A Bento in the Park: The Perfect Shinjuku Lunch Break

When I worked in the Nishi-shinjuku skyscraper district, I always enjoyed taking lunch breaks with my co-workers among the cherry blossoms in Shinjuku Central Park. Instead of getting takeout, we’d pick up a bento (boxed lunch) from a local shop or convenience store and bask in the springtime weather, far removed of the perpetual neon lights of the office.
As time moved on, I worked in other locations, and although I couldn’t take my colleagues and the park with me, I found smaller parks and new bento shops to keep the tradition alive.
When the weather is pleasant and I have a little time to spare, I’ll simply pick up a bento, find a nice park, and enjoy a delicious, well-portioned meal in serene surroundings. Whether you are planning your first trip to Japan or you’ve been living here for a while, I invite you to experience this tradition as well.


First, a little history

The origin story of the bento is up for debate. Some trace the modern-day bento back to the Kamakura period (1185 -1333), when laborers started carrying cooked and dried rice to work.

Bento boxes became more widespread and sophisticated during the Edo period (1603 – 1867). According to the Japan Society, this is when the makunouchi-style bento became common. Makunouchi literally means “between/within the curtain” as it was often served during the intermissions of theater performances, when the curtains were drawn. This style of bento most closely resembles what you’ll find today at train stations, department stores, and various other locations.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about bento meals is the variety that is available. During the Edo period, bento meals primarily consisted of rice, fish, and pickled vegetables. These days, however, a store-bought bento can contain anything from comfort foods like spaghetti to kaiseki-ryori (a traditional Japanese multi-course meal). And of course, homemade bento lunches are only limited by the imaginations of those who prepare them. No bento article would be complete without at least mentioning ekiben (bento meals exclusively sold at train stations) and kyaraben (bento boxes that contain food specially arranged to resemble pop culture characters).

A homemade bento lunch in a more traditional wooden box. Unfortunately, I can’t take credit for preparing this delicious meal…

Dine in the great outdoors

If you are in or around Araki-Cho, Shinjuku, there are two fantastic places where you can kick back and enjoy a delicious meal among beautiful scenery. Shinjuku Gyoen—a vast, beautiful oasis of green in the heart of Shinjuku—is a bento lover’s paradise. Whether you dine on a park bench or verdant lawn, you’ll always be able to carve out a slice of lunch-time tranquility here. It costs 200 yen to enter the park, but I assure you that the experience is well worth the price of entry.

One of many great spots for a bento break in Shinjuku Gyoen.

Just as with Shinjuku Gyoen, once you enter Toyama Park, the city gives way to endless greenery. A popular park for exercise and team sports, this is a great place for people-watching while enjoying a bento meal. Or, if you prefer some alone time, the more densely forested parts of the park offer some seclusion. This park has two sections, so be sure to explore them both.

Don’t miss out

Bento on a budget: I’ve been enjoying various iterations of this charcoal-grilled, Korean-style beef (炭火牛カルビ) bento for nearly a decade. At just under 500 yen, it’s the perfect “one coin lunch.” Optional: a side salad and cheese snacks.

Even if Tokyo is considered to be the best city in the world for dining out, you should still take a moment to enjoy a bento in the park or, as my Tadaima Japan colleague Misuzu points out, “anywhere you can sit down outside.” Steeped in tradition and culture, the bento experience is not one to be missed.

When I’m in the mood to spoil myself, I’ll pick up a healthier option. Loaded with fresh, light ingredients this bento from the Shinjuku Odakyu department store will set you back about 1,100 yen. Pro tip: stop by later in the evening to get a significant discount.

For smartphone users, please click the link below to go to the Tadaima Japan website which includes additional location details:
A Bento in the Park: The Perfect Shinjuku Lunch Break

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AUTHOR

Anthony

Anthony

Writer / Translator

Originally from Riverside, California, I've been living, working, and writing in Japan since 2009. Japan has become my second home, and I'm especially fond of Shinjuku, Tokyo. That being said, I also love getting out into the countryside and exploring the entire country. Through Tadaima Japan, I hope to share the wonders of Japan with a wider, international audience. Check out my articles if you enjoy exploring on foot, convenient cafes, and affordable dining.