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The Art of Bento-making

Bento making is considered to be an art form; an important skill that Japanese mothers aspire to. A good mother pours her love and creativity into the daily bentos she makes for her family members.IMAGE-0 2013-08-23-012056-0000 I HATE making bentos. I hate eating them too, home-made or bought, I hate them. But I have to make them every day for my 3rd grade senior high school son. You might say, get him to make his own, and yes, I made my own packed lunch from an early age, but his schedule is just so punishing that it's impossible. (I will save the gory details of his life for another post).

Above you can see the bento I made this morning. It has pan-fried ginger pork with veggies, Parma ham wrapped around cress, egg-roll, meat balls, asparagus, chopped raw veggies. On the rice you can see the umeboshi, Japanese pickled plum, some spicy fish roe and a dollop of some seaweed gunk he likes. I also give him fresh fruit, today is orange, kiwi, blueberries and rabbit-eared apple.

My heart was not filled with love and joy while making all this. In contrast I am counting down how many days I have got left to go. I calculated that I have about 130 bentos to go. I am one of the lucky ones, I only have to make one a day. That is one of the good things about being married to a Buddhist priest, he doesn't need a daily bento. I have friends who make 5 bentos a day and go through sacks of rice each month.

Recently, at my son's school it has become acceptable to order in lunch. The students phone in their orders to Hotto-Motto (using the pay phone as cell phones are not allowed at school). Hotto-Motto is the bento delivery shop in town. They get freshly made, piping hot bentos which are probably not that much more expensive than my home-made one. But I have to keep slogging away at making my bentos for appearances. A mother's love is shown in her bento and it would look bad if my son was seen ordering in bento more than once or twice a month.

As for the contents of the bento, it makes me laugh to think of the UK campaign of "five-a-day". This campaign is to encourage people to eat at least five different fruits and veg a day. Here in Japan it "30-a-day". You must have something from the mountains and something from the sea. I usually fall down in the sea department as my son doesn't like fish in his bentos. I try to use prawns or fish paste blocks, but of course, seaweed does the trick too. So, bentos are supposedly healthy. But this week the temperature has reached 35 degrees most days. I put ice packs around the bento but it's not refrigerated. The risk of food-poisoning is high. Then, in the winter, we have the opposite problem, the temperatures plummet to minus 6 or more and the bento FREEZES before he gets to eat it.

Then we have special occasion bentos, for example, sports day bentos. These are in a class of their own. Gorgeously presented in layered boxes and eaten by the extended family who turn out to cheer on your children at sports day. I have got a good system working now, I get up at 5am and make all the savouries. I draw up a time schedule the night before and the equipment is all in place. Bentos must always be freshly made, on the day. Then, my mother-in-law arranges it all in the boxes. Then a sister-in-law or a niece helps out with the rice balls and the fruit.

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By the time it's all been assembled I am exhausted and have no appetite. And the day has only just begun...we then have to watch hours of events under the baking sun. Sports day bentos are more satisfying to make, maybe because there is a wider audience and more chance of appreciation. My son is so busy with his school and kendo schedule that he hardly notices what he is eating. He specifies nothing with bones as he doesn't have time to gnaw on a chicken wing.

So I have 130 daily bentos to go before graduation, and the number of sports day bentos left depends what school my youngest gets into in just under a year's time.

I will leave you with photos of the kendo squad's sports day bentos, prepared by teams of dedicated mothers who travel from all over the country to show their motherly love through the art of bento-making.

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Beth G
- August 26 2013 at 20:24

I remember reading about something like this once from an anthropologist living in Japan. Interesting stuff. Thanks for the post, Victoria!
Leesa Barnham
- August 26 2013 at 21:39

Dear Victoria Wow and I thought daily school lunches were hard! But I do have fond memories of Bentos - I would love one of your Bentos "made with love" ;0)
Katherine N
- March 14 2014 at 02:39

Hello Victoria.. I just saw your details on Helpx ( it's my intention to be in Japan in 2015) and thought I would research a little of your temple. So glad I stumbled across your blog and this article in particular. It's always been fascinating to me (the bento box) and a bit of a novelty here in London. It's something I would love to learn more about - perhaps if I am lucky I will be of assistance to you one day. And I am impressed with your bento boxes.. better than the boring sandwich I had today!
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