If you're journeying by train in Japan, you shouldn't miss out on one of the best parts of the trip: the special lunches eaten on the train, known as ekiben. Find out about the history of these train station bento boxes, and what makes them so special!
What is "Ekiben"?
An ekiben is a type of bento that is sold in train stations across Japan that travelers can eat on the train, particularly during long journeys.
The word ekiben is a combination of the Japanese words eki, meaning 'station', and bento, which you may already know as being a Japanese lunch box. An ekiben is a type of bento that is sold in large train stations across Japan. These bento boxes are known for their delicious and high quality ingredients, often featuring regional specialties of a particular area. Tokyo offers many wonderful ekiben from some of the city's best shops, while Hokkaido offers a few different seafood bentos, such as crabmeat, salmon roe, and rice-stuffed squid.
The contents of ekiben can vary greatly, but you can typically expect some type of delicious Japanese cuisine presented in a manner that is both beautiful, and easy to eat. Unlike food at a restaurant, the time between ekiben preparation and consumption can vary greatly. However, ekiben are specifically prepared with this in mind, and are typically meant to be eaten on the train, without additional warming. Food safety is also top priority, and expiration times are clearly listed on each box, so that you can eat without worry.
A number of ekiben also come in unique packaging that may be saved after use as a collector's item. One popular reusable ekiben container is shaped like Japan's bullet train. Others may feature popular characters from Japanese folklore, or even anime. Ekiben are generally more expensive than bentos purchased in a convenience store or supermarket, however, they are widely considered to be well worth the extra cost.
Ekiben of Past and Present Day
While there is some debate, many say that the origins of ekiben can be pinpointed to July 16, 1885, when onigiri (rice balls) were sold in Tochigi Prefecture's Utsunomiya Station. These onigiri were a simple lunch, containing just rice and pickled daikon radish, which was wrapped in bamboo leaves.
Since that time, ekiben began springing up in various train stations throughout Japan, offering a variety of styles to suit the many tastes of hungry travellers.
What is it about ekiben that sets them apart from other bentos? The deliciousness of the food itself is certainly undeniable. However, the appeal of the ekiben lies largely in the intangible. To really understand what is so special about ekiben, you must look to Japan’s past. At the time that ekiben were first being sold, the ubiquitous convenience stores of today did not exist. An ekiben offered a rare chance to try foods from other areas that were not available in their home prefecture. The concept of ekiben as a small luxury is a holdover from those early days. Even in the wake of international supermarkets and online shopping, an ekiben is still considered a special treat, and something that people look forward to buying during their travels. When taking a long journey, passengers may be on the train for several hours at a time, which means that eating on the train is a must. An ekiben is the perfect meal to eat in this situation. In fact, it has been said that the view of the scenery seen through a train window adds a special spice to ekiben which cannot be experienced by eating any other type of bento.
While some of the ekiben that you can see today can be quite elaborate, their humble beginnings have not been forgotten: each July 16th, Utsunomiya Station holds an annual "Ekiben Anniversary" celebrating the history of this unique bento.
Long ago, ekiben were sold through train windows while the train was making a stop, but these days you can find various ekiben in just about any major train station in Japan. Ekiben can sometimes even be found in in certain department stores, or supermarkets.
Recently, the ekiben fascination has even spread outside of Japan. In March 2016, the East Japan Railway Company opened a limited time, pop-up ekiben shop at Paris railroad station, Gare de Lyon, in order to showcase Japanese food culture overseas.
What Kind of Ekiben Can You Buy?
There is such a wide variety of ekiben, there seems to be an option for just about every taste and appetite! The bentos can range from a simple, no-frills affair, to something more akin to a work of art than an on-the-go lunch. In addition to being tasty and nutritionally balanced, ekiben are also aesthetically pleasing, with a rainbow of colors making them a feast for the eyes. One great example of variety within a single ekiben is the Makunouchi Bento, which includes meat, fish, egg, vegetables, rice, and more!
As rice is a staple food in Japan, it's not surprising that it makes a frequent appearance in ekiben, and in bentos in general. A typical ekiben is often a type of rice bowl, topped with seafood, meat, vegetables, or a combination of the three. With such a number of options available, the only problem is deciding which to choose!
Can People With Special Dietary Considerations Eat Ekiben?
Recently, vendors have expanded their menus by creating ekiben for customers with special dietary considerations in mind. It is possible to find vegetarian, vegan, and halal options at select ekiben shops. However, keep in mind that such ekiben are not as prevalent as more traditional varieties, so you may want to check beforehand if you have any concerns.
Ekiben-ya Matsuri: Tokyo’s Ultimate One-Stop Ekiben Emporium
Hungry travelers can easily pick up the ekiben of their choosing by visiting the famous ekiben vendor, Ekiben-ya Matsuri, located on the first floor of JR Tokyo Station, within the ticket gates. Ekiben-ya Matsuri offers over 170 kinds of ekiben daily, including specialty bentos from prefectures across Japan. An estimated number of 7,000 ~ 10,000 ekiben are sold at the shop each day!
From the morning hours, you’ll find Ekiben-ya Matsuri bustling with customers deciding which of the many delectable bentos they will choose for that day’s lunch. Just outside the shop, you can spot a timetable displaying when certain bentos will be prepared, as well as a window where you can view bentos being created right before your eyes.
The ekiben generally appear to be divided by category: a section for meat bentos (pork cutlets, beef tongue, fried chicken, hamburger, etc.), one for sushi, and another for other types of seafood. There are others that feature a mix of ingredients, such as the previously mentioned Makunouchi Bento.
Whether you’re starting a long journey, or just riding a few stops away, if you’re in Tokyo Station, you shouldn’t miss the chance to try an authentic Japanese Ekiben!
Ekiben-ya Matsuri 駅弁屋祭
- Address 1-9-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda, Tokyo 1st Floor Central Street (Inside the JR Tokyo Station ticket gates)