Thursday, September 2, 2010

Bento Stands

Living at the center of Osaka city has been great so far. The location is hard to beat because there are so many restaurants, shops, and stuff to check out. A side benefit has been the view of the daily experiences of the locals. This includes watching the morning and afternoon surge of people and cars in the streets, the flocks of salary men/women, and the lunch-time rush. Since food is one of my favorite things, I've loved seeing the eating habits of the locals during lunch.

Japan's lunch-time habits seem much more in line with my experiences in the United States then, say, Barcelona. In Spain, lunch is a MEAL that takes a while (up to two hours) and usually includes some wine. In Japan, from what I can see, lots of people run out of the office, grab something quick, and then head back. For sure, the local restaurants are full but what's interested me even more are the impromptu Bento stands that pop up each morning and disappear each afternoon. I liken them more to the lunch trucks (fondly called "roach coaches") in southern California than a simple hot dog stand in NYC or Philadelphia (although I've seen some real gourmet offerings in some really small carts in both cities).

In case your Japanese-food knowledge is a bit rusty, a Bento (弁当 or べんとう) is single-serving, full meal. The usually include some sort of meat or fish, some cooked and/or raw veggies, and a serving of rice. They range from super simple and cheap to really-elaborate, theme-inspired creations. What's available in the pop-up Bento stands and in the local conbini (convenience stores) tend to be the simpler, less-expensive style. Prices range from about 500 Yen up to 800 Yen (about six-to-ten U.S. dollars). This is what's left after the rush at the local market:

In order of decreasing formality, here are some stands that are all within about five blocks of where I'm living. Some are out front of an associated restaurant like this one. It's a fairly safe option since you know who to see if you get sick...

This one will feel familiar to anyone that's ever eaten from a truck in the U.S. (note how the window opens from the "wrong" side - Japan drives on the left):

I liked this next one for a couple of reasons. First, the van is very small. Second, the sign at the right says "loco moco", which is the Hawaiian term for a meal that is inspired by Bento and has some of the elements but in a not-so-fancy offering. This truck is serving up Japanese-inspired Hawaiian-style food in Osaka... :-)

Next, we have a folding table that's out in front of a non-food-related business. My guess is that this guy is a friend or relative of the business owner. Interestingly enough, this was probably my choice for the best-looking Bentos.

Now we're getting good. This one reminds of me some of the best taco stands in Mexico. No running water. No permanent address. Just an umbrella, a guy, and his food...but he's still in a commercial area.

This one, much like the last one, doesn't appear to be associated with any business, is completely mobile, and offers some quick eats. This location is probably one of the highest-traffic areas.

Finally, this one wins the award for smallest stand. It was staffed by a guy in a restaurant (chef) clothing, which increased my confidence in his food.

Hmmm... This post has made me pretty hungry. I think I'll go out and check out the Bento offerings of the guy a few photos up. Yummy, yummy.

I'm honored that this post is featured as a part of the November 2011 japingu J-Festa blog festival.


  1. thanks for participating in the november j-festa! cool overview of the styles of bento stands. in fact, i had never given much thought of the different varieties until reading this article. i am going to have to pay more attention!

  2. Thanks reesan for having me! I love, love, love bento!

  3. That is making me hungry, too!!! Next time more food porn, please! I like to be ravinous by the time I finish reading posts about food. ;P

    Cool Jfesta sub.

  4. now I am hungry three! ;) Osaka is a great place, wish I had spent more than a few hours there during my visit.


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