Train travel has a lot of attractive qualities—it’s quick, relaxing, environmentally friendly and cheap. But if you ever go to Japan, there’s one extra reason to travel on rails: train station lunch boxes, aka ekiben!
Trains in the West often have sad little dining cars where limp food is nuked and served to dispirited commuters. Nobody could get excited about that. In Japan, we have a much better solution: getting lunch at the station.
This has all kinds of advantages. In the first place, competition—there are lots of different stalls that compete to sell you ekiben, and they all try to outdo one another in freshness, taste and quality. Advantage number two: variety. You can pick all kinds of different lunch boxes.
Partly for this reason, ekiben is often regional, and with good reason: it’s your last chance to eat the traditional specialty from the region you’re leaving. These days, ekiben is a part of Japanese culinary culture. People in Japan really put their energy and passion into it.
So what is it like? Well, first you go to a station stall and buy a little box. You’ll pay maybe $9 to $15. These days, the lunch boxes are often made of plastic, though you can still find wood or ceramic ones. Boxes have an elaborate printed paper cover—kakegami—and are cross-tied with string. You’ll find many beautiful printed designs, such as local scenery or traditional motifs. Pause to really appreciate it; a beautiful kakegami is part of the experience of enjoying ekiben.
Next, it’s time to board your train. Take a seat and get settled. Even if you’re hungry, be sure to wait until the train leaves and reaches the open country. Then, untie the string and, as the rice fields pass you by, dig in.
When you open the box, you’ll see it’s divided into many little compartments—at least six to eight—each containing tiny portions of different Japanese foods. There may be one sushi roll and some cold tempura. There will be a bit of flavored rice, and several different kinds of vegetables. Several of the compartments will hold little specialties from your departing region. Oh, and the world’s tiniest dessert will be hidden in there somewhere, too.
The key with ekiben is to go slow. Take your time to sit back and taste each morsel separately as you enjoy the scenery. There is no sense hurrying: you’re on a train! So just work your way through it little by little. It’s a progression that can’t be reproduced with a sandwich. Ekiben is an experience, and not simply for satisfying your empty stomach.
A good ekiben is designed to be delicious when eaten cold. In fact, one of the reasons bento was developed in Japan is that Japanese rice has a particular sticky texture that’s quite different from long-grain rice, and it’s still good after it becomes cold.
Japan being Japan, though, technologists soon decided to treat bento as an engineering problem. In 1988, bento manufacturer Awajiya invented a revolutionary system to heat ekiben using a chemical reaction based on calcium oxide and water. Really. So these days, some stations offer the odd ekiben with a string coming out of the top: when you pull it, it makes a long hissing noise. The reaction starts and, within a few minutes, you have a hot bento!
It’s said that ekiben dates back to the 1880s. Considering that Japanese railways started in 1872, the tradition of traveling with bento seems to have been established relatively early. At the beginning, ekiben was just a regular bento you took on the train. However, at a certain point, it started to develop into a unique genre of Japanese culinary culture. It became more common to find various themed ekiben—some featuring local dishes or made with local products, some related to tourist attractions and so on.
Since the 1960s, we’ve even started to see ekiben conventions, bringing together the best ekibens from all over the country. The conventions give people the chance to find unique ekibens without having to travel all the way to the bento’s place of origin. Because they allow you to enjoy part of the traveling fun without leaving home, ekiben conventions have become very popular in Japan. Today, once a year, you can even find ekiben conventions at big supermarkets, shopping malls and even department stores all over Japan.
Japanese people are always very interested in food, so ekiben is often featured on TV and in magazines. Some local ekiben are famous all over Japan and have become something of a tourist draw. For examle, ika-meshi (squid rice) from Hokkaido is a simple ekiben featuring squid stuffed with rice. Uni bento (sea urchin bento) is flavored rice totally covered with raw urchin, a delicacy from the sadly earthquake-stricken Iwate Prefecture. (Only 20 uni bento are made at Iwate Station each day, making it even more popular and appealing.) Shiumai bento (Chinese-style pork dumpling bento) from Yokohama is well-known, too.
My favorite, though, is kashiwa-meshi (chicken rice) from the southern island of Kyushu. It’s a bento centered on chicken and flavored rice, covered with a very thinly sliced omelette and sweetened soy sauce. This is the local favorite in my mom’s hometown, Kitakyushu, and its delicate, mild sweetness always reminds me of childhood. Even today, kashiwa-meshi is sold at on the platform of the tiny local train station.
Japanese food is all about marrying tradition with innovation, and so since 2003, you can also find soraben: sky bento. Modeled on ekiben, soraben is simply bento sold at airports to eat on the plane!
Deep down, ekiben is just a lunchbox: it’s very rarely as good as restaurant food. Japanese people love it, though, because it just makes the experience of travel complete.
Editor’s Note: Have you eaten any of the classic ekiben Kanako described? What’s your favorite bento treat?
Kanako Noda started helping her mom make dinner in Shiga, Japan, at the age of four. An artist based in Montréal by day, she evangelizes on the Japanese way of eating by night. "There's a fantastic, dazzling variety of Japanese dishes that Americans keep missing," she says, "because they can't see past the thick undergrowth of sushi bars everywhere." Kanako believes in real food made by real people using real ingredients, and is allergic to food gimmicks, straight-from-the-lab ingredients and diet fads of all kinds. Most of all, she's into introducing Westerners to Japanese common sense on what you should eat, when, how much, how and with whom. Her Japanese home cooking recipe blog is at KanakosKitchen.com.