Thomas Bertrand

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Thomas Bertrand

    Main guest

    Bento box specialty store Bento&co founder Thomas Bertrand was born in Saint-Étienne, France. When he was in primary school, he developed an interest in Japanese anime and games, which led to his love for Japan. He came to Japan in 2003 as an exchange student at Kyoto University. After graduating, Bertrand started working in Kyoto and wrote a blog about the things happening around him in his daily life. His blog is quite popular, and he continues it today; posts get between 800-1,000 readers. In 2008, after being inspired by a conversation with his mother, Bertrand decided to start up a bento box company. Bento&co sells bento boxes online to people all around the world. Within 30 minutes of the company’s website going live, orders started coming in from Bertrand’s blog readers. In only two months Bento&co started turning a profit. Bento&co currently has a physical store in the heart of downtown Kyoto. It sells not only bento boxes, but essential bento accessories such as chopsticks and furoshiki (wrapping cloths) as well.

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January 29, 2019

Japanophiles: Thomas Bertrand

*You will leave the NHK website.

This time on Japanophiles, French national Thomas Bertrand details how he decided to think outside the box in his quest to introduce Japanese culture to a global audience. Like many others before him, Bertrand first visited Japan for a sightseeing trip, but he eventually moved to Kyoto and started working in Osaka. During his long commute, Bertrand would brainstorm ideas for his blog, which he started writing back in 2005. He spent hours writing each post about what he found unique about everyday life in Japan, and as the years passed his readership grew to 800-1,000 views per post.

Bertrand’s career path changed course after a fateful call with his mother about 10 years ago. She mentioned to him that Japanese bento had been featured in a French magazine. After searching around, Bertrand discovered that there was a lack of global bento box suppliers. Inspired, he opened up his online bento box store Bento&co three weeks later, and his very first customers were his dedicated blog readers. What started out as a living room-based operation with 15 options for sale has now grown into a company with a physical storefront in Kyoto and customers in over 97 countries and regions.

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Bento&co’s hundreds of offerings range from the traditional to the trendy.

The widespread love for bento shouldn’t come as a surprise, because the concept of a boxed or bagged lunch is common throughout the world. Korean doshirak, Filipino baon, Taiwanese pian-tong, Indian tiffin, and Japanese-inspired Hawaiian bento are just a few examples. What then sets Japanese bento apart? The boxes that they’re contained in, for one. As we learn on the show, not all boxes are created equal, and there are different boxes for different occasions. While some people may be okay with packing last night's leftovers in a plastic container, picking the right bento box adds an extra special element to a meal and brings it to the next level. After all, if we eat with our eyes first, presentation must be just as important as taste! Nowadays, meticulously crafted bento are certainly having their moment on social media sites—there are even bento contests, such as Bento&co’s very own Chef Bento Contest.

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Host Peter Barakan examines a magewappa, an old-fashioned box made by heating strips of wood in boiling water.

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Tamaoki Hanbee gives his visitors a free history lesson on unique bento boxes as he shows them around his museum.

Bento have undergone various upgrades over time, perhaps unsurprisingly given a 400-year history. Back in the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1558-1600 CE), people needed a way to carry food with them for a long day of farming, hunting, or traveling. They started to take along dried rice, which they’d keep in linen bags and then reconstitute with cold water in the summer or hot water in the winter. That rice could even be eaten without adding water, making it indispensable for warriors on the move. Rice porridge was also a commonly eaten food, and as that couldn’t be carried in a bag, it required a sturdier container—the original bento boxes.

Today, the bento that probably first comes to mind for many is a school lunch packed in a cute box geared toward children. While it’s typically assumed that mothers will make bento for their children, that’s not to say that fathers can’t as well! One Japanese dad caused quite a sensation on the Internet after he started posting pictures of bento he had crafted based on pictures his kindergarten-aged daughter drew. His bento could be considered a type of oekaki-ben, bento based on works of art, or kyara-ben, bento crafted to look like various pop culture characters, such as those from children’s TV shows. Another type mentioned on the show is the aisai bento, literally a bento “made with loving care by one’s wife.” But no matter who is preparing the bento, it’s safe to say that it’s a symbol of one’s affection for the recipient, which makes choosing the perfect box all the more special.

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Some bento boxes have leak-proof inserts to make carrying your lunch around worry-free.

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Presentation is everything when it comes to bento, from the box design to the way food is arranged inside.

Bento have also evolved to be eaten on particular occasions. A few mentioned on the show are group bento for sharing during events such as hanami, sports days, or even a casual picnic with friends. Osechi, a traditional New Year’s meal, also comes to mind, but that’s actually contained in jubako, fancy tiered boxes that aren’t used for everyday meals. Another elaborate version is the shokado bento, a meal that’s often perfected by chefs over many years to display their skills to patrons. (In fact, on a previous Japanophiles edition, we saw David E. Wells work on creating his own signature shokado bento.)

During the Edo period, bento were an essential part of outings to the theater or other activities. Makunouchi bento were developed to be eaten between the acts of a kabuki performance, and the boxes were divided into small sections to contain rice and a wide variety of side dishes. Later on, when Japan’s rail system was developed in the Meiji era, ekiben appeared on the scene. The name literally means “station bento,” and as you’d guess, these types are sold at train stations and often showcase local dishes or ingredients. Serious ekiben fans get off at particular stations just to eat a certain bento, which is a great way to add variety to a long trip. Besides being packed in unique containers, some ekiben are wrapped in paper printed with nearby scenery, or even maps of the local area. Nowadays, there are roughly 3,000 types of ekiben available across Japan!

For those looking to get their hands on a tasty bento closer to home, Japan residents need look no farther than the nearest convenience store, bento specialty shop, or department store. If you’re keen on embracing all that bento boxes have to offer, however, why not pick out one that inspires you and try to make your own meal to fill it with? There are countless resources online, including NHK’s own Bento Expo website. Happy cooking!

*You will leave the NHK website.