A Year in Seoul - video by Maddy

Monday, October 19, 2009

Beauty and the Bento Box

(Photos not mine)

Today I came across an interesting discussion in the New York Times entitled, "Beauty and the Bento Box." It was a follow up to an article on these artful Japanese lunch boxes featuring several experts weighing in on the question:

"What does the care devoted to the visual details in a packed lunch suggest
about the culture? Why is such value placed on aesthetics in everyday life
in Japan?"

Due to recent travels I've developed an interest in the beautifully delicate Japanese aesthetic, so I've decided to make a short exploration of my own.

It seems that the Japanese aesthetic permeates nearly every aspect of culture on the island. It's concepts are rooted in a set of fundamental principles which are deeply ingrained in the collective consciousness. These principles manifest themselves in infinite forms, reaching all the way from the elaborate tea ceremonies to the aisles of the supermarket. Identifying these elements of style have allowed me to better understand the feelings of harmony, restraint and elegance I experienced even in the most unexpected places in Japan, as well as a method to introduce them into my own life.

Central to the appreciation of beauty in Japan is the concept of impermanence. Everything in this world, whether lovely or terrible will eventually fade away. Dwelling on this idea can lead to feelings of melancholy, but it also inspires gratitude for the moment. If all the world is ephemeral, then we must cherish it all the more. In the Bento Box we can see quite obviously a celebration of the fleeting. Just because food is impermanent is not a reason it should not and must not be beautiful. Everyday deserves wonder, no matter how routine.

Another important stylistic element is "simplicity" (known as wabi to the Japanese). The subtle grace of an object can add infinitely to its beauty. Additionally, this concept dictates moderation and restraint. One of the strengths of the Bento Box is that it makes food appear much more copious. Ginger curls into delicate flowers, salad is shredded and layered in contrasting hues, and each element is housed in its own space. When the lunch plate is an art form there is much more enjoyment in the process and therefore less need for abundance.

Finally, we come to the concept of mono no aware, or, "awareness of things." In the Japanese aesthetic there is an interconnectivity between all forms of art and intellectual pursuit. The cultivated individual must be skilled in many areas to truly attain greatness. Calligraphy, gardening, Haiku, cinema, and painting all depend upon and borrow from one another. Preparing food in such an elaborate way can show off such skills and be a credit to the one who has prepared it. And it appeals to the part of every person that reveres the beautiful.

These are just a few examples in a complex web of concepts which make up the Japanese artistic style and they are based upon my limited understanding. Even so, I can now look upon the iconic flower of Japan and Korea, the Cherry Blossom, with a new vision. It seems to be a perfect representation of these stylistic elements: beauty in grace and simplicity, imperfect and impermanent, unfurling to the height of loveliness before falling to decay. A perfect allegory for nearly everything.


1. Parkes, Graham. "Japanese Aesthetics." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2008). Edward N. Zalta (ed).

2. Aesthetics in Asia - Japan a>


  1. Very, very interesting blog. Well done. Although, my question is, if food is so impermanent, why then does it stay so long on my hips?

  2. Your comments are more interesting than my blog posts.

    Great question, I'd like to know the answer to that as well.