Most travelers enjoy – even covet – the experience of trying new and exotic foods unique to the places they visit. Japanese cuisine offers tantalizing tastes and textures, and ekiben provide a convenient and affordable means of discovering the best culinary temptations that Japan has to offer.
What is Ekiben?
The Japanese word ekiben is essentially a combination of the words eki, meaning “station,” and bento, the traditional Japanese lunch box. Therefore, an Japanese lunch box. Therefore, an ekiben is a portable lunch that you have at the train station.
Ekiben, however, are no ordinary fast food. Regions throughout the country take pride in their ekiben, with its food and packaging often providing a sample of the culture of that area. All come in convenient containers, but some make unique and special souvenirs. Some ekiben have been popular for decades, others for hundreds of years.
Ekiben generally include rice or noodles, vegetables, and a small amount of meat. Depending your preferences, you may buy ekiben that have sushi or seafood, chicken or beef. Some are served hot, others cold. Some include drinks, even alcoholic beverages.
Where and how to buy Ekiben
Ekiben are available in a variety of places. Most train stations host kiosks, local vendors, or carts that sell ekiben. Many long distance trains, such as those of the Shinkansen lines, serve ekiben and other items from carts onboard the train. Would you like to try a variety of bento boxes although you are not traveling far? At Tokyo Station, the shop Ekibenya Matsuri, meaning “festival of bentos,” sells 170 different kinds of ekiben from all over the country. Ekibenya Matsuri is located on the first floor of the Central Passage of Tokyo Station.
Ekiben are very affordable. If you are in the mood for a snack, you can acquire a small box for around ¥300. Most meal sized ekiben cost between ¥700 and ¥1200, or around $10 USD. Very elaborate boxes, such as meals for two, may cost more than ¥3200 ($30 USD).
One of the most interesting things about ekiben is that they are not marketed primarily to tourists – ekiben are what the Japanese people eat, a homemade style meal on the way to work or while traveling within the country. Local residents often pick up bento boxes to eat even when they are not traveling. When you eat ekiben, therefore, you are getting a real taste of Japanese culture. Ekiben also provide an enjoyable way to pass the time while waiting at the Tokyo metro station or elsewhere.
The best train bento boxes
Consider trying one of these unique train station bento boxes the next time you travel with your Japan Rail Pass.
Shinkansen E7 Kei Bento
What better way is there to commemorate your ride on Japan’s famed shinkansen, or bullet trains, than to eat out of one? This bento, available in Ekibenya Matsuri (Tokyo Station) is shaped like the train itself, and the box can be saved and reused. The Shinkansen bento box contains classic items such as seafood onigiri (rice balls), pickled daikon radish, shrimp fritters, fried chicken, and cake.
Kohoku No Ohanashi
The word kohoku means “north of the lake,” and this ekiben contains unique items such as goose and sweet rice with mushrooms. This bento is available at the Shinkansen Maibara Station just outside of Kyoto.
Kobe Wine Bento
This elegant ekiben was the first to offer wine along with your meal. The chardonnay is complemented by beef, vegetables, and saffron rice. This bento is available at the Shinkansen Shin-Kobe Station.
The name of this bento translates as, “octopus in high demand,” and that is exactly what you will get. This popular ekiben includes rice, octopus, conger eel, and vegetables. Its container makes it truly special – the bento is served in a reusable ceramic pot, a small takotsubo, or octopus-catching pot. This bento is available in the Hyogo Prefecture (Kobe, Himeji, Nishinomiya).
Masu No Sushi
This is the ekiben for history buffs. It has been popular since the year 1717, when the dish was dedicated by the samurai to a historical figure. The ekiben consists of pressed sushi of salmon, trout, and rice wrapped in bamboo leaves. It is traditionally eaten in slices resembling those of a cake. This bento is available at Toyama Station in the Toyama Prefecture.
Would you like a hot meal instead? Try one of the various types of self-heating ekiben, such as the Tan Ton Bento of the Sendai Prefecture. These pre-packaged bentos have a string to pull, which starts a chemical reaction in a pouch below the box. The pouch heats up, and in five minutes, you have hot, fresh food. These bentos are available at various locations.
Whichever train station bentos you choose, you are certain to be delighted by the flavorful food of ekiben and the fascinating culture of Japan.
Cover picture by @wordridden (Flickr)