Japanese Delicacy (IV): Ekiben
In Japanese, Ekiben (駅弁) is composed of two parts: “Eki” meaning railway station, and “to” abbreviating from bento. Ekiben has become an important part of Japan’s railroad culture. It is a billboard of local products, rather than a lunch box only for filling the stomach. Many Ekiben consists of local specialties to elaborate the uniqueness and high quality of products. The locals take pride in their Ekiben. There are as many as 4,500 kinds of Ekiben throughout Japan. There is even a manga called Ekiben Hitoritabi (Train Lunch Solo Journey), telling the story of the main character eating various Ekiben as he travels around Japan.
What is Ekiben
This fact may be counterintuitive - Ekiben are not fast food lunch boxes. Fresh and nutritious Ingredients, such as rice, noodles, vegetables, meat, or fish, are delicately arranged in a portable container. Almost every Japanese food can be placed in the Ekiben lunchbox, for instance, omelet, beef, fried chicken, and even desserts. Not only the food, but the container is also various and pretty, from the traditional wooden boxes to the creative bullet train-shaped boxes.
The convenient Ekiben are sold over the Ekiben delicatessens counters located on the railway platform or outside the ticket barrier. Normally, larger stations have many shops selling various Ekiben from different regions while smaller stations only provide local specialties. When you select an Ekiben, you can’t look inside the bento box to figure out the contents because the Ekiben box is opaque. However, you can rely on the photos nearby that display the contents. According to the different foods, Ekiben prices can vary from 1,000 yen to 3,000 yen.
History of Ekiben
Ekiben is closely related to the development of Japan's railroad network. Japan’s first railroad appeared in 1872, connecting Tokyo’s Shinbashi with Yokohama. Rail travel was long then, and the dining car was not introduced to Japan until 1899. Ekiben became the best choice for hungry passengers. At that time, Ekiben vendors would stand on the train platform and peddle their pre-made lunches, with lunch boxes on a wooden tray hanging around their necks.
There is no fixed theory about which station sold the first Ekiben in Japan. However, it is generally believed that Shirokiya Ryokan in Utsunomiya sold the first Ekiben - two rice balls and a few slices of pickled radish wrapped in bamboo sold for about 600 yen. At the time, train travel was a privilege of the upper class and white rice was valuable, so Ekiben was initially a luxury. The idea of selling Ekiben quickly spread to train stations across the country. The first standard Ekiben, with rice and small dishes, was sold at Himeji Station in 1888.
By the 20th century, many stations began offering station lunches made of local specialties. They were unique to each region and could only be found at the local train station. It was also more affordable and accessible for travelers. Ekiben has become an important part of Japanese culture. It is so loved and appreciated that there are collectors of Ekiben. Here are some popular Ekiben to look out for:
- Shinkansen E7 kei Bento: You can find itin Tokyo Station. Its box is shaped like a bullet train, which can be a special souvenir to bring home. The content includes rice balls and pickled radish.
- Moo Taro Ekiben: It’s made of premium Japanese beef and placed in a cow-shaped box that plays music when you open it. It’s sold in Mie.
- Daruma Ekiben: It is stored in a lunch box shaped as Daruma, a symbol of good luck. It is filled with local vegetables and chicken. You can find it in Gunma.
- Kanizushi and OshizushiEkiben: Kanizushi is crab meat sushi and Oshizushi is pressed sushi. Both can be found in Kanazawa.
- Yakisoba: Mostekiben are served cold. Yakisoba is a self-heating Ekiben that you can find in many stations.
- Masu No Sushi: It’s a pretty and traditional Ekiben served in Toyama. Contents include salmon and sushi.
- Anago Meshi: It’s popular Ekiben in Hiroshima. It consists of rice flavored with eel broth and roasted eel slices.
- Torimeshi Bento: It's a super tasty chicken-rice bento sold in Ohdate. It tastes so good that many travelers trip to Ohdate just for it.