ICHIHARA, Japan — Kazumi Shimomura's kitchen table is cluttered with tools not usually associated with cooking: A pair of tweezers, a razor knife and a digital camera.
Her culinary style is just as unique.
She sculpts rice colored with egg yolks into the shape of a dinosaur, fashions its eye with sliced cheese and strips of seaweed. Star-shaped pieces of okra adorn the belly.
"I just wanted my son to have fun when he goes to day care on Saturdays," explains Shimomura as she uses tweezers to place tiny teeth-shaped bits of cheese in the dinosaur's mouth.
Spending hours meticulously perfecting a meal that will be gobbled down in a school cafeteria by her 6-year-old son hardly seems like time well-invested. But lunch-box art marries the age-old Japanese penchant for precision and aesthetics with the country's modern, shrinking, affluent nuclear family, where fewer children mean moms have more time and money to lavish on their little emperors. The intricate presentations are also a public way for mothers — who often forgo careers to cater to their families — to demonstrate their devotion to motherhood, dedication to their children's nutrition and creative skills.
"This is rather about my pride," said Miho Tsukamoto, 41, the mother of two in the western city of Osaka. "My son boasts about my cooking to his friends, so I can't stop doing this."
The boxed lunch — known in Japan as "bento" — has been around for a long time.
The prototype of modern bento dates back to the late feudal period between the 17th and 19th centuries. With industrialization came mass production: office workers buy them in train stations, convenience stores and food courts.
The lunches often feature a seasonal motif like fireworks in summer or snowmen in winter. Others recreate popular cartoon characters or famous people such as the popular Japanese pop duo Puffy, or even Mozart.
Details are prized. Slivers of carrots are sculpted into a crab on a bed of rice; avocado slices, tofu and black sesame seeds morph into Frankenstein's face — with seaweed stitches on his forehead.
"I never make the same thing twice. I just think about what to make next time," said Shimomura, 38, as she leafed through albums of digital photos of her own work at her home outside Tokyo.
Housewives have taken their lunchbox exhibitions online, where Internet journals feature up-to-date photos of the latest works. Cooking books catering to the trend are proliferating, and companies even host contests.
The blogs provide a forum for mothers to exchange esoteric tips such as how to dye egg white blue. The answer? Add purple sweet potato powder and cook in the frying pan.
The trend has struck a chord with stay-at-home mothers, many of whom retire early when they have children, but still have plenty of creative energy to spare.
"Beside wanting to create things, you also have other motivations, like you want to please someone, or be famous for what you make," said Kunihiro Nakazato, editor for Tokyo-based publishing company X-Knowledge Co., which has put out at least one bento cookbook.
Mari Miyazawa, the host of a popular site, e-obento.com, since 2004, said she started making bento to save money, but now it's become a full-time job: she's authored three cookbooks and is one of the most recognized lunchbox artists in the country.
Miyazawa, 45, a former computer graphics artist, says that making bento art is more demanding because it's impossible to edit — you either get it right or not.
"I finally found the perfect medium," she said.