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Bento, Japanese box lunches, come in a hundred varieties. Every convenience store competes on the quality and variety of its bento. And it works, I always get my bento lunch at the Family Mart; the 7-11's bento aren't nearly as good.

But conbini bento, even the best of them are prepared in advance, trucked around the city and heated while -you-wait in a microwave. They are handy and even tasty but they lack a certain freshness. Fortunately, convenience stores are not the only places that stock bento. A higher grade of bento can be found in department stores and in tiny, local bento shops.

Last night, Tod selected some bento from a hole in the wall shop, literally a window on the street near Sendagi Station. They were made to order while Tod waited. And what a feast for the eye and the stomach...

Inside each container was a rectangle of rice topped with a red pickled plum, as is common to most bento. Two circles of deep-fried chicken perched atop a bed of spaghetti. Nimono, simmered foods, held court in one section of the box, with a speckled slice of sesame tofu, a fancy twist of gummy dragon's tooth starch and a cut of gobu reigning. Two slices of breaded, deep-fried fish, a spoonful of creamy potato salad and a foil cup of akajiso pickles rounded out the meal.

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