Bento sightseeing in Oahu, Hawai'i
I'm back home! I've posted more in-depth articles about my food-oriented experiences on Oahu over on Just Hungry (Part 1, Part 2) but I thought I'd talk briefly about some bento-related things I found there on Just Bento. I only had 6 days there, at least 3 of which I spent mostly beach-hopping, so I couldn't cover much, but hopefully this gives a general overview.
As you probably know, Hawai'i has a large Japanese-American population, as well as a large number of tourists from Japan. So it's not surprising that bentos are widely available in the Waikiki/Honolulu area. ABC Stores are mini-marts which carry everything from food and drinks to souvenirs and household sundries. In Waikiki there's one on just about every block. (ABC Stores are so iconic in Japan that I've seen their used plastic bags being sold on Yahoo! Auctions. Presumably people carry them around in Japan pretending they've been to Hawai'i.) In the prepared food section, sandwiches share shelf space with onigiri and bento lunches. The ABC onigiri were not bad at all. The fillings were rather mediocre, but the rice part was quite good. (The sandwiches were nice too actually.) Onigiri are such perfect small snacks, they should be carried in every convenience store!
Also in Waikiki, my hotel (the Waikiki Parc) just happened to be right around the corner from Tonkatsu Ginza Bairin. Since I was on a tight budget I didn't want to go there for a sit-down dinner, but I did get the $8 katsu sando (pork cutlet sandwiches) to go, and found them to be excellent. The photo doesn't really do justice to them: the cutlet was freshly fried, the meat was tender, the sauce tangy, the breading still a bit crispy. My only minor complaint was that the Japanese style white bread was just a bit too lacking in substance.
Going further afield, there are a number of Japanese supermarkets around. Marukai (a membership store along the lines of Sam's Club, but you can get a free pass if you say you're a visitor and show an out-of-state ID (or, as we did, act dumb when asked for a membership card by the cashier; I also read that the cashier may make you buy a $1 daypass, but ours didn't)), which also has branches in California, is the biggest one, but there's also Don Quijote (formerly Daiei). Even the American supermarkets and stores carry things like spam musubi and chicken katsu musubi. (The spam musubi at 7-11 is marginally better than the one from Foodland.)
Shirokiya is a small Japanese department store. It's located in the Ala Moana (shopping) Center, which is easy to get to from Waikiki by car or public transportation. It has a fairly well stocked 'okazuya' area (okazu means the savory dishes that go with rice) with lots of prepared foods for sale. It's like a small version of a department store food department like the one described here. Here are some of their substantial bentos.
What about bento boxes and bento-making equipment? I can't say I was overly impressed by the stock of these items, either at Marukai (the one at the Ward Center anyway, which is the only one I went to) or Shirokiya, not to mention the Marukai-operated 99 SuperStore. Maybe people in Hawai'i tend to buy their bentos rather than make them? You can find basic supplies at any of these locations however, some with a very Hawaiian bent (this spotted at Marukai, but they had the same thing at 99 SuperStore too):
Now, if you have a Mitsuwa store or similar where you live, you probably won't find either Shirokiya or Marukai to be different enough to take time for. But if you don't have any large Japanese grocery stores near you, you may find them quite interesting. I found both places to be rather fascinating in a different way. They sort of remind me of the way supermarkets and department stores used to be in Japan a couple of decades ago...more down-to-earth and less sophisticated than the stores of Japan today. (The Japanese word that fits here is 庶民的 - しょみんてき.) It made me feel rather nostalgic!