Japanese Bento – Get ‘Em At Your Local Store!

In case you can’t tell, we love bento! We’re continuing our Japanese Bento series this month with an entertaining look at where to find ready-made bento in Japan!

Bento are quite often made at home to take to school, the office or outdoor events, but delicious bento can easily be purchased at shops, railway stations, convenience stores and department stores across Japan, too.

During the late 19th century when Japan was going through the height of industrialization, travel by rail became commonplace and enterprising vendors began selling prepackaged bento at train stations. These bento were called ekiben, with “eki” standing for station and “ben” for bento. These types of bento made prepackaged, wholesome food available for workers and travelers outside of their homes, and the trend spread to vendors and shops throughout cities. Prepackaged bento became more and more popular, especially after World War II, and began to be sold in supermarkets. In the 1980’s, convenience stores started to sell bento boxes, and with soaring demand, dedicated bento shops opened, offering some of the most tasty and innovative combinations. These shops are sometimes open 24 hours a day!

An ekiben with a vast array of bento combinations in Shin-Osaka Station (photo by bryan…)

So where should you go for bento?

Konbini, or convenience stores, are ubiquitous and serve various combinations of premade bento, including hamburger patties, steak, karaage fried chicken and salmon, at an inexpensive price. In cold weather, tonjiru or miso soup with pork, and other soups are popular additions to a bento set. The nice part of getting bento from konbini is that customers can take the meal home or to the office and warm it up in a microwave.

Customers buy bento at a Hokka Hokka Tei location (photo by 山海风)

Bento shops serve freshly made bento along with prepackaged ones. Some of the most popular shops in Japan are Hotto Motto, Hokka Hokka Tei, Origin Bento and Honke Kamadoya. These dedicated bento shops often allow customers to create their own combinations by selecting mains, sides and salads from the restaurant menu. Nori seaweed sets with grilled salmon, savory breaded tonkatsu pork and fried karaage chicken are often the most popular items. Served with pickles, salad, vegetable sides and rice, these bento from dedicated shops are the best takeout–and can be purchased at around ¥500 (or $5 USD)—in Japan!

Supermarkets are onboard with bento as well. At the end of the aisles, in sozai (prepared side dish) corners, supermarkets in Japan also carry several bento that you can take home to eat. These bento often become easy dinners for many working people in cities.

Vendors selling an array of food in a depachika (photo by ayustety)

When looking for a fancier bento meal, depachika are the best places to go. Depachika are the basement levels of department stores, where groceries, delis, gourmet food stalls, sweet shops, chocolatiers, alcohol and bento vendors are located. The bento found in depachika range from the kinds found at konbini and bento shops to fancier ones with premium items such as Kobe beef or matsutake mushrooms. Depachika vendors are also constantly adding new and flavorful items to create innovative bento. While many customers pick up bento to go, some diners prefer to select their bento and enjoy the public eating areas, like small gardens or the store rooftops, for their meal. Some even call depachika a bento wonderland!

Bento are very popular in Japan and they can be found at train stations or airports. Stay tuned for our post next month where we talk about ekiben and the types of the wonderful items in them!

A Food Lover’s Tour of Japan – Eating Tenmusu in Aichi

This month, we continue our Food Lover’s Tour by exploring Aichi Prefecture!

Aichi Prefecture is located in central Japan and is blessed with a natural landscape including a mountainous area full of lumber and rivers, the flat Nobi Plain rich with fertile agricultural land and the abundant fishing waters of Ise Bay, Chita Bay, Mikawa Bay and Atsumi Bay.

This naturally plentiful environment has led to the growth of many industries in Aichi Prefecture, and the third largest city of Nagoya, is strategically located between Tokyo and Osaka. In ancient times, Nagoya was controlled by the Tokugawa Clan, who built one of the most noted castles in Japan, and fostered native industries. Commerce was, and is, one of the largest activities in Aichi Prefecture, bringing many influences from different parts of Japan as well as other countries. Today, Aichi Prefecture is famous for ceramics, textiles and Toyota’s automotive manufacturing.

Nagoya castle nestled trees, surrounded by the sprawl of Nagoya

Nagoya is the largest city in Aichi Prefecture, and is famous for this month’s special food: tenmusu. Tenmusu are rice balls stuffed with shrimp tempura that has been soaked in a savory sauce and then wrapped in sheets of nori seaweed. Tenmusu, comes from two words–tempura and omusubi–and brings both delicious items together in a wonderful dish.

Tenmusu has a colorful history! It is associated with Nagoya, but it was originally developed in the city of Tsu, in the Mie Prefecture across Ise Bay. In the 1930s, a woman named Mrs. Mizutani owned a tempura set-meal restaurant called Senju in Tsu City. Legend has it that on a busy day, Mrs. Mizutani didn’t have enough time to prepare lunch for her husband, and gave him rice balls with cut pieces of shrimp tempura hidden inside. Her husband must have enjoyed it, because 20 years later, the shrimp tempura rice balls were being served not only to her husband but to restaurant employees as well. Patrons soon discovered the dish, and asked for it from the restaurant’s secret menu, until Mrs. Mizutani perfected her recipe and began offering it on the formal menu, where a woman named Mrs. Fujimori, who was on vacation from Nagoya, ordered it and loved it.

Fifty years later, in 1980, the depressed economy in Nagoya led Mr. Fujimori, the patron’s husband, to close his watch shop. Mrs. Fujimori began exploring ways to support her family, and thought to sell the tenmusu that she loved from Mrs. Mizutani’s restaurant as a new item in Nagoya. She visited Mrs. Mizutani, and was rejected. She kept coming back, and was rejected. And she was persistent, even staying with Mrs. Mizutani, and finally gained her friendship. Through her persistence, friendship and negotiation, Mrs. Mizutani taught her the recipe and allowed her to open a branch of Senju in Nagoya.

Tenmusu was unknown in Nagoya, but after all that Mrs. Fujimori had gone through, she began a marketing campaign that gained her much publicity, and tenmusu became famous as a Nagoya specialty!

Tenmusu shop (photo by m-louis)

Both the Tsu City and Nagoya restaurants are still in existence, and you can see a sign that says “ORIGINAL” outside of the shop in Tsu City.

We love tenmusu at Zojirushi, too, and our recipe is as tasty as the ones from the original shop!

The best part about tenmusu is eating it in and around Nagoya. While trying out new foods may be one of the most interesting things to do in Aichi Prefecture, we know you’ll also love visiting the many spectacular attractions in the area, including the Mikawa Bay Quasi-National Park, the 1,900 year old Atsuta Jingu Shrine, Inuyama Castle and the Minamichita Hot Springs Resort. If you’re fortunate enough to be in Aichi Prefecture in winter, don’t miss the Hadaka Matsuri or “naked festival”… it’s a 1,200 year old tradition!

We hope you love Aichi Prefecture as much as we do, and as always, try making tenmusu and tell us how it went!

Product Inspirations – Mr. Bento® Stainless Lunch Jar (SL-JAE14)

Our classic Mr. Bento® Stainless Lunch Jar gives you a great way to carry delicious food with you to work, school or wherever you’re on the go!

The Mr. Bento® Stainless Lunch Jar comes with a vacuum insulated outer container that holds four inner bowls, which can keep both hot or cold items fresh and ready to eat. The outer container uses double-walled stainless steel construction with Zojirushi’s superior vacuum insulation technology. The soup bowl and the main bowl fit inside the insulated part of the container, and the two side bowls fit above, keeping food at room temperature at the top of the container.

The soup bowl holds up to 9 ounces, the main bowl up to 15 ounces, the large side bowl up to 10 ounces and the small side bowl up to 7 ounces, perfect for a snack! Each of the inner bowls are microwaveable once the lids are removed and BPA-free.

When placed inside the outer container, the inner bowls present several options for storing various types of foods and keeping them hot or cold for hours. The soup bowl can hold liquids, such as broths, stews and soups. The gasket inside the lid creates a tight seal on the bowl, minimizing leaks. The valve on the top of the lid allows you to release pressure that might have built up from hot liquids and foods, making the lid easier to remove. The main bowl’s large interior holds your entree, such as meat, noodles, rice or whatever else you’re craving. It comes with an insulated lid that prevents heat or cold from radiating to the side bowls. The side bowls are perfect for foods kept at room temperature, like fruits, nuts or crackers, making it easy to take food for the entire day!

The vacuum insulated outer container is made of two layers of durable stainless steel. The air between these layers has been removed to create an airtight insulation. And the interior of the container is nonstick coated, making it easy to clean. The inner bowls are easy to clean as well… just use mild dish detergent and warm water. Once all of the bowls are inserted into the outer container, just snap the lid onto the outer container and you have a single unit that’s easy to take to work, school, or… wherever!

The Mr. Bento® Stainless Lunch Jar also comes with a covered forked spoon and a stylish carrying bag.

Get creative with cold lunch

The Mr. Bento® lunch jar is perfect for well… bentos! With four inner bowls of varying sizes, the options are limitless, so we construct our bento the way we’d stack the bowls. We start with a Green Pea Soup, garnished with a bright splash of red bell pepper in the soup bowl. White rice fills the main bowl, which stacks on top of the soup bowl in the outer container. In the large sides bowl, we add crudité vegetables topped with a Tofu Hamburger. We cap the entire meal off with some fresh fruits and nuts, the perfect dessert to store in the small side bowl. Creating our bento makes us hungry… and we hope it stimulates your appetite, too!

Try out the Mr. Bento® lunch jar for your next meal, and let us know how you fill it in the comments below.

 

Japanese Bento – Cherry Blossoms Inspire Bento!

Spring is here, and with the blooming of cherry, or sakura, trees all over Japan, we’re excited to share in the season by exploring hanami bento!

(…and stay tuned at the end to find out how to win a Mr. Bento® Stainless Lunch Jar!) THIS GIVEAWAY HAS ENDED.

Spring in Japan brings a flurry of freshness… Japanese apricot, or ume, and cherry trees start flowering, signaling the change in season. Festivals begin, celebrating the renewal of life from a cold winter. And the new academic and business year begins. Fresh, seasonal foods are also prepared, and can be seen beautifully displayed in hanami bento.

Hanami bento are named after the ohanami tradition of meeting up with friends, family and coworkers to view the blooming cherry blossoms and spend time outdoors in areas lush with the delicate pink blooms. The tradition of viewing the flowers is said to have begun sometime between the end of the Nara Period (710-794 AD) and the beginning of the Heian Period (794-1185 AD). The Emperor Saga welcomed springtime and the beginning of rice planting season in Kyoto by hosting parties under the sakura trees. Over time, the tradition spread from the aristocracy to the general populace, with people enjoying outdoor picnics and merriment from morning into the night.

Ueno Park visitors enjoy the blossoming of the cherry trees

Today, enjoying the cherry blossom season is still a favorite custom in Japan, and many Japanese continue the tradition of ohanami parties in parks and private gardens throughout the country. In fact, local news broadcasts provide detailed accounts of where the flowers are blooming, and sakuramatsuri, or cherry blossom festivals, begin in cities like Hirosaki, Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo, just to name a few.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of cherry blossom viewing parties are the meals! Hanami bento are a type of koraku or large picnic bento specifically crafted with the sakura in mind, famously enjoyed during picnics. These larger bento boxes are made for sharing! They’re filled with colorful, seasonal foods, including hearty items like rolled egg omelet, fish and shrimp, and mini-burgers and chicken karaage. Vegetables like carrots, asparagus and green beans are crisply cooked, cut and arranged so they look like the cherry blossoms. Seasoned rice, like sweet rice cooked with adzuki beans, are included and formed into flower shapes to add beauty to the mix. And of course, the bento wouldn’t be complete without some form of wagashi or sweets like tricolor dango called hanami dango.

A variety of sweet and savory foods fill this hanami bento (photo by Blue Lotus)

Hanami bento can be made at home and taken to cherry blossom viewing parties, and they can also be purchased from specialty shops and depachika, or the food halls in the basements of department stores. Depachika versions include traditional items, Western foods, and new, innovative combinations, as well!

If you’re lucky enough to live in an area of the United States where cherry trees bloom, plan your own ohanami party and bring a bento! We love including mini-hamburgers with two sauces, a Japanese one made with soy sauce and mirin and a Western one with Worcestershire sauce and ketchup. We also love adding crisp veggies like aemono, made with fresh spring green beans. And the ever popular hanami dango, with white, pink and green sweets.

We hope you enjoy your bento and let us know where you saw the blooming cherry trees!

30 Days For 30 Years Giveaway!
Today and today only, we are giving away a Mr. Bento® Stainless Lunch Jar in Lemon Yellow*! Comment below and tell us what your favorite item in a bento box or lunch is, for your chance to win! #ZojirushiHappy30thGivaway

*must comment before 11:59PDT on 04/04/2017 THIS GIVEAWAY HAS ENDED.

Giveaway rules and details: bit.ly/Zoji30thRules

A Food Lover’s Tour of Japan – Maki Sushi in Chiba

We’re so excited that winter will end soon and our third location on our Food Lover’s Tour of Japan is the perfect place to enjoy the upcoming beauty of spring… Chiba!

Chiba Prefecture is located in the southeast part of Kanto Region of Japan, a large, fertile plain that is unique in a country predominantly defined by mountains.  Some part of it is also situated on the Boso-hanto Peninsula, with Tokyo Bay on the west and the Pacific Ocean on the east. This peninsula is sheltered and temperate, even during the cold months of winter, and has been densely populated for centuries due to its climate, fertile farmland, rich fishing zones and famous floriculture.

Chiba’s signature dish is futomaki sushi… and as we learn more about this beautiful area of Japan, you’ll understand why this dish is such a great characterization of this region.

On the west coast of the prefecture, situated alongside Tokyo Bay and within commuting distance of Tokyo, you’ll find Chiba City. Chiba City is the governmental and business hub of the prefecture, home to one of Asia’s biggest convention centers, the Makuhari Messe, and to the Chiba Lotte Marines baseball team. Many businesses and shops are in the city, and for leisure activities, locals and visitors both appreciate the cute port area called Chiba Port Park, where they can enjoy the beach, viewing tower, boat rides and cycling.

Not far from Chiba City, to the northeast, is Narita. Many of us know Narita as gateway to Japan, since this city is the location of Narita International Airport. But Narita is also a great spot to experience traditional Japanese culture. The famous Narita-san Shinsho-ji Temple attracts over 13 million visitors a year and has been a time-honored place of worship since 940 AD. During the spring, one of the largest drum festivals is held in Narita. 200 drummers participate and the thunder of their drumming can be heard throughout the city! Early summer is time for the Narita Gion Matsuri, where the Shinto object of worship from the temple is paraded around the city along with floats.

Tulips bloom in Chiba

History also abounds in the neighboring cities of Sawara and Sakura City. In these cities, visitors come to experience the atmosphere of Edo period through well-preserved architecture, shops, homes, samurai residences and classic streets. The National Museum of Japanese History, Chiba Prefectural Boso-no-Mura Museum and the Museum of Aeronautical Sciences are well-worth the visit.

The beaches in this prefecture are stunning. Kujukuri Beach, along the Pacific Ocean, is 41 miles long with a long straight coastline without reefs. It extends from Cape Gyobu in Iioka Town to Cape Daito in Misaki Town and is a pristine area for swimming, surfing, water sports and sport fishing. At the north end of the beach is Cape Inubo-saki, a raised marine abrasion where dramatic cliffs, rough waves and blasts of wind contrast strongly with the more serene beach towards the south. There is a lighthouse at the cape, where if you go up to the observation deck to view the panorama of the Pacific Ocean, you’ll be able to see the curvature of the Earth and if you’re lucky, dolphins! Not far from the cape, the Byobu-ga-ura Cliffs rise 131-164 feet high, and are fondly called the Dover of the Orient, due to their sparkling white façade.

Because of Chiba Prefecture’s temperate climate, flowers grow abundantly throughout the peninsula. The natural landscape and rich flora inspires Chiba’s signature dish: futomaki sushi. Chiba Prefecture’s futomaki sushi are artfully crafted, thick sushi rolls, made with colorful vegetables, rice decorated with food dyes, eggs and seafood. The traditional rolling techniques, learned in from a young age, and designs unique to each family, result in patterns that show through the cross-cuts made in the rolls when they’re sliced. Flowers in the shape of ume blossoms and roses are common motifs, but the variety of designs is as endless as the number of families rolling the sushi.

Futomaki sushi is thicker than basic maki sushi, or sushi roll. While futomaki sushi is traditionally made for special occasions, people enjoy simpler maki sushi throughout the year. Just like futomaki suhi, maki sushi can be made with fresh, colorful fillings, such as tamago (sweetened omelet), carrots, gourd, mitsuba, shiitake mushrooms, pickled ginger, shiso leaves, cucumber, eel, shrimp and tuna. Whether or not the rolling technique results in a patterned design, the ingredients are balanced so that no one flavor overpowers the other.

Making Chiba Prefecture’s futomaki sushi is an art practiced over years, so preparing simpler maki sushi is a great way to get started. Try out our recipe for a basic maki sushi and as always, let us know about your travels to Chiba and your adventures in rolling sushi!