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JapanTuesday, February 7

Discovering Japan's Boxed Lunches

Japan's in the middle of a tourism boom, and many of the visitors who flock here each year are discovering a distinctive part of the local food culture -- meals designed to be eaten on the move.

Every part of Japan has its own food specialties and they're showcased in "ekiben" -- boxed meals that are sold at stations to people traveling by train. Special events featuring ekiben are becoming popular with visitors from abroad, too.

"I thought I knew bento but this doesn't look at all like the kind of bento I've had before, so I'm pretty excited to try it," says one man from California.

A growing number of foreign fans are posting photos of their ekiben discoveries online. Inside Tokyo's central railway station, ekiben vendors are now catering to their foreign customers.

"Since last year, we've included English on our descriptions," says Kazuo Izumi of Nippon Restaurant Enterprise.

In-store displays also draw attention to recommended ekiben, and there is a reason why ekiben-makers are so keen to attract visitors from abroad. The number of vendors at Japan Rail stations nationwide peaked in 1964 and since then they've dropped by over three-quarters. The introduction of high-speed rail services meant shorter travel times and less demand for ekiben.

One company that was founded 99 years ago only sells half as many ekiben as it did in its heyday, so it's keen to attract a new clientele.

"Around 20 million foreigners visit Japan every year and we'd like them to start buying our ekiben as well. Of course, that's something we are looking at," says Marumasa President Masahito Natori.

In many countries, people aren't used to eating cold meals, so one company is using a kind of lunch box that can be heated up just by pulling a tab on the top. It has also taken over a space in a restaurant next to a station that many tourists use on trips to view Mt. Fuji.

They've even produced a special "happi" coat to create a unique photo opportunity, because they understand the importance of establishing a social media presence.

"The Tokyo Olympics are coming up and they’ll bring even more foreign visitors. My hope is that people around the world discover the pleasure of eating ekiben," says Yoshihiko Furuya, a manager at Marumasa.

In the past, ekiben were all about regional flavors but now the taste is spreading far and wide.