Bento: Japan’s Super Tasty Lunch Boxes

If you’ve ever traveled in Japan, you have likely been introduced to the convenient and delicious world of 弁当 bento. Whether prepared on your own or bought from a store, bento are a popular and really fun way to try various types of Japanese food, as many small sample-sized dishes are usually stuffed into each of the bento box’s compartments.

Bento offer a convenient way to sample many Japanese delicacies in one meal.

What are bento?

Bento are Japanese boxed lunches. The varied assortment of tasty bites often includes Japanese foodie favorites such as rice, Japanese fried chicken, tempura, Japanese rolled omelets, pickled vegetables, and much, much more! This not only gives you a great sampling of many Japanese delicacies in one meal but also makes for quite a pleasing culinary aesthetic!

An example of how pretty bento can look.

Where to get bento

Bento aren’t just packed with flavor, there also seems to be one for any occasion or budget. You can find many basic but surprisingly high quality bento at Japan’s many convenience stores, typically in the range of 300-500 yen. If you’d prefer a little more variety, you can stop by bento specialty shops, which often offer freshly prepared bento in the 500-700 yen range.

Types of bento

Bento boxes come in quite a few different styles in Japan. You can typically find bento that focuses on one main ingredient such as katsu, fried shrimp, or fish, which are complemented by rice and pickles. There are also bento that consist of onigiri rice balls, and others that feature smaller portions of various other dishes. One type of bento–the eki ben–is sold at train stations, which we will introduce further down.

から揚げ弁当 Karaage bento: A bento featuring karaage, Japanese fried chicken.

A karaage (Japanese fried chicken) bento you may find at a convenience store.

のり弁 Nori Ben: Short for “nori bento.” Nori ben are bento with roasted seaweed over and soy sauce (and sometimes dried bonito flakes) topping the rice. They often include other dishes such as hamburger steak or karaage.

An example of nori ben.

焼肉弁当 Yakiniku bento: Yakiniku, or grilled Japanese meat cuisine, is often enjoyed at restaurants around a communal grill where customers can cook a variety of meat and vegetables to their liking. Yakiniku bento offer an on-the-go version of that dining experience, usually by topping a bed of rice with grilled meat, and serving up sides of vegetables and pickles.

Yakiniku bento are a great way to sample Japan’s popular grilled meat cuisine. High-end options sometimes include wagyu beef.

Tips for enjoying bento

While it’s fun to enjoy the offerings of a delicious bento while out in a park taking in nature or even in your hotel room, a special type of bento made for commuters can be a lifesaver for hungry travelers. This type of bento is called 駅弁 eki ben, which is short for “train station bento.” As you can imagine, they are often sold within train stations in the deli and department store sections. In particular, you’ll find them at stations where bullet trains pass through. While you can buy them to bring back to your lodging with you, they are made to also be enjoyed on longer train commutes.

駅弁 Eki ben: Train station bento boxes.

A wide variety of eki ben.

Because eki ben often offer regional delicacies from famous stores, they can be found more in the 800-1,200 yen range, but some top-of-the-line options can land in the 2,000-3,000 yen range. But hey, when else can you eat Kobe beef on a train?!

Eki ben come in a wide variety of styles, but they often feature local delicacies from all over Japan. This means you can basically eat your way through the various regional cuisines within the country of Japan without having to physically travel to those areas! If you’re exploring Japan, why not take advantage of the delicious eki ben to sample regional specialties, whether they be famous street vendor dumplings or fine dining like Kobe beef?

Try enjoying a bento box while riding on a bullet train!

Ultimately, bento are a really great way to try out many different Japanese specialties in one go. If you’re traveling in Japan, be sure to try a few bento and you may discover a new favorite food for yourself!