Ekiben: The Most Flavorful Japanese Lunch Box

What is a Japanese Ekiben?

For those who are not fully aware, there are different kinds of lunch boxes in Japan. What is known as an ekiben, it is a special kind of Japanese lunch box that both local and foreign travelers in Japan enjoy while traveling. But this is purchased not just for any kind of traveling as it is specifically known as a railway boxed meal – or bento boxes sold inside trains or train stations.

The word ekiben is derived from the Japanese words ‘eki’ which means station and ‘bento’ which is a type of Japanese lunch box. It is originally known as an eki bento which leads to its shortened term ‘ekiben’. Buying an ekiben for a long journey has been one of the most interesting travel habits for the Japanese since railway travel was popularized. Since the ekiben has become a popular food culture in Japan.

A lot of people are concerned the freshness of the meal. Since food safety is one of the top priorities of the health authorities in Japan, it is safe to say that all ekiben being sold in retail stores in Japan are stamped with both the manufacturing and expiration dates so that customers can eat the meal without worry.

Eating while traveling in Japan

It is common knowledge that eating inside trains are STRONGLY discouraged in Japan. Many of the locals consider it impolite to see anyone even biting into a sandwich or an energy bar. Even on slow hours when the trains are not crowded, looks of disapproval will be difficult to avoid.  

So the question is, if ekiben is the ultimate travel food, then why is it discouraged to eat inside trains? The answer is simple, there are two types of commuter trains in Japan – the short distance and the long distance trains. In trains like subways and metro rails, especially for those lines which are often crowded, eating is strongly discouraged. However, for long distance trains such as the Shinkansen, an ekiben is a definite travel must-have.

On a lighter note, for those who are still concerned about eating a bento inside the trains, there is no worry. Most travelers start eating away their ekiben once the trains leave the platforms. There are also trolley vendors inside the train that sell different food and drinks which are a clear sign that eating is allowed. Also, most Shinkansen trains have private cubicles or seats larger than a local commuter train.

Ekiben – a Japanese Cultural Meaning

The Golden Age of Ekiben

Ordinary bentos could be dated back to the 15th or 16th century. It is said that farmers, fishermen, and all others who travel for work carry lunches among their belongings. This is due to the fact that they will have no time to go home for meals or are saving up on expenses while traveling for work.  It is usual to see the typical white rice with dried meat or pickled vegetables, or any kind of food item that may last a certain duration of time.

However, the ekiben did not come into the picture until railway travel has become popular. It is believed that it was in the late 1800s when the first Eki Bento was sold in a train station in Utsunomiya Station in the Tochigi Prefecture.

Based on historical records, the store did not actually sell meals in boxes. They simply sold the first onigiri or rice balls. It was a marvelous idea because it is almost a full meal (rice with meat or vegetables) clumped into bite-sized or sandwich-sized food packs – a convenient way of eating a rice meal. It was convenient for the seller as well because of the ease of which it could be served or packaged. On top of that, it was literally fast food which could be carried and eaten anywhere. It was the perfect meal for anyone on the go.

Since then, the popularity of the ekiben became widely known. Sellers have become more explorative and creative with their products. As more train lines opened, it is also certain that new ekiben stalls will sprout out somewhere near.

There was a time when only the wealthy can afford to have their own cars and plane travel was still so expensive that most Japanese people still preferred to travel long distance by train. This is why the Golden Age of the Ekiben lasted for almost a century until it ended in the 1980s when air travel became more preferred and quite more affordable for the ordinary Japanese traveler.

Where to buy Ekiben?

Again, it is important to note that the Ekiben is only available for long-distance trains in Japan. There are a variety of reasons why ekiben are allowed for long-distance trains. The first is that these trains travel thousands of kilometers from one station to another which could take several hours. The second is the fact that travelers usually have little time to buy and eat local delicacies. The ekiben is a good way to taste the special local cuisines in many prefectures and city of Japan.

There are a number of places to buy Ekiben all over Japan. In fact, there are ekiben stalls in every Shinkansen station in Japan. This includes the Tokyo and Kyoto stations. There are even lunch boxes sold by trolley vendors inside the train itself. Some ekiben are good with beer which is also sold in some Shinkansen stations. There are also some stations that serve sake. However, it is important to note that regulated drinking is a must.

One popular ekiben shop would be the Ekibenya Matsuri (or Festival of Bentos) which is a one-stop-shop for over a hundred kinds of specialty ekiben from different prefectures all over Japan. This is the largest retailer of ekiben meals and can be found in the Tokyo station of the Shinkansen.

It is said that the owner of this retail store has invited chefs from different localities to create recipes of restaurant-worthy meals to be placed in a small on-the-go container. The primary aim of this store is to allow every traveler in Japan to experience local delicacies and specialty cuisines without actually making the trip to that city or prefecture in question.

How much for every Ekiben?

A typical Ekiben meal actually comes quite cheap with the price of each to be about 300 yen. Some larger sized ekiben costs around 700 yen to 1500 yen depending on the ingredients which were added to the lunch box. However, there is special edition ekiben like those that come in collectible and reusable containers or those “meal for two” ekiben that cost about 3200 yen.

What is found inside Japanese Ekiben lunch boxes?

One of the many things that an ekiben boasts of is the fact that it is made from food specialties from the locality with which it was bought. There are ekibens which contain sandwiches, while most contain rice meals. Since there are no specifics to what an Ekiben should be consisted of, there is a continuous debate whether sandwich meal boxes should be considered as a classic ekiben.

Ekiben food boxes are always equipped with disposable chopsticks, or sometimes a spoon, depending on the type of food which was served. Cheaper ekibens are placed in plastic boxes or containers but more expensive ones come in ceramic, wood or even plastic-lacquer type of containers.

In most cases, ekibens are marketed as travel mementos or collector’s items. This is why there are a number of ekiben which are designed with unique packagings. There are some which are shaped as a bullet train, a popular tourist destination, and the like. There are others which are designed with famous characters from comics or TV shows. There are others that sell on the fact that an ekiben is a historical food culture and their boxes are packaged like they used to when it was first introduced to Japanese travelers. On the other hand, these ekibens are often much more expensive than the ordinary bento box.

Just like a typical bento, the meal box contains small compartments or partitions that contain small but numerous dishes. There is a variety of fish and meat as its main highlight with pickled vegetables on the side. The biggest partition of all usually contains the rice. There are some cases when the Ekiben contains differently flavored onigiri because it is already flavorful with every bite – containing an explosion of flavors from the meat and the vegetables.

What everyone should remember is the fact that all ekiben boxes are made of different food varieties that change with the prefecture or city where it was bought. An ekiben becomes specialized with the local ingredients and even cooking techniques or traditions of the region or prefecture where it came from.

As for the freshness of the meal and its ingredients, it is expected that preservatives are placed to ensure that the meal box will not spoil too fast. Specialized cooking techniques have been developed for food items that need to be fresh when served like seafood bentos from Shizuoka (especially for those rare seafood species). In some cases, there are alternatives which are used to replace certain types of meats and fishes. Also, this is why pickled items are more common to see in the food partitions.

Special Ekibens around Japan

Self-heating Ekiben

Since these kinds of food are on-the-go and are sold at the station instead of inside the trains, there are possibilities that the food becomes cold before eating. The problem with this is that food tastes better when served hot. This is why there are new technologies in Japan that introduced the concept of a self-heating bento.

This kind of self-heating bento usually have a string at the bottom that can be pulled and within a few seconds, there will be hot fumes of steam that will come from the box. Within a few minutes, the food will be ready to consume. Usually, these kinds of bento are equipped with heating pads or heating bags which are stored underneath the food. Once the string is pulled, the heating bags will be activated to provide warmth to the food. This is completely safe and is designed to avoid food contamination.

Sandwich Ekiben

Although the craze for the ekiben has declined over the centuries, it is without a doubt that having one on a trip is a necessity. There are people, on the other hand, that prefer lighter meals while traveling and are not too particularly attracted to heavy rice meals being sold at the stations. This is why there had been a new addition to modernized forms of the ekiben.

There is an ongoing debate that discusses whether sandwiches can actually be considered as bento-worthy meals. However, there are a number of stores that sell snack ekiben which are consisted mainly of finger food than rice meals. One common snack ekiben would consist of a few small squares of sandwiches. Some even serve mini burgers with French fries but are much rarer.

Ekiben Specialties each prefecture

Masu No Sushi – This is a specialty of the Toyama Station and it is a kind of delicacy which has been popular since the early 17th century. What is interesting about this is that it literally looks like a sushi cake. It consists of a pressed collection of salmon and rice.

HIpparidako Meshi – This special ekiben is sold at the Hyogo Prefecture of Japan. It is served in a ceramic pot which contains a special species of octopus and conger eel. The name literally translates to octopus in high demand. It is a specialty of the prefecture.

Wappameshi bento – This is a kind of bent which is contained in a wooden box. It is a specialty from Akita which is consisted of akitakmachi rice with pickled radishes and a delicious serving of meat. Unfortunately, cheaper versions of this bento do not serve it in wooden boxes but are served in wood grain printed plastic containers.