A beautiful moon in a lunch box: puzzles and delight from dad’s quirky bentō creations

A Japanese father’s bentō creations have won him admirers on Instagram, even though they seem to bewilder the recipient, his 15-year-old daughter.

Nothing expresses love like a handmade bentō. A Japanese father creates unique and intriguing lunches for his daughter every day and posts them on Instagram.

Written on the rice: Tsuki ga kirei desu ne), or “The moon is beautiful”.
Written on the rice: The moon is beautiful (Tsuki ga kirei desu ne), or “The moon is beautiful.”

Uchida Naoto@bento_star on Instagram) is the creator 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 night before. But he also pointed out that his 15-year-old daughter might have been put off by the hidden meaning behind the message written in nori seaweed.

Novelist Natsume Sōseki said that the English phrase “I love you” should not be translated into Japanese by word-for-word translation. The Japanese would not speak so directly, he said, suggesting that 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 “star bentō” have up its sleeve?

A nori note explains that half of a bento is made of rice (Bentō no hanbun wa gohan de kiteimasu), or
A nori note explains that half of the bento is rice (Bento no hanbun wa gohan from kiteimasu), or “Rice makes up half of a bentō.”

True, a typical bentō has one half filled with savory side dishes like spring rolls and grilled fish, while the other is filled with mouth-watering white rice. Still, it’s easy to imagine Uchida’s artistic statement being met with another puzzled reaction from her daughter.

Next consider this bentō curry.

The edible phrase: Hikaeme ni itte, kome, to say the least, “In all modesty, rice”.
The edible sentence: at least rice (Hikaeme ni itte, kome), “In all modesty, rice.”

With the accompanying curry in a flask, Uchida has a bigger canvas to play with, but keeps it cryptically simple. Any way you look at it, it’s rice.

An algae program.
An algae program.

When her daughter was studying for the tests, Uchida provided her own schedule as a student for reference.

  • room cleaning (hi soji): Tidy room
  • clear the desk (Tsukue Katazuke): Clear the desktop
  • a small manga (chotto manga): A little manga
  • Knock out (Utatane): Siesta
  • Nail clipper (Tsume kiru): Cut nails
  • 22:00 (Saa yaru ka 10:00 p.m.): Alright, time to go! (but it is 10 p.m.)

It is hoped that this bad example provided the right kind of encouragement to her daughter.

Uchida also creates character bentōs using favorite anime and manga characters. However, he doesn’t always seem to consider what his 15-year-old daughter will enjoy. A decoben (Bentō decoration) for example recreates the screen of a Nintendo Game & Watch handheld console released in 1980, and it also featured a panel from the vintage baseball manga Kyojin no hoshi (Star of the Giants), broadcast more than half a century ago.

A Game & Watch screenshot.
A Game & Watch screenshot.

Divert attention from the sides

We asked Uchida about his bentō-making technique, his daughter’s reactions, and more. He began by going back to his first decoben attempt. “It all started on the first day of the Reiwa era [May 1, 2019]when I cut some nori that I had on hand to make the characters of Reiwa. I was a total cooking lover so thought this was perfect to distract from the side dishes.

He says he tends to finalize his ideas the night before, when he cuts the nori. “I take my material from our morning and evening conversations, and develop it from there. And most of the time I use something topical like reviews, clubs or manga related release dates.

As for what prompted the “the moon is beautiful” theme, he says that, “There was a supermoon at that time, and my mom just gave us sweet potatoes. Looking back on it, I also remembered that my precocious youngest daughter proudly used this phrase.

He describes his eldest daughter, now in grade nine, as “calm and down-to-earth”, and his youngest daughter in grade four as “cheerful and down-to-earth”. He started making bentō when his eldest daughter started in middle school.

A first attempt came with the bentō Reiwa (令和) in 2019.
A first attempt came with the bentō Reiwa (令和) in 2019.

The first bentō looks quite tasty, with classic sides like tamagoyaki (rolled omelet), sausages and gobo kinpira (burdock root simmered with other julienned vegetables), but the roughly formed characters show how far Uchida has come since the early days.

A surprising firefly

Uchida uses standard nori, like this for temaki sushi (hand rolled). However, cutting it dry may tear it, so her secret is to spray it before applying the cutter to give it some moisture.

Steaming and cutting.
Steaming and cutting.

Once the nori is ready, he turns to the computer. He created a PowerPoint slide to match the actual size of the bentō box. Here he arranges illustrations and characters.

When the drawing is decided, he prints it and traces the too fine lines with a felt pen to make them easy to cut. Then he gets to work with a cutter and tweezers, working from the finer details inside and fully finishing the inside before moving on to the outside. Finally, he fixes the drawing on the rice.

Uchida says it takes about an hour to cut the nori, while he prepares the bentō in the morning and posts it on Instagram between two other tasks. Despite the time he devotes to it, he says he hardly ever hears back from his daughter. The only time I had a reaction was for the “daytime firefly”.

This “firefly” was a drawing intended to surprise her daughter when she opened the lid of her bentō. And indeed, its resemblance to another insect must have been an unwelcome shock.

Easily mistaken for a cockroach, Uchida's 昼の蛍 (Hiru no hotaru) was actually a
Easily mistaken for a cockroach, Uchida’s Hiru no Hotaru (Hiru no hotaru) was actually a “daytime firefly”.

Having successfully created bentō lunches the whole time her eldest daughter was in middle 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’ll probably have regular lunches.

One of Uchida's favorite themes is the whack-a-mole bentō.
One of Uchida’s favorite themes is the whack-a-mole bentō.

Uchida has seen his Instagram follower count skyrocket, and he loves getting lots of likes. Still, he comments, “The ones I’m really proud of might not get much of a response, while others will get a huge response, so it’s interesting that things don’t go as planned.” In the end, he says he just wants to text his daughter.

If the chile winter is coming.  .  .春遠がらし (Haru tōgarashi): Uchida's pun connects Haru tōkaraji, the second half of the Japanese translation of Percy Shelley's line
Whether Chili winter is coming… spring mustard (Haru togarashi): Uchida puns links Haru tokaraji, the second half of the Japanese translation of Percy Shelley’s line “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” with togarashiwhich means “chilli”.

Uchida’s project is set to continue, with more artistic messages for her daughter spiced up with her particular sense of humor.

(Originally published in Japanese on FNN’s online premium March 6, 2022. Translated and edited by Nippon.com. Title photo: bentō “The moon is beautiful” by Uchida Naoto.)


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