A Beautiful Moon in a Boxed Lunch: Dad’s Offbeat Bentō Creations Puzzle and Delight
Nothing expresses love like a handmade bentō. One Japanese father creates unique and intriguing lunches for his daughter every day and posts them on Instagram.
Uchida Naoto (@bento_star on Instagram) is the maker of the lunch pictured above. He noted in his Instagram post that the moon—represented by a slice of sweet potato—was indeed beautiful the previous night. But he also commented that his 15-year-old daughter might have been put off by the hidden meaning of the message written in nori seaweed.
The novelist Natsume Sōseki famously declared that the English phrase “I love you” should not be rendered into Japanese through word-for-word translation. Japanese people would not speak so directly, he said, suggesting it would be better to translate it as Tsuki ga kirei desu ne or “The moon is beautiful.”
Food for thought, indeed. What other designs does the “bentō star” have up his sleeve?
It is true that a typical bentō has one half filled with tasty side dishes like spring rolls and grilled fish, while the other is packed with appetizing white rice. Still, it is easy to imagine Uchida’s artistic statement meeting with another puzzled reaction from his daughter.
Next, let us consider this curry bentō.
With the accompanying curry coming in a flask, Uchida has a larger canvas to play with, but remains cryptically straightforward. Whatever way one looks it, this is rice.
When his daughter was studying for tests, Uchida provided his own schedule as a student for reference.
- 部屋掃除 (Heya sōji): Tidy room
- 机片づけ (Tsukue katazuke): Clear up desk
- ちょっとマンガ (Chotto manga): A little manga
- うたたね (Utatane): Nap
- 爪切る (Tsume kiru): Cut nails
- さあやるか 22:00 (Saa yaru ka 22:00): All right, time to go! (but it’s 22:00)
One hopes that this bad example provided the right kind of encouragement to his daughter.
Uchida also makes character bentōs using favorite characters from anime and manga. He does not always seem to consider what his 15-year-old daughter will appreciate, though. One dekoben (decoration bentō) example recreates the screen from a Nintendo Game & Watch portable console released in 1980, and he has also presented a panel from the vintage baseball manga Kyojin no hoshi (Star of the Giants), which aired more than half a century ago.
Diverting Attention from the Sides
We asked Uchida about his bentō-making technique, his daughter’s reactions, and more. He began by looking back on his first dekoben attempt. “It all began on the first day of the Reiwa era [May 1, 2019], when I cut up some nori I had to hand to make the characters for Reiwa. I was a total amateur at cooking, so I thought this was perfect for diverting attention from the side dishes.”
He says that he tends to finalize his ideas by the night before, when he cuts the nori. “I get my material from our conversations at morning and night, and expand on it from there. And most of the time, I use something topical like tests, clubs, or dates connected with manga going on sale.”
As for what prompted the “moon is beautiful” theme, he says that, “There was a supermoon around that time, and my mom just happened to have given us some sweet potatoes. Come to think of it, I’d also remembered my precocious younger daughter proudly using the phrase.”
He describes his older daughter, now in ninth grade, as “quiet and down to earth,” and his fourth-grade younger daughter as “cheerful and down to earth.” He started making bentō when his older daughter started at junior high school.
The first bentō looks tasty enough, with classic sides like tamagoyaki (rolled omelet), sausages, and kinpira gobō (burdock root stewed with other julienned vegetables), but the roughly shaped characters show how much Uchida has progressed since the early days.
A Startling Firefly
Uchida uses standard nori, like that for temaki (hand-rolled) sushi. However, cutting it when dry runs the risk of tearing it, so his secret is to steam it before applying the cutter to give it some moisture.
Once the nori is ready, he turns to the computer. He has created a PowerPoint slide corresponding to the actual size of the bentō box. Here, he arranges the illustrations and characters.
When the design is decided, he prints it out and traces over any lines that are too thin with a felt-tip pen to make them easy to cut. Then he gets to work with a cutter and tweezers, working from the finest details inside, and finishing the inside entirely before moving to the outside. Finally, he sets the design on the rice.
Uchida says it takes about an hour to cut the nori, while he makes the bentō in the morning and posts it on Instagram in between doing various other chores. Despite the time he puts in, he says that he almost never gets any feedback from his daughter. The only time I got a reaction was for the “firefly in daytime.”
This “firefly” was a design intended to surprise his daughter when she opened the lid of her bentō. And indeed, its resemblance to another insect must certainly have been an unwelcome shock.
Having managed to create bentō lunches all the time his older daughter was in junior high school, Uchida now plans to continue until she graduates from high school. However, his younger daughter says she would only accept her favorite singers as bentō themes, so he says she will probably get ordinary lunches.
Uchida has seen his number of Instagram followers soar, and he enjoys getting a lot of likes. Still, he comments, “The ones that I’m really proud of might not get much of a reaction, while others get a huge response, so it’s interesting that things don’t go how I expect.” In the end, he says he just wants to send messages to his daughter.
Uchida’s project is set to continue, with more artistic messages for his daughter spiced with his special sense of humor.
(Originally published in Japanese on FNN’ s Prime Online on March 6, 2022. Translated and edited by Nippon.com. Banner photo: Uchida Naoto’s “The moon is beautiful” bentō.)
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