Plenus “kome” Academy

O-Bento Column

In the days when there were few places to eat out,
if people had to be away from their homes for long hours or when they were traveling,
portable meals were common. In Japan, special containers were developed to
make these portable meals easier to carry.
The foods were prepared in various ways and arranged in a way that considered
the colors of the ingredients, with the added touches of seasonal elements.
This evolved into a unique Japanese food culture, which is now so popular that
the word “Bento” has become a well-known proper name overseas.

Here, we present Japan’s bento culture in various eras and scenes,
together with the characters that appear in those scenes.

Hanami and Bento

The Origins of Hanami

If there’s one flower that represents Japan, it is sakura—cherry blossoms. When the cherry blossom season comes around, people’s spirits are somehow lifted, and invitations to parties or gatherings to enjoy the cherry blossoms, or hanami (“flower viewing”), start to go out. But why is it that cherry blossoms are so captivating? In ancient times, cherry blossom trees were considered to be where the god of the rice paddy dwelled. The “sa” in “sakura” refers to the god of the rice paddy or the spirit of the grain, and the “kura” part refers to a place where gods reside. Cherry blossoms herald the coming of spring, and so people would look at the condition of the blossoms to predict the outcome of the year’s rice harvest. When the snow gave way to flowers, people would go into the mountains to welcome the returning god of the rice paddy, and prayed for a good harvest by entertaining with sake and food. These customs, called “yama-asobi” (“enjoying the mountains”) or “no-asobi” (“enjoying the outdoors”), continue to be practiced across Japan. They represent a direct meeting with the god of the rice paddy in hopes of receiving its blessing, with a shared meal to deepen the bonds between god and the people. Hanami ultimately originates from these agrarian religious beliefs.

The Hanami of Heian Nobility

Hanami is said to have begun with events attended by nobility during the Nara period (710 – 794), but in those days, they were enjoying plume blossoms (ume) rather than cherry blossoms. There is a record in the Nihon Koki (“Later Chronicles of Japan”) that Emperor Saga* held a cherry blossom festival in the garden of the imperial palace in 812, and people believe that this is the first time that cherry blossoms were the subject of hanami. Afterwards, these festivals came to be held every year, and from 831, it was formalized as a regular event of the imperial court. Emperor Saga loved cherry blossoms, and through his influence, the custom of hanami spread among the nobility, with members of the nobility composing Chinese poetry, playing music, and dancing under the cherry blossom trees.
* Reign:809 – 823

Left panel detail of “Genji monogatari eawase kochozu byobu” [Scenes from the Tale of Genji, Kocho (“Butterflies”)], by Kano Seisen'in (Osanobu) – Tokyo National Museum collection
This is a scene from the “Butterflies” chapter of The Tale of Genji. Here, you can see a beautiful scene of the nobles enjoying an elegant hanami feast, with decorative pleasure boats out on the garden pond and children dancing under the cherry blossom trees.
“Kan’ouzu byobu” [Cherry-blossom Viewing], by Sumiyoshi Gukei – Tokyo National Museum collection
This is a scene from the Nagisa-no-in chapter of The Tales of Ise. Here, you can see Prince Koretaka and his retinue enjoying cherry blossoms in their full splendor. Every year, when the cherry blossoms were in full bloom, the prince would go with his companions to see the cherry blossoms, and people would recite poetry together regardless of the hierarchy of status.

The Spread of Hanami under Samurai Society

Eventually, the customs of hanami spread into samurai society as well. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of the great unifiers of Japan during the Warring States period (1467 – 1615), was another man who had a profound love of cherry blossoms. His hanami parties at Yoshino (1594) and at Daigo (1598) were grand, opulent gatherings, attended by great number of his companions and featuring banquets, tea ceremony, fancy dress, and people enjoying themselves without concern for status or propriety. Hideyoshi’s hanami shifted the concept from elegant cherry-blossom viewing with formal music and dancing to a much livelier event enjoyed by crowds of people.

“Shihon chakushoku daigo hanamizu” (a six-part folding screen depicting the hanami at Daigo), an important cultural property – National Museum of Japanese History

The hanami party at Daigo was a spectacular event attended by about 1,300 of Hideyoshi’s retinue, including Kodai-in (Hideyoshi’s wife), Yodo-dono (his concubine and second wife), Hideyori (his heir), Tokugawa Ieyasu, and other prominent feudal lords and their spouses. There were banquets and tea houses, and there was also fancy dress. It was a lively, colorful event, during which the noblewomen changed their outfits twice. The mood of the hanami party also reflects the relief Hideyoshi must have felt after having achieved the unification of Japan and producing an heir. It was only half a year later that he passed away.

Hanami and Bento for the Common People of Edo

It was between 1661 and 1673 during the Edo period (1603 – 1868) that commoners began to enjoy hanami like the nobility and samurai did. In general, they would go to enjoy the sight of the single cherry blossom tree that customarily stands within the grounds of a temple. Later, between 1716 and 1736, Tokugawa Yoshimune (the eighth shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate) planted thousands of cherry blossom trees on Asukayama, the banks of the Sumida and Koganei rivers, and other places and encouraged commoners to take part in hanami. As a result, they could witness the majestic sight of all of these trees in full bloom together, and hanami became an annual custom for common people as well. When the cherry blossoms began to bloom, people went out to see them and set up hanami feasts under the trees.

So what was hanami like during the Edo period? There are many ukiyo-e paintings of hanami scenes remaining from that time, allowing us to get a glimpse.

“Hanami no gi” [“Fun at Hanami”] (1868) – National Museum of Japanese History collection
This is a depiction of commoners enjoying hanami to their hearts’ content. You can also see women spreading out rugs, as well as food stalls and sake vendors. There is eating, drinking, singing, and dancing, and everyone seems to be having a lot of fun.
“Edo meishozue Asukayama” [“Famous Views of Edo: Asukayama”], by Utagawa Hiroshige – Kita City Asukayama Museum collection
This is a hanami scene at Asukayama. The women have spread out red mats and are laying out their bento. On the mats, you can see the various bento boxes, outdoor sake warmers, and so on. There are also women playing the shamisen, with others dancing in matching costumes shown behind. This hanami was a spring festival for the common people, and their bento was filled with delicious food that they worked hard to prepare.

Nagaya no Hanami

There is a rakugo story called “Nagaya no hanami” (“The Tenement House Hanami”). In the story, the landlord of a poor tenement house invites his tenants to see the cherry blossoms in Ueno, saying “Let’s go to see the cherry blossoms and throw a big party to drive out the god of poverty.” He had also prepared sake and large bento boxes filled with food, so everyone gleefully joined him. However, it turned out that the entire feast consisted of substitutes: the sake was just diluted, low-grade tea, the egg omelet was just yellow daikon pickle, and the kamaboko fishcakes were just scorched rice (playing on “kamazoko”, meaning “bottom of the pot”, though some performers employ different wordplay in variants of the story).

While the tenants in the story must have been disappointed by what they found after looking forward to a hanami feast, you can see how there was a general consciousness at the time that even people living in poverty in back-alley tenement houses would still enjoy hanami together, bringing “sake” and “bento with omelet and kamaboko”.

A nagaya tenement house occupied by a wide variety of people, “Ukiyodoko” – National Diet Library collection

Hanami Bento of the Edo Period

Bento was at the heart of hanami feasts. “Hanami bento” consisted of things for everyone to enjoy, and people made bento with the mindset of “showing off” and “being seen”.

In the late-Edo-period cooking book “Ryori hayashinan” (“Quick Guide to Cooking”), there are menus for hanami bento. These had three tiers, from delicacies at the top to casual foods at the bottom, bringing together tasty treats using seasonal spring ingredients. The upper tier included items like castella tamago (a thick, cake-like omelet), wata kamaboko (fishcake made with abalone innards), steamed flounder, sakuradai (a type of sea bream), and flatfish sashimi, as well as sweet items like karukan (sweet buns) and kinton (mashed sweet potatoes). A separate bento box called a warigo would contain items like grilled onigiri.

We tried reproducing this bento by referring to the upper tier of hanami bento introduced in Ryori hayashinan.

Hanami sageju
“Hanami sageju”
– Cooking supervision: Ayako Ehara
/ Production: Hiromi Akabori
First Level.Servings of Nine Items.Castella tamago(Thick, fluffy omelet made by adding grated yam and sugar to some eggs and baking it. Dark soy sauce and mirin are used for the seasoning.),Wata kamaboko(This is kamaboko fishcake with abalone innards added. There are a number of dishes in Edo cooking books that use abalone.),Tamagawa(This is another typo of kamoboko which features some complex ingredients, like sea bream and flatfish surimi, yam, egg, and black sesame.),Simmered lotus root,Simmered burdock, Simmered cod roe, Prawn onigara-yaki, Uchi incho, Nagahijiki
Second Level.Steamed flounder,Pressed sea bream sushi(This is a long, bar-like presentation of sea bream sushi. For a long time, the most common kind of sushi was a type in which salted fish was fermented with rice, but from the Edo peri),Sweet and sour ginger,Dried daikon(Twisted, dried daikon restored with water. This has been pickled in vinegar.),Kanrobai (sweet plums)

Hanami Bento Boxes

What were the bento boxes that contained the hanami feast like? Bento culture flourished in the Edo period, and people made all kinds of bento boxes, working hard to make them both practical and stylish.


Even before hanami was popularized among commoners, court nobility and feudal lords would enjoy no-asobi outings to see the cherry blossoms or maple leaves. During these times, they brought with them no-bento boxes. Aside from sake sets, boxes, rice bowls, soup bowls, and other tableware, no-bento also included many tools for making tea, so it was also called cha-bento, or “tea bento”. These were designed to be carried over the shoulder by passing a rod through the metal fittings attached to the side of the box.

Aoimon makie no-bento
“Aoimon makie no-bento” [”No-bento with gold lacquer hollyhock crest”] – Tokyo National Museum collection
This is a no-bento box of the highest quality, featuring the Tokugawa clan’s crest of three hollyhock leaves.
Sageju with sake warmer
“Sageju with sake warmer”
(photograph courtesy Noboru Seto).

The house-shaped box also includes
a sake warmer.
Jubako and sageju

The most common kind of bento box brought to hanami was jubako. These tiered bento boxes first appeared during the Muromachi period (1338 – 1573), and had entered general use by commoners during the middle Edo period. Jubako are handy containers that do not take up much space and let you serve a large number of dishes at once, after opening them up and laying out the compartments. The standard is four-tiered jubako, but during the Edo period, there were ten-tiered jubako, as well as square, round, pentagonal, and various other shapes of jubako. All kinds of jubako were made during this time, from simple ones used by common people to luxurious ones made with gold lacquer.

Sageju boxes, which had handles for easy carrying, were also frequently used. These contained jubako, sake flasks, sake cups, plates, chopsticks, and so on. Not only were these functional for portable use, but they were also created specially for use at banquets. As a result, they were made with elaborate designs to suit different seasons or outings, and they saw frequent use throughout the year, such as for theater outings, hanami, autumn leaf viewing, moon viewing, and outings to enjoy cooler evenings.

“Kaizukushi makie sageju” [”Sageju with gold lacquer illustrations of shells”]
“Kaizukushi makie sageju” [”Sageju with gold lacquer illustrations of shells”]
– Tokyo National Museum collection.
“Hitori bento” [“Bento for one”]
“Hitori bento” [“Bento for one”]
– Tokyo National Museum collection.
Jubako with gold lacquer design of taro plants and chrysanthemums
Jubako with gold lacquer design of taro plants
and chrysanthemums
Warigo and oribako

Warigo are bento boxes made from thin strips of light wood like cypress, with dividers on the inside. The dividers keep the flavors of the various foods separate from each other, which was useful when eating outside or sharing food with other families. Cypress contains antibacterial substances that help to delay the spoilage of ingredients, keeping them fresh. It also has good breathability and moisture retention, so the ingredients do not become stale over time.

Oribako are also made from light wood. These are disposable containers that are derived from oshiki, which were used as tools in Buddhist or Shinto practices or as food tables. Disposable containers like these are a distinctly Japanese creation.

Oribako seen in “Ryori hayashinan” (bottom-left)
National Diet Library collection.
Oribako, which are still sold today. 
Oribako, which are still sold today. 
Photographs courtesy of Oribako Kobo Origoshi Shoten

Famous Hanami Locations throughout Japan and Japanese History

Famous hanami locations that have long been popular are depicted in many ukiyo-e paintings.
These places have been made what they are by the thoughts and feelings of the people who went there.
Here, we’ll introduce some of these famous locations while also talking about the way people felt about the cherry blossoms.

Ueno (Ueno Park, Taito-ku, Tokyo)

The most famous place for cherry blossoms in Edo was Toeizan Kan’ei-ji Temple in Ueno, of which it was said “there was nowhere that was not covered in a pile of flowers”. The founder, Tenkai, wanted to make the temple a place where ordinary people could relax, and transplanted cherry blossom trees from Yoshino to follow a concept of emulating Kyoto*. This is how Ueno came to be famous for its cherry blossoms.

While the grounds of Kan’ei-ji were open to the general public, it was also the family temple of the Tokugawa family, and so music, drinking, and viewing the cherry blossoms at night were prohibited. Later on, the grounds became Japan’s first public park in 1873. There have been times when the park was devastated by war and by earthquakes, and the current vista of cherry blossoms in Ueno is the result of local people working together during the difficult post-war era to fund the replanting of 1,250 trees and 300 double-blossom trees.

Meisho Edo hyakkei Ueno Kiyomizudo Shinobazu no ike [“One Hundred Famous Views of Edo: Kiyomizu Hall and Shinobazu Pond at Ueno”]
– National Diet Library collection

*Tenkai (1536 – 1643) was also a political counselor who served three generations of the Tokugawa shoguns (Ieyasu, Hidetada, and Iemitsu), and he planned the city layout of Edo to emulate that of Heiankyo (old Kyoto), following a classical city-building concept based on suitability with the four guardian spirits of Chinese mythology. He also recognized that in order to build a stable and prosperous Edo, it was important to have places where the common people could relax. It was with this mindset that the cherry blossom trees of Ueno Toeizan were planted.

 Asukayama (Asukayama Park, Kita-ku, Tokyo)

While Asukayama was always a scenic location, it was used as the falcon hunting grounds of the shogunate and thus not available to the general public. Later, however, the shogun Yoshimune transplanted 1,270 cherry blossom trees from the grounds of Edo Castle to Asukayama and opened the grounds to the general public. When the cherry blossom trees were in full bloom, he would send his retainers out with plenty of food and drink, and had them treat even common people. These enthusiastic incentives had a great effect, and Asukayama became a popular, lively spot for hanami. Today, the park has 650 cherry blossom trees, and its late-blooming double-blossom trees are particularly popular.

“Meisho Edo hyakkei Asukayama Kita no chobo” [“One Hundred Famous Views of Edo: View to the North from Asukayama”]
“Meisho Edo hyakkei Asukayama Kita no chobo” [“One Hundred Famous Views of Edo: View to the North from Asukayama”]
– National Diet Library collection
Banks of the Sumida River (Sumida Park, Sumida-ku, Tokyo)

Of the Sumida River, it was said “there are many places to see the cherry blossoms, but there is no greater bustle than at the cherry blossoms of Sumida River banks”. Yoshimune also planted cherry blossom trees here, a place that stands alongside Asukayama as a famous spot for hanami. Aside from Yoshimune’s encouragement, hanami was already popular here because of the convenient transportation by boat from the city, and the proximity of entertainment districts such as Asakusa and Yoshiwara. Today, one can enjoy the cherry blossoms from river barges or boat taxis.

“Hanamigaeri Sumida no watashi”
[“Crossing the Sumida on the Way Back from Hanami”]
– National Diet Library collection
Sakuramochi, the Hanami Delicacy

One of the most popular souvenirs from hanami was sakuramochi. There was a well-received kind sold at the gates of Chomeiji, a temple on the Sumida River. These were made by the gatekeeper, who wrapped mochi with a red bean paste filling in a pickled cherry blossom tree leaf.

Left: Kansai-style Domyoji mochi. Right: Kanto-style Chomeiji mochi.

In “Toen shosetsu” (“Rabbit Garden Tales”, by Kyokutei Bakin* et al., 1824), there is an account of how 770,000 leaves were pickled in a year, and 387,500 sakuramochi were sold, showing just how popular the treat was. Because of this origin, sakuramochi was called “Chomeiji mochi” in Edo, but in the old capital of Kyoto and its environs, sakuramochi was called “Domyoji mochi” after the flour that their version was made from. This flour was made by grinding glutinous rice from Domyoji Temple in Fujidera, Osaka.

* This was a compilation of stories by writers who had gathered in response to a call by Bakin and shared rare and strange stories once a month. The group was called the Toenkai, or “Rabbit Garden Group”, after which the compilation was named.

Let’s take a look at some famous places for hanami outside of Edo next.

Arashiyama (Arashiyama Park, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto)

The cherry blossom trees of Arashiyama began with the transplantation of trees from Yoshino by Emperor Go-Saga*, and successive emperors enjoyed hanami there. Hundreds of years later, in the Meiji era (1868 – 1921), the statesman Iwakura Tomomi assembled a conservation group and worked to replant cherry blossom trees in Arashiyama. There is also a famous anecdote about how Zhou Enlai was moved by the sight of the cherry blossoms in Arashiyama when he was studying abroad in Japan during the Taisho era (1912 – 1926), long before he became the Premier of the People’s Republic of China. Approximately 1,500 cherry blossom trees are planted at the foot of the mountain of Arashiyama. Today, people often view the cherry blossoms from barges or the Togetsukyo bridge.
* Reign:1242 – 1246

“Kyoto meisho no uchi Arashiyama manka”
[“Famous Views of Kyoto: Arashiyama in Full Bloom”]
– National Diet Library collection
Maruyama Park (Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto)

The “Gion Shidarezakura” (“Weeping Cherry Blossom Tree of Gion”)
in Maruyama Park is also known as the “Gion no Yozakura” (“Night Sakura of Gion”).

Maruyama Park is famous for cherry blossom viewing at night, as described by Yosano Akiko*, who composed the poem “Traveling to Kiyomizu/Moonlit cherry blossoms scatter through Gion/Everyone I see tonight is beautiful”. The weeping cherry blossom tree here, known as “Gion no Yozakura” (“The Night Sakura of Gion”), is about 90 years old, and succeeded the original tree to bear this name, which was 220 years old. There is a fantastic beauty to its blossoms lit up by the night bonfires. The illuminations last until 1 in the morning. Within the park, there are about 800 other cherry blossom trees as well. Maruyama Park is popularly regarded as one of the best hanami spots in Kyoto, and when the cherry blossom trees flower, it seems as if the entire park is filled with cherry blossoms.
* B. 1878, D. 1942

Yoshinoyama (Yoshinoyama, Yoshino-gun, Nara)

The cherry blossom trees of Yoshino have captured people’s hearts since ancient times, and have been praised in many songs and poems. It has been described as a place where one can see a thousand cherry blossom trees at a glance—in fact, the scenery is truly incredible, with about 30,000 cherry blossom trees of 200 different types. This landscape is the beneficiary of traditions of mountain worship. The cherry blossom trees were regarded as sacred trees and protected accordingly, and the worshipers also had a custom of donating saplings. The poet Saigyo*, who loved the cherry blossoms of Yoshino, composed many poems about them and had his hermitage there. One such poem reads “Since the day I saw the blossoms on the treetops at Yoshinoyama, my heart was no longer my own.” In July 2004, the “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range”, which includes Yoshinoyama, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
* B. 1118, D. 1190

Hirosaki Park (Hirosaki Park, Hirosaki, Aomori)

Blossoms carpeting Hirosaki Castle’s outer moat.
Photograph courtesy the Hirosaki Park website.

Hirosaki Castle (Hirosaki Park) in Hirosaki, Aomori Prefecture is one of Tohoku’s best hanami spots, but historically speaking, it is actually something of a newcomer. During the Edo period, the garden castle mainly had pine trees, with only 25 cherry blossom trees. When the feudal clans of Japan were abolished with the Meiji Restoration and the castle fell into ruin, the former feudal lord planted 1,000 cherry blossom trees, followed by another 1,000 to commemorate the marriage of Emperor Taisho. In the Showa era (1926 – 1989), a further 1,300 cherry blossom trees were donated and planted by philanthropists, bringing the garden to its current state as a famous hanami spot. Being located in northern Japan, the cherry blossoms flower from the end of April, and are in full bloom by the early May holidays of Golden Week, the best time to see them. One spectacular sight is that of the outer castle moat covered in a carpet of pink blossoms.

Cherry Blossom Trees on the Kawazu River(Kawazu, Kamo-gun, Shizuoka)

The Kawazu-zakura trees of the Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka Prefecture are famous for being an early-blooming type of cherry blossom tree, starting in early February. The first of this type was discovered in 1955, and after 11 years, it bloomed for the first time, producing vibrant pink blossoms. Academic researched determined it to be a new species in 1974. Its blossoms have become the flower of the town of Kawazu, and the public and private sectors have worked together to continue planting trees, with about 8,000 trees creating a beautiful vista today. The trees also enjoy a long flowering season, lasting for around a month.

Bento to be Enjoyed alongside Nature and the Seasons

In ancient Japan, people practiced the customs of “yama-asobi” or “no-asobi”, in which they would go out into the mountains on pleasant spring or autumn days to enjoy time outdoors and eat meals. This was more than a simple outing to eat, however. People would enjoy their meals while being a part of nature, within the seasonal landscape. The bento they opened in the outdoors connected people with nature and the seasons, and deepened the bonds they shared with the friends and family who gathered with them.


The Yusanbako Boxes of Tokushima

Tokushima, in Shikoku, is home to a charming custom to celebrate the seasonal festivals of spring. On April 3 every year, around the time of the Doll Festival of the old lunar calendar, children would pack treats into small jubako boxes and go to places like the mountains or the seaside. Depending on where they lived (town, mountain village, or seaside), this would be hanami, yama-asobi, or iso-asobi (beach outings), but to the children, it was a once-a-year event that they were free to enjoy by themselves.

Photo of a family with yusanbako, taken in the Taisho or early Showa era
Photo of a family with yusanbako,
taken in the Taisho or early Showa era

Each of the children would carry their own distinctive, small jubako bento box, called a yusanbako. Their families would fill the yusanbako with sweets and treats like sushi rolls and omelets. Once the children had eaten them all, they would get people in the neighborhood to top up their boxes with more. This custom had endured since the Edo period, and it was an unforgettable, fun memory for many children. One can also imagine the warm gazes of adults watching over the children and supporting their growth into adolescence. While the custom fell out of favor in the middle of the Showa era, in recent years, some communities have been trying to revive it.

The Yusanbako Boxes

The traditional yusanbako of Tokushima are small, hand-held jubako. These boxes have three tiered layers, and are decorated with various patterns. Typically, the bottom tier held sushi rolls, the middle held vegetables simmered in soy sauce, and the top held steamed cakes or agar jelly.

Photographs courtesy of Yusanbako Bunka Hozon Kyokai (Association for the Preservation of Yusanbako Culture)

Supervision and Support

Mieko Gondai

Born in 1950. After working for Japan Airlines Co., Ltd. as a flight attendant on international routes, and later as a lecturer in the company’s cultural affairs department (providing instruction in serving customers), she established Human Education Service. Since 1997, she has worked as a special lecturer at the Japan Travel Bureau Foundation to improve hospitality in various fields of tourism and provide guidance on how to foster hospitality, and she has also served as a tourism promotion advisor and committee member for the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism, the Japan Tourism Agency, and local government. Since 2009, she has worked as a part-time lecturer at the Takasaki City University of Economics and other institutions. Her work involves research of modern hospitality, and as well as traditional Japanese hospitality and dietary culture.