Bento Cooking Class in Tokyo

One of the most fascinating and exciting things about visiting Japan, and Tokyo in particular, is the choice of food available. Travellers will rave about dishes like Okonomiyaki, Takiyaki, Yakisoba, Tempura, Ramen, Udon……….the list goes on and on. As a visitor from Australia, where food is often just a means of sustenance, the culture in Japan of taking the time and effort to prepare beautiful, healthy and tasty meals is incredibly appealing.

In the 6 months that I have been travelling in Japan, I have had some of the best food of my life — and am always amazed at the range of healthy and cost-effective food that is available, whether in convenience stores or high-end restaurants.

While a friend was visiting from Australia, we decided to do something that I have been meaning to do for a long time — attend a Bento cooking class. On the website that we found, it described the process of creating a beautiful and delicious Bento lunchbox for children’s school lunches — with pictures of different types of boxes available. The type of Bento box that we chose to make was in a style called ‘kyaraben’, which is a ‘character bento’ — decorated to look like popular characters from Japanese animation.

The host’s apartment where the class was to take place is located in Mitaka, within walking distance to the world-famous Ghibli museum (for those that aren’t familiar with Ghibli, he is a legendary animator who has created films such as Spirited Away).

The Class

Our class began when we were meet at the station by Tomoko and her assistant, as well as another guest who was attending the class. The class was a short walk from the station, down picturesque, tree-lined streets that will be beautiful and covered with flowering Sakura (cherry blossoms) in April and May.

Tomoko is a great host and, having lived in Canada, has excellent English. She met us in a traditional kimono, which was a very nice touch (although we felt bad for her as it was a cold day!).

On arriving at Tomoko’s place, we were shown into the kitchen where everything was ready to be prepared — each of us had a small box of ingredients and implements for creating the bento boxes. Tomoko explained what we were going to be doing, as well as some of the cultural significance of bento boxes to the Japanese culture.

My friend from Australia preparing the Bento box

We started out by creating the rice for the bento, by mixing it with a special seasoning to give the colouring of the body. Tomoko showed us how to create the body of Totoro, and instantly we had the first part of our bento boxes! The shape of Totoro took shape slowly, with each of our individual shapes slightly different (ranging from owl-like to rabbit like — but okay as he is an imaginary character based on both of these things!). Tomoko demonstrated how to form these shapes, and her assistant made sure that we were on the right track, which was much appreciated.

Tomoko also showed us some of the implements that are sold in Japanese department stores and 100 yen shops like Daiso — little stamps for making shapes out of seaweed, toothpicks for holding together shaped food, and tools to help shape and set rice. The range of these instruments is incredible, and so well designed — you can imagine forming a huge collection for every type of bento box imaginable!

After we had made the rice form, Tomoko showed us some great tricks for presenting healthy and nutritious food so that children will be interested in eating it — we made ‘chestnuts’ out of sausage and mushrooms, as well as little vegetable kebabs with cherry tomatoes and cubed cheese. Another favourite was a ‘ham flower’ made with carrots, cucumber strips and a piece of ham. We also made ‘plaited’ squid meat, held together by toothpicks, which looked amazing.

Plaited squid meat with the vegetable kebabs of edamame, tomatoes and cheese

Each of these beautiful objects was placed in the bento box and added to the beautiful and eye-catching image of Totoro, surrounded by colourful and delicious snacks like fresh broccoli and the vegetable sticks. We were amazed by how easy it was to present this food in a way that was so pleasing to the eye, and also incredibly appetising.

Close up of the Bento box, with broccoli, tomatoes and ham flowers

Once we had finished making Totoro, as well as his decorations, we moved on to making glutinous rice dumplings. We rolled these by hand and then Tomoko’s assistant boiled them to create little soft dumplings, which we served with red bean paste. The final step was to cut the fruit into bento shapes and arrange it in the box, as well as to make a quick miso soup to serve with lunch.

Dumplings for the Bento, rolled and waiting to be boiled

As you can see from the photos, the boxes turned out beautifully, with the added benefit of being able to sit down together and eat our creations. Eating the food was a fascinating process, having put this work into creating it, and we all appreciated the flavours and textures even more, having worked with the for the previous hour.

The final product — Totoro Bento box

The seasoning in the rice was delicious, adding a sea-weed taste, and the vegetables tasted fresh and delicious — you could imagine being a little kid at school and enjoying lovingly prepared, filling lunch. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a bento box more, with its balance of flavours and different ingredients — as well as the colours and textures. We chatted about the use of tricks like seasoning and presentation to trick fussy eaters into enjoying vegetables and new food, and got some great advice about kid-friendly Japanese food.

Over lunch we also had a great discussion about the relaxing and soothing nature of doing this kind of food preparation — taking the time to be creative and expressive, while at the same time making something that is going to bring so much pleasure to loved ones. All of the mothers present agreed that this was something that was more of a ‘special occasion’ thing, but that the reaction and enjoyment that their children took from eating the Bento boxes was worth it.

As a touching gesture, at the end of our lesson Tomoko offered us some Bento lunchboxes and bento fabric to take with us, to help us to make our own Bento lunches. I chose an amazing pink sushi-scarf which is used to tie up the Bento box to be carried (but which I’ll also use as a scarf!). My friend took home a Bento lunchbox to use when she makes her daughter’s lunches — the boxes are compact and tiny, but fit a lot in them. We were really touched at this gesture, as there was no extra charge for this — it is all part of the experience and the wonderful Japanese hospitality.

A Bento box ready to go to class!

The Verdict

Pros: An amazing experience, learning new skills, wonderful host and delicious food.

Cons: Making a bento box this beautiful is a bit time consuming, so you can’t expect to be able to make them to this standard every day — unless you get up at 6am!

Overall:

The afternoon we spent in Tomoko’s kitchen was one of my most enjoyable experiences in Japan — as a traveller you don’t necessarily spend much time in people’s homes, and I feel like I learned a lot about Japanese tradition and culture during our lesson, as well as some great tips about how to create a beautiful Bento box! It is also a great opportunity to experience Japanese hospitality at its best — to be a guest in a person’s home and to feel very welcome.

I would definitely recommend this class to anyone visiting Tokyo, as the location is very accessible (40 minutes or less from Shibuya) and the teacher is very experienced and has excellent English. The fact that she has an assistant for the class is also a positive, since if there are several students there is always the opportunity for one-on-one help.

Finally, the fact that you also get to eat your creation means that the class basically pays for itself! Discussing the class later we agreed that children would also enjoy the class, however they might need to be above 8 or 9 in order to be able to do some of the more intricate work.

This would be a great class to do if you are an adult looking to learn new skills in food presentation and lunchbox ideas, as well as for couples or families.

The link for the class is here: https://localbites.jp/en/menu/57

My friend and another student in the class — enjoying their Bento boxes