Edo period Shokado Bento Boxes, Elegant & Inspiring HistoryKatachiware Japanese Style Tableware
Shokado bento boxes have an have an age-old tradition in Japanese cuisine. Simple yet elegant lacquered lunch boxes, used for serving a variety of refined small dishes in one meal.
Divided into four uniform sections like the Chinese character “field” 田. Shokado bento box ingredients are carefully prepared and beautifully presented in a way that maintains the flavour and aroma of each dish, allowing each compartment to store different tastes and textural meals without mingling.
Shokado bento origins, Shōjō Shōkadō, Buddhist monk
The Shokado Bento box is named after Shōjō Shōkadō, a highly regarded Japanese Buddhist priest who lived during the early Edo period (1584-1639). Versed in Shingon Esoteric Buddhism he was associated with the Takimoto-bo Temple within the Iwashimizu Hachimangu Shrine in Yawata City, Japan.
Ranked as an Ajari which is the highest hierarchy of priests, Shōjō was also a prominent person of culture, accomplished in the arts, including painting, calligraphy, poetry and a master of the tea ceremony. Known as one of the Kanei Sanpitsu “three brushes” of the Kan-Ei era he was known to have made a significant contribution to the early Edo period’s development of art and culture.
As a committed calligrapher, Shōjō devised a storage box for his calligraphy and tobacco tools. The box was influenced by land farmers near his shrine who kept sowing seeds in small partitioned containers. The box was made to include four compartments with cross-shaped separation strips, decorated and finished with Shunkei-Nuri lacquer.
Later in life, Shōjō stepped down from temple duties and moved into a cottage near the Takimoto-bo Temple that he named Pine Flower Temple. Being such a tea culture enthusiast he frequently hosted tea ceremonies for his colleagues and during tea rituals Shōjō served light meals in modified versions of the partitioned boxes which were widely accepted.
After Shōjō’s death during the Meiji Restauration, his cottage was sold and the Shoin temple was transported to Ominaeshi in Yahata where it sits today. The temple was rebuilt, evoking a public feeling of respect for this person of refined taste.
At the time, members of the cultural community created the group “Shokado-kai” and built the Taisho-ji Temple to house Shojo’s grave. Tea ceremonies were performed around Yawata to share the nostalgia for the times of Shōjō. On such occasions, Shojo-style four-part boxes were utilised as receptacles for delicacies given at tea ceremonies. Although none of Shojo’s original boxes survived, a few later reproductions do. The bottoms of the boxes are embellished with paintings of daffodils (winter), a swallow (spring), a kingfisher (summer), and chrysanthemums (winter) (autumn).
Today the tea house is a significant cultural asset of Kyoto.
Shokado bento boxes, Lacquered Shunkei-Nuri
The traditional shunkei-nuri (春慶塗) technique was employed to colour and polish the original Shokado bento boxes. Using red and black colours in the manner in which they were most used until the nineteenth century. Shunkei-nuri involves putting translucent lacquer to the wood to preserve it while allowing the natural grain to show through.
Shokado would have begun by colouring the base black, letting it dry, and then painting it with coats of red. He would have then polished away the upper coats, revealing the black undercoat in spots. Creating the appearance of a worn, utilitarian object. The final coat consisted of a transparent Shunkei-nuri that dries to a clear film.
Each coat is allowed to dry completely and polished completely before adding the next. This method can be time-consuming and labour intensive. contributing to the high cost of traditionally manufactured bento boxes.
The name is derived from the inventor who lived in Sakai during Emperor Go-reign. Kameyama’s (1368-1392). This approach gained popularity in Takayama, Hida province, in the 17th century. This process was used to create a large number of pieces for use in dinnerware. Shunkei-nuri is an excellent material for such things. Since it produces lightweight, waterproof, and, of course, attractive tableware.
Restaurateur Yuki Teiichi Discovers Shokado
In Kyoto, the imperial city known for producing the most elaborate food in Japan, early in the Showa period (1926–1989), Shokado-bento became more graceful and popular in refined restaurants or as part of a ryokan stay (Japanese style inns) and onsen spa establishments.
In 1933, Yuki Teiichi (湯木貞), a tea connoisseur of his generation, founder of modern Japanese cuisine and renowned restaurant owner of ‘Kicho’ 吉兆, in Osaka, Japan visited the historic Shokado Tea House in Kyoto Prefecture.
During his stay, he noticed a reproduction of Shokado’s calligraphy box that was used to present meals during tea ceremonies. Yuki was so taken with the box that it inspired him to create an improved version for serving meals at his restaurant. Yuki devised the box so that its overall dimensions were reduced but increased its height and added a lid. Finished with a black exterior and red interior it was finished in a Shunkei-Nuri lacquer and included four compartments. Devised in a way to keep its contents separated they were proportionate to each other resulting in a balanced vessel for serving food, not too large, small, heavy or light.
Dubbed “Shokado-Box” in recognition of the Buddhist priest accomplishments and notoriety. The bento box was introduced as a new meal at his restaurant’s and was a hit. Convenient to serve during big events and a popular variant for tea ceremony lunches the ingredients varied according to occasion and season. Ingredients organised into the four compartments made the meal appealing and ingredients included sashimi, raw fish slices, grilled and boiled foods, rice, and other sumptuous foods.
The elevation of this sort of bento in connection with the tea ceremonies gained widespread positive news coverage across Japan which increased its public awareness and popularity.
Shokado & Bento Boxes, What’s The Difference?
Bento boxes are so ubiquitous in contemporary Japan that their name has become synonymous with “take-away.” And, as one might expect from a tradition-conscious but forward-thinking country like Japan, the boxes have evolved further and are now available in a variety of shapes and colours: they are now available not only in fashionable colours (e.g. denim blue, matcha colours, lilac, etc. ), but also decorated with patterns, characters, or manga Painted figures.
Shapes have also evolved beyond the traditional square; boxes can also be rectangular, oval, circular, or even as miniature figures. Multi-level boxes permit very substantial dinners or many meals – the Bento universe has become vibrant and diversified, and our own publications provide recipe recommendations for a variety of “to-go” meals.
In contrast to the traditional Shokado box, which is typically split into four sections and may include a small additional room for a spicy side dish, modern bento boxes are frequently not separated or are only partially divided. Nonetheless, the fundamental principles of Japanese cuisine are respected here: fresh vegetables that are still crisp, meticulous preparation and seasoning, not all combined together, but distinct and discernible flavour sensations, depending on the taste, but individually, fish or meat.
As one becomes more familiar with the Japanese concept of “lunch boxes,” it becomes clear that this method of preparation may also give significant recommendations for our European cuisine. Perhaps these are the defining characteristics of Japanese culinary culture, which is represented in bento culture as well.
Shokado bento during the Heisei era
Today, Shokado bento boxes are regarded as an elegant and formal style of bento. Served at high-end restaurants throughout Kyoto, the bento box enhances the culinary experience. With the ornate black lacquered box, the servings are lavish assortments in small portions so that you can enjoy an extravagant meal in one sitting.
Shokado bento cooking style incorporates a complex array of foods with careful preparation. Like the Kaiseki cuisine, in which dishes are served in courses, Shokado is many dishes served in one course. This can include raw fish in the form of sashimi, chawanmushi, grilled or boiled food, rice and steamed savoury egg custard. It may also include tofu served with Ankake, a Japanese favourite sauce. Thickened with potato starch, served with many traditional Japanese side dishes.
Meals served in the Shokado bento boxes are available all over Japan. You can still enjoy Yuki Teiichi’s original Shokado dining experience from Kitcho’s restaurants, with more than 15 branches across Japan. Shokado Bento will cost you 12,000 yen, a Kaiseki lunch 20,000 yen and dinner 40,000 yen.
Dubbed “Shokado Bento” in honour of Shojo, it has become an iconic style of boxed lunch in high-class Japanese cuisine. Since its conception, Shokado bento has evolved into an elegant and sophisticated way of serving Japanese food. The lacquered bento box with its four compartments enhances a meal’s appearance. while preventing the flavours and aromas from the other dishes from mixing. resulting in a delectable meal that is still sold today.