Converting to a healthier bento option

Enterprising monk provides peckish Tokyoites with healthy alternative to usual konbini fare


It’s noon on a weekday in Tokyo’s posh Daikanyama district in Shibuya Ward, and 52-year-old Buddhist monk Tenkai Miki makes a conspicuous arrival in front of Daikanyama station on his scooter.

Dressed in a black Buddhist uniform with shaven head, Miki, a monk of the Jodo Shinshu sect, looks as if he is on his way to a scripture recital. But not today.

As soon as he parks the scooter, Miki opens for business on the spot.

His sign reads:” ‘Shojin bento,’ using vegetables grown completely without agricultural chemical. Genmai (unpolished rice) used. Menu changes everyday.”

Coupled with an outfit that’s somewhat unbecoming for a fashionable area, his sign certainly attracts attention of passersby.

“Shojin ryori” is a type of vegetarian cooking that was introduced to Japan along with Buddhism in the 6th century. While his sect permits meat-eating, Miki became a strict vegetarian a long time ago, and he feels the change of diet has improved his health no end.

He describes his dishes sternly as ‘extremely vegetarian,’ as the farmer in Narita, Chiba Prefecture, where Miki collects his vegetables from, uses withered leaves as compost to grow his crops.

“Vegetables are the main characters of my bento, and I cook in the best way possible to get each of their original taste out,” says Miki, who does not use any sugar or artificial seasoning for flavoring.

To complement the natural flavor of the veggies used, Miki uses only “soy sauce, salt, vinegar” and, of course, “love.”

What fills the bamboo sheath-made box differs depending on what the farm harvests at any one time, and, crucially, “what the vegetables tell me about how they want to be cooked,” the monk says.

His mouth-watering menu on this day in Daikanyama includes 15 different vegetables, including genmai sprinkled with sesame, boiled spinach with soy sauce, sour burdock, simmered Japanese daikon radish, sweet potato and thick deep-fried bean curd.

With limited numbers of vegetables, along with a wide variations of items to prepare, Miki and his business partner, Atsuko Shimazaki, make only 15 boxes a day.

Each wholesome bento box costs a whopping 1,200 yen. It may be a bit pricey for a lunch box, but he is gradually getting regular customers keen on a healthy diet. In addition to the bento, he also provides vegetarian party food upon request.

Miki, who spent four years in New York and 18 months in India, considers his business as part of his training as a monk. And he believes his food can work to awaken the power of people’s bodies.

“I want more people to enjoy eating good vegetables. They really work from the inside,” he said.