Japanese: Bento equipment
You can easily go overboard, buying equipment for bento. There is an amazingly huge array of tools, boxes, and accessories specifically for the preparation and presentation of bento, both kawaii and traditional. Below are some examples from my collection.
I have a small collection of bento boxes compared to some. Most of my kawaii and traditional boxes were purchased overseas or received from friends in Japan and the US. I also use Lock'n'Lock containers, typically with built in or removable compartments. These are a little larger than standard bento boxes.
Bento boxes are available in all kinds of shapes, from bowl sets for soup and noodle dishes, insulated containers, kawaii character shapes, ovals and rectangles, and more. Some come with built in or removable dividers, some have several tiers, collapsing when empty to save on space. They are usually quite small compared to Western lunch boxes usually used for school lunches. They are a fantastic way to control portion sizes. I love my Mr. Bento!
Modern bento boxes are usually made from plastic or aluminium. Boxes with metal parts are obviously not microwave safe. Many of the plastic bento boxes recommend that you wash them by hand, and not use them in the microwave to extend their life. Traditional bento boxes were made of laquered wood (for special occasions) or woven bamboo.
Collecting bento boxes can get expensive very quickly. It pays to shop around. Look on ebay, Amazon (amazon.de, amazon.com), or at sites like jbox.com. If you are in the US, you may be lucky enough to have a Japanese dollar store near you (Daiso, etc.). Lock'n'Lock containers can be found at many Korean grocers in Australia, and some of the House home and gift shops have started to sell this brand.
A furoshiki is a piece of fabric used to wrap things. Originally they were used for lunches, presents, and in fact anything that needed to be wrapped. With the rise of eco-consciousness, furoshiki are once again becoming popular. You can buy gorgeous furoshiki at many online stores, ebay, or Japanese stores. You could improvise and use a bandanna, or in fact, any piece of fabric will do!
Typical utensils for eating from a bento are obviously chopsticks. There is a huge variety of disposable and non-disposable chopsticks, some with their own cases or fabric bags, some that collapse. Tiered bento boxes often come with their own chopsticks, although these are shorter than normal chopsticks.
Other bento utensils may come in sets, with or without printed designs, or a separate case to store them. You can improvise and use utensils for small children to save space or to fit in empty bento boxes for the trip home.
Not exactly a bento staple, but incredibly convenient, rice cookers are used to make all kinds of rice dishes. Rice cooked on the stove top is often too 'wet' to stick together properly when making onigiri (rice balls). A good rice cooker can save an enormous amount of time, and frustration with burnt pans (speaking from experience here)!
Onigiri, rice balls, are traditionally shaped by hand. Onigiri molds make this process a lot easier for those who are not so good with their hands. There are many shapes available: the traditional triangle, balls, sushi rice molds, kawaii faces including common anime characters, and more. A mold is easier to use if adding a filling to onigiri.
Onigiri are often wrapped in nori (seaweed), to allow less messy eating! Seasoned toasted nori is also fantastic to use, provinding an extra savoury taste. Sometimes onigiri are toasted over a grill.
The best rice to use for onigiri is any short grain variety. The aim is to have sticky rice, as it holds together much better than long grain varieties. Sushi rice seasoning is often used to help the rice last unrefrigerated for longer - rice vinegar, salt, sugar, and sometimes sake and kombu (seaweed).
Common fillings used in onigiri include, umeboshi (pickled plum), tuna or salmon with mayonaise, pickled ginger, and many more. Pickled fillings also help to preserve the rice without refridgeration. Less common are sweet fillings, such as stewed fruit. Corn, mushrooms or other foods can be added to the rice before shaping.
Shape cutters, compartments and mini containers
Attractive presentation is very important when creating a bento meal. Shape cutters for vegetables, fruits, breads, nori, mini hotdogs, and anything else you can think of, allow easier creation of decorative accents and shaped foods, especially for those who do not have super knife skills!
You can improvise with cookie or pastry cutters, scrap paper punches (for nori cut outs), and piped icing nozzles to achieve a variety of shapes without investing specifically in the various decorative tools available for bento.
One aspect of putting together a bento is choosing a variety of foods, to maximise the nutritional benefit. In order to not mix flavours, separators of various kinds are used. Even lettuce leaves can be used to divide dishes.
Mini muffin liners, reusable cupcake liners, small plastic containers, and many cute condiment containers are also available. Sauces are often included in tiny bottles, such as the extremely common soy sauce 'fish'.