Types of Traditional Bento Boxes

Bento boxes come in a variation of shapes, sizes and colours. Each of these will have it's own purpose or setting. Following are the most common types of bento boxes available in Japan and around the world. Included are translation of each bento box type from Japanese to English.

Bento Box Types

Koraku Bento (Picnic Lunchbox)

Koraku Bento translated into English is Picnic Lunchbox. As the name suggests, Koraku Bento boxes are made for sharing among a group of people at picnics, day outings and sports events. In March and April they are prepared and shared with a group of friends during the cherry blossom viewing festivals.

Similar to traditional bento boxes, Karaku bento ingredients used will normally include foods that are in season. Also several servings of onigiri which are triangular rice balls and maki sushi rolls "rolled sushi" which is wrapped in Nori or seaweed. Occasionally they are wrapped in a lovely thin omelette which gives the meal a distinct flour.

Makunouchi Bento (Between-Act Bento)

Makunouchi Bento translates into Between-Act Bento. As you can imagine they have something to do with theater performances. They were originally served during intermissions of Noh and Jabuki "between the curtain” theater performances dating back to the Edo period 1603-1867. While waiting for the next act you were served with a lovely two section meal to keep you occupied and ingredients varied depending on season and the act.

Prepared by a caterer, the two section meals typically included a rice dish while the other side had small seasonal side dishes including Salmon, Pumpkin, Chicken, Rice with an Plum and Chestnut Rice. It is has been suggested that many recipe books were published during this time covering detailed instructions on how to prepare and decorate Makunouchi bento boxes.

Hinomaru Bento (Japanese Flag Bento)

Hinomaru Bento translating to Japanese Flag Bento "circle of the sun" Bento was traditionally made with steamed white rice and a picked plum (Umeboshi) which was placed in the center of the meal. The white rice and red plum symbolized the Japanese flag "The Rising Sun." It was a popular patriotic menu item in Japan after World War II.

The origin of it is attributed to a Japanese initiative in 1937 in a girls schools located in the Hiroshima prefecture. The patriotic lunch was consumed by pupils each Monday as a token of solidarity while troops were fighting in China. By 1939 the idea was adopted by schools all over the country. It later years it rose to the symbol of wartime mobilisation and national unity.

Shikaeshi Bento (Revenge Bento)

Shikaeshi Bento "Revenge Bento" or revenge lunchbox is certainly one that you would never hope to receive. The intention of this meal was so that a wife could give her husband a memorable and unpleasant surprise during his meal break. As the box was being opened he would find an embarrassing design or a box filled with nothing but uncooked rice or raw egg making the meal inedible.

Another example of this included a bento box with a bed of uncooked rice, sour pickled plum and the word baka or aho (idiot) written out in seaweed. The message eloquently meant “Crime and punishment.”

Aisai Bento (Lunchbox of Beloved Wife)

An offshoot, the shikaeshi bento box, the Aisai Bento or “bento made by loving wife” is what it is. Bento box made with love from a wife towards her husband in the form of a delicious, nutritious, visually-appealing lunch box. Perhaps one of the greatest ways to say “I love you” while you’re away at work. Similarly young women in relationships sometimes prepare a handmade bento for their significant other during the spring season.

The Aisai Bento Boxes tend to have nutritionally balanced ingredients which are in season and have cute, colourful edible love messages in them. An example would consist of cooked rice, boiled egg, steamed broccoli, salmon with sauce, radishes cut to look like love hearts and pickles.

Ekiben (Train Station Bento)

Believed to be first sold in 1885, the Ekiben or railway box is a specific type of meal sold in trains and on train stations in Japan. In most cases they come with a plastic disposable box, chopsticks and spoon. Ekiben bento boxes can also be made from wood, or ceramic depending on where they are served.

In Japan, many train stations are becoming nationally recognised for the quality of their bento boxes which reflect the staple foods of the area. Similar styles of railway meals have become popular in other East Asian countries as well particularly Taiwan.

Kyaraben (Character Bento)

Kyaraben translates to "character bento" usually for children is an elaborately arranged bento box which includes food decorated like characters from popular cartoons including anime, manga, or video games. Homemakers often spend hours preparing these meals so that children are encouraged to adopt healthier eating habits. Aside from cartoons, natural scenery to reflect the season or holiday are also included. Kyaraben originated as a way to stop fussy eating in young children and make lunchtime meals more interesting. Due to its popularity, a wide range of Kyaraben gadgets are widely available from supermarkets, kitchen shops, children’s goods shops and 2 Dollar shops.