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Is there anything more fun than a Totoro bento box for your school lunch? Can you imagine the look of joy and wonder on everyone’s face as that lid lifts off the bento box and there curled up, in a bed of rice sits the most kawaii lunch in the room. Occasionally I get really jealous of the very vanilla, white Australian upbringing that I had. I can’t even say that my parents packed me a Vegemite and cheese sandwich for lunch, as having two shift workers for parents meant that I was supposed to be responsible from a young age for making my own lunch. Young Jean did not have the Bento Box making skills, or any great culinary skills that I really wished that I had. Imagine how jealous the other school kids would have been had I turned up with even just a plain Jane Bento Box. 100% jealous. At the ripe age of 34 I finally got to live my bento box dreams and took an amazing kawaii bento box class with Traveling Spoon in Tokyo.

What is a bento box?

Basically a bento box is a lunch box full of joy. It is a single portion meal, served in a box that contains small amounts of several types of food, which are compartmentalized.
The humble bento box was originally used in the 12th century by farmers, who would take balls of rice and sweet treats into the fields. Reducing the time needed to go home and eat food with the family. Like many things in Japan, the humble bento box was rejuvenated and elevated during the Edo period. Going from the fields, to being worn on the waist koshi bento as a status symbol and even a unique side show bento box makunouchi bento which was proudly displayed and enjoyed during performances, such as kabuki. The bento box itself was a reflection on one’s social status.
The bento box itself was considered a piece of art, to be proudly displayed. 
Unlike the Western style lunch boxes that are big and bulky, with soggy sandwich, a bento box may be multi tiered and will have compartments. For all your lunch time goodness. When travelling in Japan you’ll find bento boxes available for sale just about everywhere. It’s almost a right of passage to buy a bento box and eat whatever oddities are in it on your first shinkansen ride as a tourist when travelling in Japan.
Beautiful bento box designed by Jean

Enjoying a bento box making class in Tokyo

The space is bright and the air conditioner is running on high. Which is a cool delight, because I can think of nothing worse then making bento beauty in the oppressive Tokyo summer heat. A heat that slaps you in the face every step that I take, towards the cooking class. Like many fun opportunities in Japan the class is in a building, accessed by a small entry way and up into an oddly shaped elevator. Thankfully the team at Travelling Spoon have sent very detailed directions, including photos. Which really is a lifesaver as Google isn’t all that great in Tokyo.
 
 
Our hosts for the day, Saori & Hatsu, are warm and welcoming with a charm that I really wasn’t expecting. And they are 110% ready for a session full of laughter. It soon becomes evident that both  Brittany and I are much more interested in playing with the extra tools to make things super kawaii then actually show off our wicked cooking skills. Of which neither of us have. Have you ever tried to cook an egg omelette, in a square pan with chopsticks? I did and it’s just as difficult as what you think ti would be.
 
 
Thankfully for us, on arrival the class room ingredients and basics are set up and ready for our wonderful ways. Throughout the class, we are shown what the ingredients look like out of the packet, and are given an indepth tour into the history behind certain ingredients.
 
You just can’t get this level of knowledge and expertise from a YouTube clip. 
Cooking with gas

Now I’ve been a huge fan of My Neighbour Totoro since a 4yo made me watch it on a road trip to Sydney many years ago. If you’ve not heard of Totoro then you need to educate yourself ASAP! So you really can’t understand how enjoyable this class was for me living all my childhood dreams. As I rolled rice, squished it and crafted some delicious kawaii bento box glory. 

Brittany cooking bento box

If you’d like to take a chance at making your own bento box here’s the Totoro Bento Box recipe

 

The importance of a kawaii bento box.

No matter where we are in the world seemingly the weight of a child’s happiness lies on the shoulders of women. The humble bento box at the start the the 20th century slowly turned from suitable lunch carrying device to a status symbol for children to brag. The practice of charaben – food sculptured into intricate and adorable characters fastly spread throughout Japanese schools. With children, doing what they do best, and mildly bullying one another for not having a kawaii enough bento box. And then there was the mothers who were getting up at 5am, spending an hour or two crafting the perfect charaben for their little ones lunch. 
 
In 1954 the School Lunch Act was enacted across Japan. This mandated that lunch be integrated into the school curriculum. Nutritionists dictated what would be fed to the school children. Each child was allocated a table to eat at and were required to clean up after themselves. There was a concern that the kawaii bentox boxes being painstaklingly crafted by mothers, may have been visually magnificent, but were lacking in good nutrition. Seemingly eating cute every day might not be all that healthy. 
 
Even today bento box is a part of the school life, it is somewhat restricted to picnics and outings. Though things are changing, with there being a rebirth in the popularity of bentox boxes for school lunches. With that comes the social pressure from other mothers, school teachers and children to craft the perfect bento box, with women reporting bento stress. Across Japan there is an increase in women attending classes to learn how to master the charaben.
 
Stores are abundant with tools to help you make that egg into a Pokémon ball, teeny tiny flags and miniature tooth picks with kawaii characters so that you’re special snowflake child doesn’t need to get their fingers dirty eating lunch.
 
You can easily buy a whole range of bento boxes and charaben making supplies on Amazon.
I do suggest that you take a look at these really affordable and eco-friendly bento boxes;
Jean with a kawaii bento box

How to book your very own bento box class & who is Traveling Spoon?

Traveling Spoon is helping travellers find culinary local delights around the world. I like to think of it like you’ve travelled to another country or city and someone hooks you up with their Mum or Aunty, who is going to sit you down and finally teach you how to cook so that you can impress that husband/wife  that you’ve not yet found because you’re in your 30s and spending more time travelling with friends then worry about securing a life long partner. With less life advice and judgement, and a whole lot more delicious food. The hosts on Traveling Spoon have been vetted, so you know that you’re in safe chef like hands.
 
Traveling Spoon isn’t just cooking classes, you can add on market experiences and so much more. There are culinary experiences available in over 50 countries, so there’s bound to be something delicious to tempt your taste buds with.
 
 
 

Final Thoughts on making a charaben bento box

This class was a whole lot of fun and gave me some really simple tips and tricks to bring home, of which I’m very grateful. I can easily see how people responsible for making their children’s lunches could very easily fall into the stressful situation of trying to perfect the bento box. With the uprising of social media, YouTube and what not the societal pressure is real. Yet this doesn’t take away from the grand cooking class that I got to experience and certainly think everyone should try their hand at.
 
Jean

Jean

Founder, Principal Blogger & Coffee Drinker

Coffee Lover | Travel Blogger | Horse Rider | Adventure Racer | Donut Dame.

Generally nice lady-enjoys wine, indie movies & random dance parties in my tent.

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1 Comment

  1. I had so many bento boxes in Japan but never thought of doing a cooking class to make my own! Guess now I have another reason to go back to Japan!

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