Japanese bento, traditional home-packed or take out lunch boxes, have become well known around the world thanks not only to their delicious and varied contents, but also thanks in part to their beautiful aesthetic. While it's easy to think of bento as a pretty and convenient way to grab your lunch for the day, they have an extremely large appeal to both Japanese and foreign diners.


For the everyday Japanese worker, a meticulously measured out bento provides varied nutrition to power through their jobs, while for foreign visitors bento offer a chance to sample a multitude of Japanese dishes throughout busy traveling schedules. But perhaps one of the lesser known aspects of bento is that store-bought boxes aren't simply lunch on the go, but can offer some of the highest grade quality delicacies in Japan. One such place you can go to get that might surprise you: the Isetan department store in Shinjuku.


It sounds a bit surprising. In general some of the best advice you can give someone traveling Japan is to explore off the beaten path, and find the hidden culinary gems of mom and pop shops. The inverse of that is at play here, however, as the idea of finding a high quality Japanese meal at a department store of all things may cause hungry visitors to miss out on the very obvious selection of delicious bento right in front of them. The layout of the department store, which features the different delicacies of famed restaurants and regions all over Japan is in itself, a giant bento box.

Perhaps it's because the Isetan Shinjuku Store is camouflaged to the busy traveler as a shopping mall. Located just a few minute on foot from Shinjuku Station (the busiest hub of transportation in Japan), the store has a lot of attention within Japan and around the world as a constantly evolving "fashion museum" and attraction for travelers in Japan. While they've made a name for themselves in the fashion world, they also strive to stand out in the culinary field as well.

Recently we had the opportunity to visit the Isetan department store's bento area before its open hours, and see the many premium bento that get shipped in daily from top quality restaurants. as well made fresh on spot. We then sampled three amazing bento and reviewed them!


Because the lunchtime rush to select from the smorgasbord of bento and a la carte dining options at Isetan's first basement floor is so competitive, fresh shipments of ingredients and dishes form high quality restaurants, farmers, and fish markets pour in early in the morning. With the typical diligence of the Japanese service industry, they are assembled into bento and other lunch time options by seasoned veterans and chefs.

The moment the floor opens, workers rush to prepare fresh and high quality ingredients.


Add some tempura to your bento for some extra crunch.


All the yakitori you could ask for.


A bounty of salads.


Crispy Gyoza.


We then had the opportunity to try out bento from three of Isetan's stores. Here's a roundup of the hidden variety the department store has to offer.

The first was a traditional bento from Japanese restaurant Nadaman, and is perhaps one of the best representatives of a classic Japanese bento we could have had. With two types of rice, fried foods, grilled fish, and traditionally cooked vegetables and Japanese pickles, you have a plentiful selection of flavors that can let you figure out your likes and dislikes in terms of traditional cooking.


The second store we sampled illustrates how bento go well beyond convenient and quick eats, as it allowed us to sample the fresh and high quality fish of Tokyo's world-famous Tsukiji fish market in the form of a bento from Tsukiji Suzutomi. The idea of top class sushi coming in a store bought lunch box may seem a bit fishy to some, but one bite is all it took to convince us that the early morning shipments were worth it. The fish used is shipped in from Tsukiji Suzutomi, and the sushi is made fresh on the spot in accordance to the customer's order.


While we know traditional Japanese cooking and sushi may not be for everyone, don't worry. Among meat lovers there are very few that would find issue with the quality of premium Japanese beef, or wagyu. Yonezawa Kohakudo's wagyu steak bento provides you with a rare opportunity to eat high quality wagyu served over rice from the convenience of your lunch box, and not just your standard wagyu served at chain restaurants, but Yonezawa beef--one of the three consensus best types of Wagyu along with Kobe beef and Matsusaka beef.


As an added bonus, Isetan also sports a rooftop garden and outdoor seating area that lets you give your bento a restaurant experience upgrade. During the lunchtime rush, it's a welcome and peaceful area to take a break in for customers.


Japan is filled with gorgeous and delicious bento, way more than you could possibly eat in one trip. However, they offer a wonderful opportunity to sample many of the different delicacies the country is known for in a compact and convenient way. While hunting them down can be time consuming, in the heart of Tokyo you can find the Isetan Shinjuku Department store, which houses a variety of surprisingly high quality bento, all which cut down on the time it takes to travel to a fish market in the wee hours of the morning or eating at a wagyu farm restaurant. And even if you decide to take part in those enriching adventures, you can have a nice bento on your way there.

If you're curious and would like to know more about Isetan, check out their website for information.


By - grape Japan editorial staff.

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