Not Lost in Translation

24 Mar 2004|LiAnne Yu

Whenver I travel to Tokyo, friends always see me off with recommendations on where to eat, whether it’s at upscale restaurants or noodle shacks run by little old ladies. Being from San Francisco, I’m used to great Japanese food, whether its fresh sushi, crispy fried octopus, yakitori kebabs, or steaming bowls of ramen.

Despite the fact that I am in one of the world’s best places for eats, I must admit that what I look forward to most in are the bentos from 7-Eleven (“sebun erebun”).

Bentos are the ubiquitous boxed lunches that can be found at every train station, convenience store, and supermarket. They usually come on a plastic tray with a clear cover.They can be very simple, with just rice and some meat or fish. They can be incredibly elaborate, with a dozen or more local specialities divided up into small compartments on the plastic tray. No matter how humble or grand the food offerings of the bento are, they are always packaged with the utmost care-cupcake foils divide up the different tastes, seaweed flakes decorate sticky rice balls, little beds of cabbage cradle golden chicken nuggets. And then there’s always the little scoop of potato salad-really just enough for two or three bites-but always so much fun to see in combination with more “traditional” Japanese foods.

When I lived in Japan and had to take the train everywhere, locals would tell me what bentos to look for at each train stop. Little towns in Japan are commonly famous for one or two products and the distinctiveness of their bentos. Travelers waiting for their connections may never leave the train stations of some places, but they will always leave with a local bento to ease them through the rest of their trip. One of my favorite memories is of four little grannies out on a girls only trip, sitting across from each other on the bullet train, unwrapping their bentos with so much delight and toasting each other with cans of Asahi beer (bought from a vending machine-another of my favorite consumer experiences in Japan).

Bentos are little presents you give yourself or someone else at lunchtime. Some even come in wrapping paper. The nicer ones never come second to email or business talk or t.v. These bentos command the very best of one’s lunch-time attention (like the way a Steve’s deli tri-tip sandwich will).

Anthropologist Anne Allison has written about her experience with the Japanese school system, and the pressure to produce appropriate looking bentos for her child. She even has a bento photo blog.

In case you’re curious, here’s what I had for lunch yesterday:

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