Ekiben: It’s a quintessential part of long-distance travel in Japan, and the ultimate travel lunch box. Ekiben is a portmanteau of the words “eki” meaning train station, and “ben” from the word bento, a traditional boxed lunch box. These special ekiben bento boxes are made with local ingredients and sold at the station of the area where they are produced, showing off the region’s specialty produce and ingredients. These ekiben lunch boxes are to be bought at the station before you hop on the train, and then eaten en route to your destination.
Eating in a regular commuter train is generally discouraged in Japan, as it’s thought of as socially unacceptable and inconsiderate to other people around you. But, particularly with the convenience of travel on the Shinkansen bullet train, there’s no problem eating on a long distance train, in fact, it’s actually encouraged. Munching on an ekiben lunch box from your departure station is considered to be an integral part of the long-distance travel experience in Japan. An ekiben is said to taste even better when looking out the window at the beautiful scenery rolling by, where maybe you’ll even see Mount Fuji on a clear day (so you should try and get seats on the right side of the Shinkansen when heading from Tokyo to Kyoto).
The popularity of an ekiben comes from being able to try the famous foods which are unique to the region that the bento is from, with most stations (if not all) having unique food specialties. With different prefectures across Japan specializing in traditional styles of cooking and specific local ingredients, these fresh ekiben are not your typical lunch box. For example, as seafood is famous in Hokkaido, the regional ekiben tend to feature uni (steamed sea urchin) and salmon roe, while in the Saga Prefecture’s pottery town of Arita you’ll find curry ekiben boxes, featuring curry that comes in locally made ceramic bowls! While the ekiben boxes can be very elaborate with many small food compartments, they can also be reasonably affordable, with prices starting somewhere around 1000 to 1500 yen each.
Ekiben lunch boxes come in many different kinds of shapes, sizes, flavors, and designs, always making for an exciting travel lunch. Such creative containers and trays include all kinds of elements like seafood, meat, vegetables, and pickles, usually focusing on local food in the area. These special regional ekiben are more popular nowadays, but you will still find standard makunouchi bento-type ekiben too which typically contain grilled fish, fish cakes, and pickles. Rice is usually included as the staple component, but regionally-produced rice may be an extra bonus of the meal. Ekiben are always beautifully presented too, with bento companies designing innovative boxes and containers, so the reveal big of what’s inside the lavish packaging is part of the fun too.
In Tokyo, the two main hubs to jump on a Shinkansen are Tokyo and Shinagawa Stations, each with extensive ranges of ekiben for sale. It is, of course, part of the magic to go and buy a locally produced ekiben from its regional birthplace, but for those who might not have the chance to whip around to every area during their travels, in both stations, they have ekiben specialty stores that also stock bento boxes from all over Japan. While smaller stations might just have one stall or a small shop selling their ekiben, bigger cities like Tokyo and Osaka have massive shops which are a sight in themselves to behold. Particularly if you are traveling from Tokyo, you can have a taste of regional Japan from Tokyo Station with a quick trip to Ekibenya Matsuri, where they stock 170 different types of ekiben from all over Japan.
An example of a classic ekiben is the Moo Taro Bento from Matsusaka in Mie Prefecture. It comes in an iconic black box; its shape referencing the region’s delicious wagyu beef, which is packed inside.
From Fukui Prefecture, the Echizen Crab Rice Ekiben comes in its signature bright red, crab-shaped box, as the area is famed for its snow crabs in winter. A generous layer of shredded crab meat from the Echizen Gani, or Echizen Crab, is laid over a bed of rice.
There are even ekiben that come with a pull-string mechanism, with a function that that will heat up the meal! One example of this is the gyuutan (beef tongue) ekiben, a famous Sendai specialty. Hitomebore rice from Miyagi Prefecture is paired with beef tongue in this iconic Amiyaki (grilled) beef tongue ekiben, which is served on a mix of rice and steamed barley.
Anagomeshi is a popular ekiben from Hiroshima. Here, “anago” means “conger eel” and “meshi” refers to “rice.” The eel is marinated in a delicious sweet soy sauce and the two are put together in a simple yet mouth-watering combination.
From Takasaki Station in Gunma Prefecture, you can get a Daruma Bento, in a container shaped like the traditional Japanese good luck symbol. As Gunma is a landlocked prefecture of Japan, you won’t find seafood in this ekiben. Instead, they are packed with vegetables, influenced by the surrounding mountains and locally grown produce.
Finally, in the children’s section at Ekibenya Matsuri located in Tokyo Station, they have ekiben in the shape of a Shinkansen! This kids’ meal contains your basic fried chicken kara-age, onigiri rice balls and fried ebi shrimp inside. The container itself can be kept as a souvenir and used again, like many other character-themed ekiben boxes on sale.
Zooming across Japan in a Shinkansen while snacking on an ekiben is not only a fun experience in itself, but it’s incredibly convenient as it also makes the most of your vacation time. In Japan there is even a service where you can order your ekiben from the station ahead of time. If you let them know which train you will be on, the time it arrives at the particular station, and which carriage you are in, they will deliver it to the carriage door when your train pulls up. Just pay the staff member and then you can carry on to your destination with a meal conveniently in hand! (Doesn’t the efficiency make ekiben seem even more delicious?)
If you are in a hurry trying to find your platform and don’t have time to pick something up (for the most part the Shinkansen run seamlessly, arriving exactly on the minute), you can still enjoy an ekiben. A staff member will come down the train aisle with a cart of goodies, including some regular bento lunch boxes. At some small stations, vendors will come by the train when it stops, and sell some delicious regional delights to you through the windows.
A big part of long-distance travel culture in Japan, ekiben are a must try when traveling on the Shinkansen in Japan. With a guaranteed novelty factor and great convenience, grab an ekiben before your long train journey to satisfy you along the way.
Never not hungry, Lucy is an artist and foodie from Australia. You can find her hunting for the next delicious deal, documenting her food, or brunching. She lives firmly by the philosophy that food friends are the best of friends.