Every day millions of Japanese trot off to school or work with a bentō stashed in their satchel or briefcase. Bentō are boxed lunches which are either made at home or bought from shops all over Japan. Traditional bentō include rice, pickles, grilled fish or meat and vegetables. There are thousands of permutations depending on the season and the location in Japan (see box on railway food), with some of the best being available from department stores – there’s always a model or picture to show you what’s inside the box. At their most elaborate, in classy restaurants, bentō come in beautiful multilayered lacquered boxes, each compartment containing some exquisite culinary creation. Among housewives it’s become something of a competitive sport and art form to create fun designs out of the bentō ingredients for their children’s lunch. Empty bentō boxes in a huge range of designs are sold in the household section of department stores and make lovely souvenirs.

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