Jubako lunch boxes come in various shapes such as cylindrical or hexagonal, but the most common is square.
Jubako are basically lunch boxes for food. They may have up to 5 layers. Officially, these layers represent the 4 seasons, so there are usually only 4 layers. Jubako may hold special food such as 'osechi' at New Year, or for hanami cherry-blossom-viewing picnics, or during athletic festivals.
It is believed that jubako developed from 'food baskets' ('shilong') introduced from China. However, there are references to lunch boxes in Muromachi-period documents, therefore, it could be said that jubako have a long history.
During the Edo period, jubako came to be used by common people, too, and their real manufacture began in 1610. Samurai and daimyo used them as lunch boxes during leisure outings, such as hunting expeditions. Later, they started to be lacquered and decorated. Even now, this traditional item is commonly used in Japan.
Owase wappa is a traditional handicraft in Owase City, Mie Prefecture. It was widely used as a lunchbox by common people in the Edo period (1603-1868). Located in a part of ancient Kii province, which was called “Country of Tree,” Owase was known as a production center of high quality lumber. Owase wappa is made of wood from locally grown Japanese cypress trees. This lunchbox has been and is still favored not just because it is beautiful but because it is so durable as to be used for scores of years and its lacquer coat has bactericidal effect. As it is contrived to vent the air inside, it keeps food warm in winter and prevents rot in summer. In the making of Owase wappa, it is impossible to mechanize any one of the processes, so the manufacturing processes of as many as 45 different stages are all done by hand even today.
A “menpa” made in Ikawa, Shizuoka City, Shizuoka Prefecture, is a kind of lunchbox used by mountain workers in the old times. It still attracts a lot of hikers and people working outdoors for its beautiful gloss of natural lacquer and excellent rice preserving feature.
It is said that menpa was first made in this area in the Kamakura period (1192-1333). In the Muromachi period (1336-1573), the village of Ikawa was flourished with gold mining, for which dippers and tubs were in request and skills in bentwood work developed. Later, farmers started to make menpa as a side job.
Made of Japanese cypress wood coated with natural lacquer, Ikawa menpa keeps food warm in winter and prevents it from going bad in summer. If you eat rice from Ikawa menpa, you can enjoy a heartwarming taste that can’t be gotten from an ordinary modern lunchbox.
Awano lacquer ware (Awano Shunkei-nuri) is a traditional handicraft that is counted as one of Japan’s 3 Fine Shunkei Lacquer Ware together with Hida Shunkei in Gifu Pref. and Noshiro Shunkei in Akita Pref. This is the oldest Shunkei lacquering technique in Japan. Its origin dated back to 1489, when Minamoto no Yoshiaki, the castellan of Inagawa castle, began lacquering in present-day Awa, Shirosato-machi, Ibaraki Pref. The hardest kind of Hinoki cypress is cut into pieces, planed, and assembled by using wooden nails made of Deutzia. Then the surface is polished with Equisetum (horsetails) and allpied lacquer bringing out the beauty of straight grains. This lacquering technique is characterized by the use of Japanese plum vinegar to enhance the transparency and create beautiful color shade. Nowadays trays, jubako boxes, lunch boxes and ink-stone boxes are produced.
Edo lacquerware is a simple, tough and practical handicraft. It dates back to 1590, when the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, living in Edo castle, invited Kyoto lacquerware artisans to Edo.
During the rule of Tsunayoshi, the fifth shogun, a coating technique was developed, and by the rule of Yoshimune, the eighth shogun, lacquerware was being made into food vessels. Ordinary people loved to use lacquerware as layered boxes for eel dishes, bowls for buckwheat noodles (soba) and other practical, functional utensils.
Today, many kinds of lacquerware are produced for tea ceremony utensils, as low tables, etc., which show the development of technique and tradition from the Edo period.
Outside Japan, while ceramics from China are referred to as china to this day, in the same way, lacquerware from Japan was once known as japan ware. Edo lacquerware is one excellent example of a Japanese handicraft used in everyday life.