Before starting a journey in Japan, hungry travelers look forward to buying ekiben. Ekiben are the special boxed lunches sold in train stations across Japan. The word ekiben is a combination of the Japanese words eki, meaning 'station', and bentō, which you may already know as being a Japanese lunch box. These bento boxes are known for their delicious and high quality ingredients, often featuring regional specialties of a particular area. There are hundreds of varieties to choose from, but there are some that particularly stand out. Learn about the most interesting ekiben before your next Japan journey!
A few of the ekiben that have remained favorites for more than 100 years.
Region: Ofuna Station in Kanagawa Prefecture
You may have tried the typical, hand-rolled sushi (nigirizushi), but did you know that there are other ways that sushi can be prepared? The horse mackerel sushi in this ekiben is prepared using a special wooden mold that presses the fish and vinegared rice into a neat and tidy shape. This technique is known as oshizushi, literally meaning, ‘pressed sushi’. Interestingly, the koaji (small horse mackerel) used in this bento can only make two types of sushi. Aji Oshizushi has been sold since April 1913.
Masu no Sushi
Region: Toyama Station in Toyama Prefecture
Masu no sushi has been named the grand champion of West Japan ekiben, as well as winning the hearts of appetites of people across the country. It is said that masu no sushi first gained popularity in 1717, when samurai dedicated the dish to Lord Toshiaki Maeda. Like aji oshizushi, this is another kind of pressed sushi. However, the arrangement is a bit different. Instead of a rectangular shape, the succulent salmon trout and rice is formed in a circular fashion, and wrapped in bamboo leaves. To eat the sushi, you must cut it into slices, just as you would a cake!
Region: Odawara Station in Kanagawa Prefecture
This seaside favorite, sold since 1907, features shredded sea bream atop a bed of chameshi (rice cooked in Japanese tea), with a side of soy sauce simmered clams, kamaboko (fish paste), and an assortment of pickles made from yuzu (a citrus fruit), wasabi, and Japanese plums (umeboshi). In this ekiben, you'll also get a wonderfully savory taste of soboro, a traditional Japanese seasoning. The octagonal box shape has remained unchanged since the Showa Period.
These ekiben are packaged in some fun and interesting boxes that can be saved and reused.
Region: Takasaki Station in Gunma Prefecture
Gunma Prefecture is a mountainous area that is known for their daruma. Daruma are red, wooden dolls that are believed to act as a type of good luck charm. The ekiben in Gunma’s Takasaki Station come in a box that is shaped like a daruma. However, unlike a traditional bento, this daruma has a slot where the mouth is located. This is because it can be reused as a coin bank after use! As for the food, each Daruma Bento includes chameshi (rice boiled in tea), cold chicken, a chicken meat roll, and edible mountain plants such as shiitake mushrooms, bamboo shoots, burdock, greens, and konjac.
Shinkansen E7 (ii nana) Kei Bento
Region: Tokyo, Kanazawa
This reusable bento box, shaped like Japan’s famous shinkansen (bullet trains), is fun for kids and adults. It contains a variety of classic bento items that taste great and will fill you up: fried chicken, shrimp fritters, a meatball, weiner, french fries, macaroni salad with egg, green peas, carrot, salmon onigiri (riceball), tuna onigiri, pickled daikon (Japanese radish), and a small piece of cake for dessert. Recently another bullet train bento was introduced: The Hokuriku Shinkansen-themed W7 Kei Ben, featuring beef sukiyaki.
Region: Hyogo Prefecture
Hipparidako Meshi is possibly one of the most unique ekiben you can buy. Instead of a box, the octopus rice with conger eel and seasonal vegetables is contained in a ceramic pot that is made to resemble the traditional pots used for catching octopus, called takotsubo. It's also worth noting that the name of the ekiben itself is something of a pun; combining the definition of hipparidako (being very popular or being in high demand), with the Japanese word for octopus.
You’ll want to know what’s inside these ekiben.
50 (Gojū) Hinmoku Baraeti Bento
This is the perfect ekiben for those would like to try many types of food in a short time. Rather than focusing on a specific dish, the Gojū Hinmoku Baraeti Bento is made up of 50 different items! Customers choosing this ekiben can enjoy grilled salmon, tamagoyaki (rolled omelette), various vegetables, and rice, just to name a few ingredients.
Tan Ton Bento
Region: Sendai Prefecture
This ekiben features Sendai's famous beef tongue and pork over white rice. While still enjoyable cold, the most delicious way to eat this dish is piping hot. Luckily, customers don’t have to compromise taste for convenience when buying one of these ekiben, thanks to its specially designed, self-heating box!
How does it work? First, pull the attached string to initiate a chemical reaction on the underside of the box. You'll instantly hear the soft 'hiss' of steam escaping the box, and within moments, the smells of a hot meal begin to wafte through the air. The hardest part is waiting the 5-6 minutes it will take to fully warm up. The heat causes the meat to become tender and even more satisfying than it was before. When it's finished, you're all set to eat an incredible, hot ekiben!
The number of delicious and interesting ekiben from which to choose is staggering! If you're passing through Tokyo Station, you can pick up one of these ekiben at Ekiben-ya Matsuri, Tokyo's ekiben superstore! So, which will you try on your next journey through Japan?
*This information is from the time of this article's publication.