Ekiben Bento “Train Bento”Katachiware Japanese Style Tableware
In the Meiji period, the first ekibentō or ekiben “train station bento” was sold in 1885 at the Utsunomiya Train Station in Japan’s northern Kantō region. The meal consisted of two freshly made onigiri balls, a few slices of pickled daikon radish wrapped in a sheet of bamboo bark.
Since then, the ekiben bento “train station bento” concept caught on and began popping up at numerous train stations across Japan. All offered their own regional versions of the meal with seasonal flavours to feed the many hungry tourists and travellers.
Today the Japanese take pride in their Ekiben, with an abundance of packaging choices often providing a sample of the area’s culture. All are available in convenient containers with many making unique souvenirs. They usually include a serving of rice, cooked or raw vegetables and a small portion of meat. You can also find Ekiben with sushi, seafood, chicken or beef. Some are served hot, others cold. Some include drinks, even alcoholic beverages.
Meaning of Ekiben Bento
Ekibentō or ekiben (駅弁当 or 駅弁) is made up of two Japanese words, namely ‘eki’ which means a train station and ‘ben’ which stands for a Japanese lunch box. An ekiben is a lunch box that is sold at railway stations across Japan. They are meant to be eaten on the train and include delicious food items prepared from top quality local ingredients.
Specially Prepared Food
The food content is prepared in a manner that does not require heating before consumption and is easily eaten in the train compartment while travelling. Food safety is valued highly, and every box gives clear information about how to eat the meal with the expiry date and time. Packaging and foods used are normally unique and distinct, reflecting the local produce and regional tastes.
The Ekiben contains various dishes and includes everything from a simple meal to an elaborate gourmet affair. The visual appeal offered by these train Bentos is par excellence! In addition to being mouthwatering and healthy, the content’s colourfulness is a true treat to the eyes. It simply stands true to the food culture of Japan.
Types of Ekiben
Today, ekiben is sold at more than 200 train stations across Japan with an estimated 3000 varieties available. However, it would be not easy to calculate the precise amount as more than 200 new versions of the meal appear every year while older versions disappear. We know that if you travelled to all train stations that sell ekiben, it would take you eight years of eating one different ekiben every day to get through the lot. Ekiben enthusiasts have been known to travel the country’s length to sample the many varieties which are then kept as cherished mementos. Following are a few examples of ekiben to look out for.
Nami no Ihachi Bento (波の伊八弁当)
In August 2014 the Nami no Ihachi Bento was named after Takeshi Ihachirou Nobuyoshi, an Edo era sculptor born in Kamogawa City whose nickname was Nami no Ihachi. The name was given as a marketing ploy to boost the downturn on ekiben sales in the region. The meal was created by the Queen of Ekiben, Kobayashi Shinobu, a travel writer who has eaten her way through 5,000 ekiben. Made by Nansoken, an ekiben manufacturer located in Kamogawa in the Chiba Prefecture they produced the meal for several years. They branched out into manufacturing Bentos for home delivery, catering and corporate meetings. Nami no Ihachi bento includes entire ise (Japanese spiny) lobster, boiled rice with octopus, sangayaki and sweet vinegared seaweed from Kamogawa City. The meal is not available over the counter and should be ordered four days in advance with the minimum order of 5 units making it suited to groups of travellers. Expect to pay 1,800 yen, which is slightly high compared to 900 yen for a traditional bento meal.
Kobe Wine Bento (神戸ワイン弁当)
The elegant Kobe Wine Bento is one of the more expensive ekiben and said to be the first ekiben to offer wine along with your meal. Available from the Shinkansen Shin-Kobe Station which is located to the north of Kobe city centre, at the foot of Mount Rokkōit. The Kobe Wine Bento will cost you a little or 1600 yen which is a little pricey but the ekiben has two things to justify its price. Firstly, it includes a small local Kobe Chardonnay bottle. Secondly, it contains Kobe beef, Japan’s signature dish and a product that the Kobe region is proud of which is served medium-rare. Kobe beef is valued for its flavour, tenderness, and fatty, well-marbled texture, and it literally melts in your mouth. The beef accompanied by steak sauce, potatoes, saffron rice and other little treats that will highlight the flavours of the wine. An ekiben treat that definitely justifies the price. While travelling, it is not practical to get off the train to buy your Kobe Wine Bento so the railway allows you to order the meal onboard and it gets delivered to you at the appropriate station stop.
Shinkansen E7 Eki Bento (新幹線E7系弁当)
What better way is there to commemorate your ride on Japan’s famous bullet train with a Shinkansen E7 Eki Bento. As the name suggests, the ekiben is shaped like the front end of the JR Hokuriku Shinkansen Bullet Train that has run since March 2015. Along some of Japan’s busiest bullet train lines, the Shinkansen transports passengers to and from Tokyo, Akita and Kanazawa. Fun for kids and adults the ekiben is available in a plastic reusable decorative box that is intended to be kept as a souvenir of your train ride. On the inside, the Shinkansen E7 Eki Bento includes a colourful arrangement of traditional Japanese dishes such as a selection of seafood, two mini onigiri rice balls (one salmon, one tuna), pickled daikon radish, French fries, shrimp fritters, fried chicken, meatballs, green peas, carrots, hot dog wieners, macaroni salad and they even include a small sweet cake for dessert. Available from the Ekibenya Matsuri (Tokyo Train Station), Ueno Train Station, Omiya Train Station, Shinjuku Train Station and the Railway Museum it is priced at 1300 yen and worth the spend.
Daruma Ekiben (だるま駅弁)
Daruma Ekiben contains various wild edible plants, chicken and konnyaku served in a red plastic ekiben called Daruma (達磨). Modelled after a Daruma doll, it depicts Zen Buddhism “Bodhidharma” and varies in colour and design depending on precinct and artist. To the Japanese, the Daruma doll is deep in symbolism and is regarded as a talisman of good luck, making them a popular gift of encouragement. After you’re done eating you can keep the ekiben as a souvenir or use it to insert coins into the Daruma’s mouth as a piggy bank. Inside the ekiben is packed with a healthy selection of mountain vegetables that are local to the Gunma Prefecture including kamameshi (rice boiled in tea), vegetables, cold chicken, fish, and edible plants such as takenoko (bamboo shoots), burdock, greens, shiitake mushrooms, and konjac. The Takasaki Station in the Gunma Prefecture of Japan will set you back around 1080 yen and make for a great Japanese memento. The Daruma Ekiben is also known to be available in traditional Japanese small ceramic pots (Kamameshi).
Kohoku No Ohanashi Ekiben (琥珀の大花石駅弁)
Unique to its region the Kohoku No Ohanashi Ekiben is available from the Shinkansen JR West Maibara Station and Nagahama Station just outside of Kyoto Japan located north of Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest lake, which divides the prefecture into four different areas: Kohoku (north of the lake), Nagahama, Kosei (west of the lake), Imazu, Kotō (east of the lake) and Hikone and Kona, (south of the ake). The Kohoku No Ohanashi Ekiben has been a regional top seller for more than 20 years, and the packaging makes for a stunning presentation, the box and wrapping cloth looks like a fall bento. It is available all year round and will cost you around 1000 yen. The word kohoku means “north of the lake.” Along with a few other ingredients the ekiben contains a selection of items including okowa rice (rice with mushrooms and sweet sauce), goose, fresh veggies, and tamagoyaki (traditional Japanese rolled omelette) if you’re on the Kodama bullet train and have time to stop, it’s worth a quick lunch break to enjoy the astonishing Kohoku No Ohanashi Ekiben.
Tori meshi Ekiben (とりめし弁当)
The Tori meshi ekiben is a nationally famous chicken ekiben and top-rated regional favourite sold at the JR Odate regional train station in the Akita Prefecture. Called Torimeshi bento which means “chicken-rice bento” the delicious Torimeshi bento will set you back about 850 yen and is worth the stop, so much so that tourists and travellers detour to Ohdate to try the meal. Made by an ekiben restaurant, Hanazen located just out the front of the JR Odate regional train station they have been in business for more than 120 years. The tasty Tori meshi ekiben is prepared so that it can be eaten cold and its profile is made up of rice, free-range tender chicken with a chewy texture, seasoned with seasoned a soy-based sauce, burdock and vegetables cooked together.
Wappa-Meshi Bento (わっぱ飯)
Wappa-meshi is a popular traditional Japanese dish cooked in ekiben boxes called Wappa (bentwood) that is handmade with thin wooden slats of cypress or cedar that help keep the meal fresh extended times, and it also preserves the taste after it gets cold. The meal is made up with seasoned steamed rice topped with fresh local fish, shiitake mushrooms, Japanese egg roll topped with Wasabi, and some Japanese pickles it is a speciality of the Niigata prefecture. If your extra hungry you can even order a double-decker version, they are not always made out of real wooden slats, sometimes made from a food-grade thick paper or plastic designed to look like a wood-grain pattern. The meal will cost 1200 yen and available from many train stations including the Aizu-Wakamatsu Train Station.
Tokusei Chicken Nanban Bento (特製チキン南蛮弁当)
Tokusei Chicken Nanban Bento will set you back around 800 yen and features a variety locally grown ingredients to the Yamagata Prefecture including Hoenuki rice which has won top ranking taste awards for more than 22 years. The meal also includes the award-winning Nanban chicken (fried chicken with vinegar and tartar sauce) which is said to taste good even when it has cooled. The smooth tasting tartar sauce is well-known for the effort put into making it with boiled egg whites and yolks processed separately before finely being the mixed together.
Odama Hotate to Dairyou Uni Bento (大玉ほたてと大漁ウニ弁当)
Late 1892 the Yoshidaya Ryokan, a bento manufacturer, opened in the same year as the Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station in the Aomori Prefecture which created a bento “Odama Hotate to Dairyou Uni Bento” and has since become a signature meal that features the goodness of Hokkaido’s seafood. The meal is exclusively sold at the train station and includes a generous portion of steamed uni (sea urchin) with a large-sized hotate (scallop) placed in the middle with perilla leaves and roe for extra flavour. The cost is a little pricy at 1800 yen but the ingredients used and the amount of food in the bento make it worth the spend. You can also stop by the Bento Cafe 41°Garden which offers other new variations developed in conjunction with the opening of the Hokkaido Shinkansen line. You get the option to mix and match your own cafe-ben (cafe-style bento) where you can select ingredients for your bento box.
Masu No Sushi Ekiben (鱒寿司)
Masu No Sushi is for history buffs and arguably the most traditional ekiben of the lot. In Japanese “masu” is a type of trout and it dates back over 2000 years. Eaten by rice farmers and in 1717 Samurai dedicated the dish to a historical figure Lord Toshiaki Maedait which made it the most popular dish of its time. Recently named the grand champion of West Japan’s ekiben Masu No Sushi can be found as a souvenir of the region at the Toyama Train Station in Toyama Prefecture. It is made up of oshizushi (circular pressed sushi) made with vinegared salmon and trout served with vinegared rice which is tightly wrapped in bamboo leaves. Made to be eaten on the run it is sliced into portions and eaten like cake. There are a few variations that include kaki no ha sushi which consists of cured salmon, crabmeat, and omelette freshly wrapped in persimmon leaves. In Japanese “masu” is a type of trout and this type of ekiben for history buffs. This highly photogenic cedar container is a definite keepsake. The cost varies but on average you should expect to pay 1400 yen
Yakisoba Self-heating Ekiben (焼きそば)
This is one for the tech buffs. In Japan, most ekiben served cold though a Japanese entrepreneur vendor invented a self-heating bento with special packaging that warms up your meal before eating it. Yakisoba (stir-fried noodles) is one of the most popular ekiben that comes with self-heating packaging. By pulling on a string, an element at the bottom of the box starts a chemical reaction, and the meal heats up with steam. View example here: Youtube. After a few minutes, you can open the lid and eat away at a warmly prepared meal. In Tokyo Station, Ekiben-ya Matsuri an ekiben specialist shop offers more than 170 different kinds of ekiben collected from stations all over Japan and their most popular is the self-heating beef tongue ekiben from the Sendai in the Miyagi Prefecture. The meal consists of thick slices of grilled beef placed over warm and fluffy rice, warmed up and ready to eat within five minutes.
Anagomeshi Ekiben (アナゴメシ)
If eel is your thing a highly recommended example of a traditionally prepared Japanese ekiben is the Anago Meshi (conger eel rice bento box). Prepared with several slices of roasted anago (salt-water conger eels) over a good serving of rice that has been cooked in eel broth for added flavour and garnished with pickled ginger and a choice of three pickles. Anago Meshi ekiben is one of the most popular in Hiroshima, and it originated from a recipe of the Meiji Era, eel flavoured rice topped with freshly grilled eel. The meal was commonly eaten by fishermen called “Anago donburi (Anago rice bowl”, which was made early this century into ekiben style meals that became so popular that they spread to other regions that covered the Sanyo Mainline. Today, it is still a prevalent local choice for ekiben. They are bought as takeaway lunch during trips to nearby Miyajima as Anagomeshi Ueno, located between the Miyajimaguchi Station in Hiroshima and the ferry terminal which takes visitors to Miyajima.
Sparkling Sea Bento
The Sparkling Sea Bento is a classic example of an ekiben that most reflects the local produce that’s available and regional tastes. Found in the Miyagi Prefecture the Sparkling Sea Bento is named after the ikura (sockeye salmon roe) that has sparkles that look like orange jewels of the ocean. The meal is served in a circular ekiben made from a food-grade paper made to look like cedar. The sockeye salmon roe is harvested when female fish are ready to spawn and the eggs are cured in brine to bring out their flavour and enhance their texture. Served along with a few thick filets of juicy salmon produced in Sanriku which is served over rice with pickled vegetables it’s sure to be a salmon lovers favourite. Found in the Miyagi Prefecture, Tohoku Main Line/Sendai Station north of Tokyo on the east coast of Honshu island it will cost around 1000 yen.
Yonezawa Beef Domannaka Ekiben
One of the most popular ekiben among tourists the Yonezawa Beef Domannaka Ekiben is considered to be among Japan’s finest and is a well-known delicacy found in the Yamagata Prefecture. Launched in July 1992 the year after opening the Yamagata Shinkansen it consists of a high-quality hearty serving of delicately sliced layers of juicy seasoned Wagyu beef cooked sukiyaki-style ( sugar and soy sauce) which is served over Yonezawa rice “Domannaka” that soaks up the sauce for a meal that bursts with flavour. Yonezawa Beef Domannaka Ekiben is available in several options; you can expect to pay 1600 yen for the Special Charcoal Grilled Yonezawa Beef Kalbi or 2200 yen for the Yonezawa Beef Bento. Sold at most major stations to the north, such as Yonezawa Station and other stations of the Yamagata Shinkansen, Ouu Main Line (Yamagata Line), and the Yonesaka Line it is popular among all generations.
The ekiben sold at various train stations make use of local ingredients or their regional specialties. The distinctive food content of Eki bento includes a rice bowl with toppings of meat, seafood, vegetables or any grouping of the three. The ekiben are grouped into several sections like a meat section or a sushi section or a mix like the Makunounchi bento. It sometimes becomes too overwhelming for making a choice! Most of the ekiben are to be eaten at room temperature, but if you want your food to be nice and hot, they have a provision to provide you with a hot meal. Some of the boxes have a magical thread and on its pulling the box starts heating up on its own, and your hot meal is ready in about 5 minutes or so.
Ekiben Bento, Then & Today
The ekiben used to be available only at the local train stations, but today all varieties can be sourced from Tokyo station. There are specific shops in Tokyo that hold varied Bentos from across the north and south of Japan. The price of the ekiben is slightly higher than the convenience store-bought ekiben due to the use of top-quality ingredients. But it is definitely worth the cost!
Ekiben Sold At Train Station in Japan
Documentary: Ekiben Boxed Lunches for Train Travel
Ekiben Matsuri Train Bento Store in Tokyo Station