I’d known about O-bento sama since I studied in Japan. But I don’t think I started to really understand them until now. For those not in the know, a bento is a lunch, usually in a container of some kind. The O and sama refer to a certain amount of respect for the lunch and what it represents.

K picks up on things all the time from her communications and sensor monitoring stations. I never know what she’ll find next. In this case, she started trailing the subculture of bento preparation, and boy is there a bottomless depth to human ingenuity and presentation in this one.

At its simplest level, a bento is a container. But you can add dividers, and layers of containers. And then you start getting into shape and size. Depending on the kind of lunch need, whether it’s a single person or a family on a picnic, the containers called upon depend upon the desires of the preparer and the needs of the consumer(s).

Most bento containers are plastic, but some are wood or metal. They may come with spaces for chopsticks or other utensils, and they can be tall or wide. Many have trays within the container that act as dividers in and of themselves.

You begin to get into personalization. Some bento containers are decorated with famous bento characters and sayings. Others are just decorated with scenes of solitude or symbols representative of the preparer’s wishes. You can have a lime green garden on the bento top, with a saying such as “friendship is a treasure, let’s eat!”

There are special containers and utensils that can be added to the bento. Small plastic fish to squirt soy sauce or little molds that can be used to shape hardboiled eggs into shapes. There are small creatures that can be used to cover a small treat. There are plastic figures and accents that can be added to make a point or deliver a message.

The food items that go into the bento start to turn into decorations. You can use cutters to make messages out of cheese, or cut vegetables and fruits into handy shapes like stars or moons. Rice and meat can be colored or arranged in shapes that make a friendly face or a background for another message.

Why all this elaborate work over what should is just a lunch? Near as I can tell, the bento is an actual person or spirit that delivers well wishes from one person to another in the form of a meal. Because the bento is a “go-between”, the lunch preparer can express feelings of love, friendship, or devotion to the eater without losing face, because it is assumed that the bento is relaying the message for both parties.

I like that. You open a container as if it’s a sacred object, and you don’t just eat a meal, you are eating something that expresses someone’s feelings for you.

K and I went searching various Asian stores for bento materials. We didn’t score anything more than some basics, but it will suffice for now. We just started this thing at level 1. It’ll take us a while to get to the higher levels where our bentos to each other are like dioramas.

But even a humble bento is nice. Mister lunch has been visiting me this week, and every small touch makes the meal warm and friendly. I know someone cares enough to send me a message of caring and sharing!