2010 Holiday Gift Guide For Bento Fans Part 3: above $50
Welcome to the 3rd and final part of the 2010 Holiday Gift Guide for bento fans! In Part 1 we covered under-$10 gifts, and in Part 2 we looked at gifts in the $10-50 range. Now it's time to look at gifts for that really special bento person in your life - including yourself!
I had a bit of a hard time putting together this list actually (which is why it took some time to post). At first I was going to recommend some bento-friendly appliances, such as a nice rice cooker. But I did that kind of thing in my original Holiday Gift Guide 3 years ago. So, this time I am going to concentrate on the pure indulgences - high end bento boxes, sets and other stuff. I know, I have said time and time again on these pages that you can do bentos with inexpensive, practical plastic containers - and you can, and should start out with those until you're sure bento-ing is for you. But just as you might want to indulge in a beautiful dinnerware set from Wedgewood or Royal Copenhagen or something, you might want to splurge on one special bento box. After all, a special bento box is something a lot more intimate than a for-company-only dinnerware. Or how about this; think of a special bento box as a treat for yourself (or your favorite bento person), like a set of really nice silk lingerie instead everyday cotton underpants.
Practical and stylish thermal bento container sets
Thermal bento sets tend to be rather pricey, but if you crave warm food at lunch time and don't have access to a microwave, they are a nice option. (A less expensive alternative perhaps is to carry a thermal mug filled with hot soup together with a regular bento box. See the $10-$50 Gift Guide for some thermal lunch container options.) The industry standard may be Zojirushi's Mr. Bento, available from Amazon.com or (for European buyers) from CasaBento. Mr. Bento is great for people with hearty appetites, but there are plenty of other, usually more compact, options out there.
This is Totoro set is great for Ghibli fans. The thermal container, side containers and even the utensils are all Totoro themed, and it's all carried in an adorable Totoro print bag. Available from J-List/JBox for US$58.
How about this pink and girly set by Cocolon for your inner princess? It even has lace trim on the carrying case. At CasaBento for €49.99 (about US$67)
Bento boxes for a party
Large size or multi-compartment bento boxes are great for parties, especially if it's a potluck and you need to transport the food. A traditional tabletop bento box is a juubako (which means 'stacked box'), which is used at New Year's to hold the traditional osechi (お節） foods. Pack cupcakes or dips or whatever strikes your fancy in showy juubako like these with gold and silver panels, and you're sure to make an impact. (The gold and silver is rather Christmas-y too...no?) At Japonmania for €69.95 (about US$92).
If you prefer to keep all your food compartmentalized, this 6-tier Pyramid Tiffin is a lot of fun. Talk about a conversation piece! You could even think of it as being Christmas tree shaped, and stick trinkets on it or something. At Happy Tiffin for $69.99. (Check out their other stainless steel bento/lunch/tiffin boxes too.)
Beauty and tradition: Wood and bamboo boxes
Wood and bamboo were the original materials used for bento boxe, onigiri baskets and such. These days, practical, easy-care plastic dominates the bento box market, followed by metal, but there's nothing to surpass wood for a traditional bento. It somehow makes the food you pack inside, especially the rice, taste better, not to mention making it all look so appetizing. I've used a number of wooden bento boxes in my featured bentos, e.g. this one and this one.
At the moment, the only international seller that has a regular lineup of wood and bamboo bento boxes is Bento&co. Their Edo, Kyoto, Nara and Meiji polyurethane coated wooden bento boxes are really nice (I own two of them) and quite practical to take care of. This is the two-tier Edo box, available for €56 (about US$75).
They also have some bent-wood magewappa uncoated wood boxes, and the newest additions to their catalog are gorgeous bamboo boxes made by a generations-old company in Kyoto. I own this Take Box (I bought it in Kyoto earlier this year). I admit I don't use it that often, but it is lovely. It's €79.00 (about US$104).
Finally, a couple of indulgences of sorts. These are boxes you can only get from Japanese vendors, and which (in the last case at least) may take some effort, but are so beautiful that I thought I would mention them, only if to drool over.
Do you remember this gorgeous, solid elm bento box that I introduced here 3 years ago?
At the time, it wasn't possible to order it directly from overseas, but now it is! The complete set including matching chopsticks and case and furoshiki wrapping cloth is available on available on Rakuten for 11,340 yen (about US$135) and they ship internationally! The box alone is also available for 5,250 yen (about US$62) Check out the rest of their lineup of elm bento boxes for more. You will have to establish an account on Rakuten International, but it's worth the hassle if you love stuff from Japan. Fortunately the signup pages have readable English, not the machine-translation hilarity you have to deal with on the regular pages.
Finally, I wanted to give you a sneak preview of a feature I have coming soon. I think these are the ultimate bento boxes; handcrafted magewappa (bent wood) boxes made in Ohdate, Akita Prefecture, Japan, by the workshop of master craftsmen (and father and son) Yoshinobu and Masahisa Shibata. I have seen other magewappas, and even own a couple, but now that I have seen and handled the Shibata ones in person I don't think I can ever go back those others. It's like comparing a pickup basketball player to Lebron James.
These long, narrow boxes are called Nagate-bako. They were designed by the man who designed the Shinkansen bullet trains, and have that same sleek, elongated shape.
This little two-tier box is called the Tsukushi Bento. Tsukushi is the name of Mr. Shibata the elder's granddaughter, and he designed the box just for her.
This is a large round magewappa bento box made by the Shibata workshop, currently not in their lineup. Rice packed into it tastes so good, and smells wonderful.
Because they are made one by one by a handful of skilled craftspeople, they aren't cheap. The Tsukushi Bento for example costs 12,000 yen (about $140). Are they worth it? I would say so, given the quality. If you're interested in getting your hands on one, try contacting them by email at firstname.lastname@example.org - they say they have shipped boxes overseas. I'll have directions for where to get them in Japan in a later post.
I hope you've enjoyed this three-part series. I hope it's given you some ideas for potential gifts. And if Santa doesn't get you what you wanted, there's nothing wrong with gifting yourself!