Back from Japan, and some thoughts about bentos


I’m back from Japan after a 3 month stay, minus an unplanned trip to New York for a family emergency in February. The first part of my stay was totally taken up by keeping my just-out-of-hospital mother company, as well as work for my upcoming book, including a marathon photo session and lots of editing and re-writing work. (Incidentally, the book now has an official title: The Just Bento Cookbook. I know, not that imaginative, but straightforward, yes? I’ll put up an image of the front cover as soon as it’s available!) Then there was that emergency trip to New York. So couldn’t get all the things done that I wanted to, but I did get to do quite a lot of research related to bentos. See my Bento supplies shopping guide in Japan for example, which involved dozens of trips to various stores. I did get to do a little sightseeing, mostly in the Tokyo-Yokohama area, but I also spent a week in Kyoto. I’m posting my trip reports over rather slowly over on Just Hungry.

One conviction that I came back with, and a principle that has guided this site since its inception, as well as the content of my bento book, is that for those of us who live outside of Japan, a bento is not about trying to emulate made-in-Japan, Japanese bentos. It’s about taking the concept of a healthy, homemade (or at least mostly homemade) meal that is packed into a compact, portable box so that it appears delicious and appetizing several hours later. Of course I do and will continue to post bento-friendly Japanese recipes to this site, as well as general Japanese recipes to Just Hungry - after all I am Japanese, and many Japanese recipes are of course very bento-appropriate, and are easy to make even outside of Japan. But many more foods that are just taken for granted in Japan are either hard, or even impossible, to find outside of it (except in some regions with large Japanese immigrant or expat populations), or are simply too expensive. While it’s fun to emulate ‘authentic’ Japanese flavors once in a while, bentos should, in my opinion, be above all practical and economical.

So, I have a renewed enthusiasm for finding or coming up with recipes that are not necessarily Japanese, but are still great for packing into that little box - as well as adapting the ingredients that we can get easily to Japanese cooking methods and flavors. I hope that you’ll find it fun to come along with me on that journey!

300 yen for a zucchini?!

By the way, as I mentioned earlier, the photos for the book were all shot during a 2-day marathon session in February. I had to shop for and prepare all of the food by myself basically. Almost half of the recipes are not Japanese, and I’d devised them while living here in Europe as well as a few weeks I spent last year in New York visiting my dad. (The kind of vegetables sold in western Europe and the east coast of the U.S. are fairly similar.) I was careful to stick to widely available, not too expensive ingredients of course.

But that became an issue in Japan, especially in February. Things like zucchini, bell peppers, and even celery stalks were prohibitively expensive. A plain old greenhouse-grown pepper, which even in Switzerland (often cited as a very expensive place to live) is only about $3 for three big ones, costs 200 to 300 yen each ($2.20 to $3.30 or so). A single celery stalk (yes…a single celery stalk) is around the same price. And zucchini, a vegetable that is a perennial standby for me, was an astonishing 300 yen ($3.30) for a single, smallish fruit. (Note: they were still around that price in the 2nd week of April, shortly before I left.) On the other hand, in-season, fairly locally grown vegetables like turnips, spinach and daikon radish were cheap and delicious. Button mushrooms are expensive and sold arranged like little jewels in a single layer, while shiitake mushrooms are sold in sacks for a lot less.

I guess the moral of this story is that the availability issue goes both ways, at least for those of us on a budget!

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Re: Back from Japan, and some thoughts about bentos

Can't wait for the book to come out!

Re: Back from Japan, and some thoughts about bentos

Yay! I'm so exited.
I've been trying to look for some cool healthy and manageable recipes that aren't Japanese because it's pretty hard to find all/most of the ingredients where I live. I'm really looking forward to what ideas and tips you and everyone have ^_^
Thank you Maki!

And I can't wait for your book to come out! :D

Re: Back from Japan, and some thoughts about bentos

Maki, I love everything you write. I do alot of gardening so sustainability means alot to my family, and we are trying to move away from the "tomatos all year flown in from 1/2 way around the world" model and embrace seasonal foods like the turnips, spinach and daikon you mention in this post. You've just touched on a subject that I'd love to see you explore - seaonal foods and local ingredients as it relates to bento.

Re: Back from Japan, and some thoughts about bentos

Hi Makiko,

Congras for finding your renewed enthusiasm! I look forward to seeing more bento recipes on your website, which I discovered recently but is already loving it!

Taking about expensive Japanese ingredients, you totally right about it. Outside of Japan, some ingredients are really tough to find, like natto, or very expensive!

All the best for your new book too!

Re: Back from Japan, and some thoughts about bentos

I'm truly looking forward to the cookbook!

A big "YES!!!" to using readily available foods for healthy bentos!

Re: Back from Japan, and some thoughts about bentos

I am glad you came back with even more inspiration to share. I totally agree with your point of view on what bento is for. I think it is a very modern concept, almost a necessity: most of us cannot have a proper lunch break with fresh home cooked food, unless we use bentos. Your site is a huge inspiration for me, many of your staples have become ours! I am going to start again with bento lunches for two people next week, after a few months' break. They make my day busier but the health benefits really pay off. Thanks so much for sharing so many ideas with us, I am really looking forward for your book.

More thoughts about bentos

Like a lot of people, when I first got interested in bento meals I got caught up in buying a lots of bento boxes and supplies. Now it's all about the food. Do I have a good variety of flavors, textures and colors? What's in my freezer stash? Dinner leftovers no longer clutter the refrigerator; they are now the foundation of lovingly arranged lunches. The $ that DH no longer spends on purchased lunches goes into a hamburger-shaped bento box and will be spent on our trip to Japan. (We'll be able to buy our airline tickets with the money that we've saved in the first year!) When we were remodelling our kitchen for three months, bento meals nourished and pampered us. (I cooked staples in my mother's kitchen once a week, then assembled our bento boxes in a neighbor's kitchen each day.)

Preparing bentos has given me a fresh appreciation for the food that we eat. Although I am an Asian-American I had rarely cooked Japanese foods. And while my bentos are still mostly western foods, with Maki's recipes I am branching out and expanding my repertoire.

You're a genius, and photo question

A truly inspired post, Maki, and judging from the comments section, it's a topic many, many of us feel urgent about. Hard to say whether we're jumping on your bandwagon, or you're jumping on ours!

You'll think this odd, but I've come back to this post several times just to peruse the beautiful photo! Not only is it composed intriguingly, but the bento is slays me. Are you eating an actual airline meal? I feel like everyone but me would know this, but my curiosity is greater than my embarrassment!

Re: You're a genius, and photo question

That's my mom in the Shinkansen (bullet train) eating a bento we bought at Kyoto station. Here's a photo of it (click on it to see it larger on flickr)

Ekiben (station bento) on the Shinkansen

Re: Back from Japan, and some thoughts about bentos

I can't wait for your book to come out. I am excited to see all the healthy recipes!!

Re: Back from Japan, and some thoughts about bentos

Hi Maki,

First, let me say we're big fans of Just Bento. Its is a great resource and we appreciate all your hard work maintaining the site.

Japan is currently experiencing a major shortage of fresh vegetables. Kyodo explains:

.TOKYO - The farm ministry on Friday asked a national federation of agricultural cooperatives to advance the shipment of vegetables to stem their soaring prices, ministry officials said. Vegetable prices are rising "almost across the board" in the face of record-setting rainfalls, low temperatures and shortage of sunlight, one of them said.

While fresh vegetables are expensive in Japan, prices should come down when the weather improves.

Re: Back from Japan, and some thoughts about bentos

I'm not sure I stated it clearly enough, but my main point was that certain vegetables that we may take for granted in Europe and North America are relatively expensive in Japan, and vice versa. Overall the prices may not differ that much (at least between Japan and Europe)....but the types of vegetables certainly do. My aunt (who is a terrific cook, and knows way more about produce in Japan than I do) says that zucchini for instance is considered to be somewhat of a luxury vegetable, while here in Europe it's certainly a very common one....while something like komatsuna is a luxury/exotic vegetable here. So we should try to work as much as possible with what we can get where we live. No I was not complaining that 'waah Japan is so expensive!' :)

Re: Back from Japan, and some thoughts about bentos

Hello again,

Your point about how different cultures view certain types of food as different/exotic was well made. I completely agree that people should "try to work as much as possible with what (they) can get where (they) live".

I only wanted to suggest that after months of unseasonal weather, much of what is usually available at this time of year has either disappeared from Japanese fruit and vegetable stores or has dramatically increased in price. It's an unusual situation, and it must have been quite a challenge for you to source items for your photo shoot.

In summary, while you may not have been complaining, I most certainly am... about Tokyo's weather! :D

Re: Back from Japan, and some thoughts about bentos

Ohhh I am so excited for your book! I can never find a, well, a JUST bento book let alone a Japanese cookbook that isn't highly Americanized or nondescript. I LOVE the Just Bento website, it's wonderful! I have used it for some of my first recipes (I'm 14). I will continue reading and will be waiting anxiously for your book! Thank you Maki-sensei!

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