Eating in Japan-Ekiben

The exterior of an ekiben (station bento) shop in Japan. There are various lunch boxes displayed and the display window is surrounded by descriptions in Japanese on wooden tablets, hung vertically.

I love trains. I particularly love Japanese trains. Shinkansen, or bullet trains, are my favourite. Travelling on shinkansen is like flying. You have allocated seats with fold down tables and you can buy drinks and snacks from an onboard trolley. One of the most wonderful parts about travelling on shinkansen is ekiben. Ekiben is a railway bento. Eki 駅 means station in Japanese. Ben 弁 is short for bento. A bento is a boxed meal, like a lunchbox. They usually have a few different compartments with rice, meat or fish, pickles and other small accompaniments. Quite often the local specialty of the location is which the station is situated will be included. The first “sando” or ekiben sandwich was served in 1899. Ekiben is purchased at the station before you board the train. They are not available on the train. Some stations are famous for their ekiben.

Ekiben have been sold for train travel since the late 19th century. A time when train travel was much slower and a meal was necessary. Even though bullet trains have decreased travel time substantially, the ekiben is now such an ingrained part of the culture I imagine they will forever be available despite the increasing speeds of the trains. One of the photos shows a museum display located at the Showa Museum in Takayama with older style ekiben being served in stainless steel lunchboxes. Sold by vendors on foot through train windows in the past, most station now have ekiben stalls both in the stations and on the platforms.

The choice can be overwhelming. Like the restaurants mentioned in the previous story, ekiben stores have wax models of the bento boxes in a display window. They give you a great visual representation of what you are able to order. You can have the food hot or cold. Usually it will be served with hashi (chopsticks) or cutlery. There are many character based, novelty bentos and kids choices, too. Some bento are served in plastic containers but many are in wood, bamboo or even ceramic. There are even shinkansen bento shaped like a bullet train. I admit I have had one of these. It was a Dr. Yellow bento at the Nagoya SCMaglev train museum in Nagoya. Dr. Yellow is a diagnostic train that runs on all the tracks in Japan checking for faults.

My favourite ekiben is saborodon, minced chicken with ginger with scrambled egg on rice dish. This is super delicious and very simple. Super Sake Boy is a katsusando guy. A pork cutlet with Tonkatsu sauce. The food is always so beautifully displayed and the attention to detail is very Japanese. In addition to the scrumptious food it is absolutely acceptable to drink sake on the train. Or beer or whatever else takes your fancy. Some sake bottles in the past were made with a swinging glass to drink from in the train. The glass was designed to tilt with the movement of the train so the sake did not spill. I find this such a civilised way to travel. I am looking forward to my next shinkansen trip and the ekiben and sake I know I will enjoy at that time. What is your favourite ekiben?

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