see some others):
Yahoo! Japan auctions:
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And visit our sister site, Just Hungry for great Japanese home recipes and more.