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Ekiben: Train Bento Boxes

Nostalgic Flavors of Travel across Japan

The Japanese word bento, now understood worldwide, describes the food you take on picnics or anywhere outside the home or the compact lunches you bring to work. The word ekiben means the bento sold for travelers on trains or at stations. Ekiben designs reflect the Japanese aesthetics with and their particular sensitivity about food that you cannot get from homemade bento. The small ekiben boxes are packed with regional specialties and memories of travel across Japan.


At ekiben shop "Matsuri (Festival)" within Tokyo Station, over 170 different types of ekiben are displayed for sale each day. Customers include not only travelers but also workers picking up dinner on their way home. The shop can sell as many as 20,000 ekiben in a day.

Travel over Mountains with Ekiben



Left: When you take the lid off the pot of the “Tohge-no-Kamameshi” ekiben, you find chestnuts, burdock, apricots and other produce atop a warm bed of rice.
Right: Passengers enjoy ekiben in a train carriage equipped with Japanese kotatsu heated tables.

Of Japan’s land area, 70% is made up of mountains. For the people living here, the image of travel is closely linked with traveling over steep mountain passes. One ekiben product is named after a mountain crossing and has been popular for over 50 years: “Tohge-no-Kamameshi” (Food in Pot on Pass) ekiben are sold at Yokokawa Station on the Shin'etsu Main Line that runs from Gunma Prefecture through Nagano Prefecture where the 1998 Winter Olympics were held. Yokokawa Station is currently the terminus for this line, but originally it used to be a mountaintop station next to the tableland resort town of Karuizawa. Trains had to negotiate an elevation of 552 meters on a 9-plus km line between the two stations. As long ago as 1958, the traditional ekiben style was established at this station where passengers passing through Yokokawa Station could buy freshly made, hot bento passed through train windows on the Yokokawa platform.

Tohge-no-Kamameshi ekiben are unique because rice and side dishes are elegantly presented in a ceramic pot. Rice is the main staple food in Japan and before electric rice cookers were available, rice was cooked in a larger, but similarly shaped pot. Many people still feel waves of nostalgia when they think back to the kitchen scene of only one generation ago. When you have finished the Tohge-no-Kamameshi ekiben, you can take the container home and use it as a bowl for side dishes or for storing miscellaneous items. The Tohge-no-Kamameshi product is a typical ekiben packed with nostalgia and the feeling of travel.

Variety of Ekiben: From Matsusaka Beef to Sushi



Left: Ekiben designed for self-heating: Pulling the string attached to the side of the ekiben causes a reaction between water and quick lime in the underside of the bento box, which heats the contents.
Right: Selling ekiben on the platform at Hitoyoshi Station: Wearing a white hat and a happi coat, a man patrols up and down the station platform carrying a wooden tray filled with ekiben for sale. Japan has a long history of passengers buying ekiben through train windows. (Hitoyoshi City, Kumamoto Prefecture)

Japan's first ekiben is thought to be the rice balls sold at Utsunomiya Station in 1885. The country developed between 2,000 and 3,000 types of ekiben over the next 100-plus years, each one highly individual and using local specialties. One of the most distinguished ekiben in all of Japan is the “Matsusaka-gyu Monogatari” (Tale of Matsusaka Beef) sold at Matsusaka Station in Mie Prefecture, which includes the world-famous Matsusaka beef known to be the best quality beef in Japan.

Matsusaka beef is produced using a particular method: Beef cows are given beer to drink, massaged with shochu (distilled spirit), and produce tender meat marbled with fat. This way of rearing cattle has become so famous worldwide that farmers in France are attempting to produce beef from cows given wine to drink. Only the highest-quality Matsusaka beef certified with an individual identification number is used here for sukiyaki, so it is guaranteed to taste good. Like sushi, sukiyaki is known overseas as a typical Japanese food and is one of the most popular foods among overseas visitors to Japan.

Bara-zushi (sushi)” ekiben is sold on Shinkansen bullet trains and at Okayama Station in Okayama Prefecture about 140 km west from Osaka. This highly colorful ekiben features thinly cooked yellow egg strips tightly packed on a bed of vinegared rice, on top of which are laid locally produced and highly aromatic yellow chives. The box contains a scattering of seafood, such as Japanese Spanish mackerel or grilled conger eel, plus mountain produce such as black beans and shiitake mushrooms. It reflects the Japanese interest in working the colors of nature into food presentation.

It is fun to be able to try out ekiben that provide exact replicas of regional and traditional foods, including the bara-zushi dish involving a range of delicacies scattered on a bed of rice, originally cooked in the 16th century to bypass a government-decreed law calling for frugal living.

Popular Ekiben Fairs

Ekiben packed with regional foods can also be thought of as a catalogue of delicious cuisine all over Japan. Japanese department stores hold popular events called ekiben fairs where they gather together many different ekiben from across the country. The first ekiben fair was held by a Tokyo department store during the New Year period of 1966. There were around 200 types of ekiben for sale, including popular products packed with the best seafood such as crab and salted salmon roe transported from Hokkaido in the far north of Japan and ekiben from Japan's wine-producing region of Yamanashi Prefecture that came with a tiny bottle of wine & a small plastic glass. The department store sold 400,000 ekiben in only two weeks, generating around 600 million yen in sales.

photo photo photo
The crowd at a department store
ekiben fair: During the ekiben event,
the department store has 20%–30% more visitors than normal.
Making ekiben: A food worker wearing vinyl gloves for hygiene purposes efficiently fills multiple bento boxes
lined up in a row.
The “Koshu Wine Lunch” ekiben is filled with foods that match well with wine, including diced steak or Spanish omelet, and comes with a small plastic wine glass.

Fantastic Designs of Bento Boxes


"Kaga-nodate bento" ekiben: An extravagant ekiben made in the kitchens of long-established Japanese eateries that have been operating since the Edo era (1603-1867). The contents are also extravagant, including eel, sea urchin roe and Japanese tiger prawns.

Enlarge photo

Japan is known worldwide for its delicate and creative packaging. The Japanese are particular about containers as well. At Echizen-Takefu Station on the Fukui Railway that runs through Fukui Prefecture, which is famous for the traditional craft of lacquer ware, you can place an advance order to purchase an unusual ekiben made using a wooden Echizen lacquer box from the Echizen-Kawada district. The food is Western in style, including terrines, smoked salmon or roast beef, but the box is made of glossy lacquered wood. This ekiben costs more than usual, but orders come in because of the beautiful and attractive bento box. At Kanazawa Station, you can buy the “"Kaga-nodate bento" ekiben that is presented in a two-tiered tansu-style box with drawers. At Arita Station in Japan's ceramic-producing region, you can buy ekiben in containers made of Arita porcelain ware.

An increasing number of ekiben designs allow the consumer to heat up the contents of a bento box before eating, simply by pulling on a string attached to the container. This is typical of the care and consideration for others shown by the Japanese.

Ekiben demonstrate the sensitivity, creativity and technology of the Japanese people and provide a window onto another aspect of Japanese culture that cannot be seen in museums or at sightseeing spots.

(March 2013)

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