The art of… making the practical perfect
No other nation takes the packed lunch as seriously as Japan. ANNA HART recalls the lunchbox that changed her life.

The first time I was awed by another nation’s food was the moment I saw Naoko’s lunchbox. I was an Irish eight-year-old at an international school in Singapore, and before I ate lunch with Naoko, my new friend from Tokyo, I was happy with my wholemeal bread sandwiches, wedged alongside an apple inside a rectangular Friends of the Earth lunchbox. I unwrapped my squashed sandwiches from their foil, and Naoko deftly unclipped the lid of her Hello Kitty lunchbox, revealing various perfectly proportioned compartments containing tiny immaculately presented portions of food: steamed rice, tuna, cooked vegetables, purple and yellow pickles. A matching pair of pink chopsticks slotted neatly into the lid of the box. I’d never seen such state-of-the-art lunchbox technology. I’d never seen a lunchbox aspire to such soaring aesthetic heights of pink cuteness. I’d also never seen such meticulous compartmentalisation, such nutritional neatness, the box deftly wrangling food into order.

Packed lunches, in my world, were always a bit of a mess. A tasty, eagerly anticipated mess, but a mess, all the same. I decided Japanese lunchboxes were the finest in the world, the sort of highly functional lunchboxes that would be issued to astronauts on space missions.

My parents humoured me and bought me a Japanese lunchbox of my own, which my peanut butter sandwiches didn’t entirely fit into. But this was my first crush on another culture, and they were sweet to encourage me.

It would be years before I visited Japan, but my interest in its culture grew far beyond my lunchbox, and led me to love Kurosawa and Studio Ghibli movies, novels by Haruki Murakami and Hiromi Kawakami and too many street fashion blogs and Instagram accounts to mention. As a student in Glasgow, the first ever dinner party I hosted was a sushi feast, mainly because I felt I could always rely on Japanese cooking to bring order to chaos. My student flat might have been a mess, but the dining table was a serene oasis of simple, nutritious, pretty sushi. This is all because of Naoko’s lunchbox.

When I was first dazzled by that Hello Kitty container, of course I didn’t realise that bento boxes had been an integral part of Japanese culture since the 12th century. Naoko’s school lunch was the result of centuries of careful refinement; during the Edo period, from 1600, bento boxes became an art form, and the word “bento” (derived from “convenience”) was attached to the container itself, some crafted in lacquered wood, others in utilitarian shiny tin. Japanese people have been working on their lunchbox game for centuries, and against bento culture, my sandwiches didn’t stand a chance.

I decided Japanese lunchboxes were the finest in the world, the sort that would be issued to astronauts.

When I finally visited Kyoto and Osaka, I was tickled to discover the koraku bento, an array of onigiri and makizushi intended to be shared among a few diners. This challenged me, as I’ve always associated bento with fierce individualism, fenced-in food that is mine, all mine. Bento offered a blessed respite from the runaway popularity of sharing plates, which sometimes triggers a Neanderthal panic and gluttony in me. But it was a good lesson to be urged to share a bento, for once.

People far, far cleverer than me have delved into bento culture, examining what it says about the nation as a whole. The critic Roland Barthes was struck by the lack of a “centrepiece” in bento, compared to Western cuisines where meat tends to be the star of the show. Barthes argued that the contents of a bento box all work together in harmony, exalting each other. The Japanese writer O-Young Lee, meanwhile, used bento as a metaphor to deride the reductionism he saw in Japanese culture, where everything has to be compartmentalised and minimised within a fixed structure. All I know is that I still consider Japanese lunchboxes to be the best lunchboxes in the world, even when pitched against tiffin tins in Indonesia.

And in times of flux, chaos or confusion, I still cling to Japanese food like a life raft. Sushi is my go-to airport meal, appropriate for breakfast (airports exist outside timezones) or at 3am, reliably fresh, nourishing and uncomplicated. Ramen is what comforts me, what I reach for when I’m hungover, or unwell, or going through some sort of emotional upheaval.

When I feel like I can’t look after myself, I can trust a bento box to do so; all the right decisions have been made for me, and I am presented with an assortment of delicious yet portion-controlled and nutritionally balanced treats. Life is always better after lunch, and perhaps this is why the Japanese felt lunch was worth perfecting.


Anna is a travel and lifestyle journalist, and author of the travel memoir Departures.