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).
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.
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
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.
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