Ekiben: Boxed meals for travelers
Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.
Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.
Inspired by her journalist father, Kobayashi first began writing while still at university with a column in a weekly magazine. Now a freelance writer and editor, she has spent more than 20 years covering the many ekiben Japan has to offer, with over 5,000 individual varieties sampled to date. She has also investigated cooking techniques from across Japan, and even been involved in the development of new ekiben.
June 23, 2016
Ekiben: Boxed meals for travelers
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In so many ways, Japan is a paradise for those smitten by the magic of rail travel. Numerous readers will be familiar with a mass transit system that gets urban commuters from A to B with near-clockwork regularity, but there is more to Japan’s trains than mere efficiency.
From the sleek modernity and comfort of the high-speed Shinkansen bullet train network that traverses almost the entire length and breadth of the archipelago, to the various steam locomotives that remain in action across the country, and sightseeing trains offering the chance to savor local scenery in style, there is something to suit the tastes of almost any rail enthusiast.
And speaking of “taste,” to many long-distance travelers, no train experience would be complete without sustenance in the form of an ekiben train station bento box.
A good balance of colors is key for a visually appealing bento.
Frequently translated into English simply as “lunchbox,” the term bento has acquired a degree of global currency in recent years. For many Japan-watchers the image the word most readily brings to mind may be of elaborate “kyara-ben” (character bento) packed lunches that see creative parents encouraging their little ones to eat a balanced meal by crafting a range of ingredients into the likeness of various figures from anime.
In practical terms, though, bento covers much more than just lunch, and is equally appropriate to describe food made at home to be eaten on the go, or cooked deli meals purchased after work from convenience stores and supermarkets by weary salarymen who lack the energy (and sometimes even the cooking utensils) to prepare their own evening meal.
What then, other than the name -- which prefixes the ben from bento with “eki,” for “station” -- and the self-explanatory point of purchase (at stations, on platforms or sometimes on board the trains themselves), are the distinguishing features of ekiben?
One is the ingredients. Local ekiben typically feature produce or dishes for which a particular region is renowned (although larger stations such as Tokyo actually offer a diversity of ekiben from all around Japan).
Salted mackerel sushi wrapped in subtly fragrant persimmon leaves are a classic ekiben from Yoshinoguchi, Nara Prefecture.
Premium sea urchin is the centerpiece of this luxury ekiben from Kuji, Iwate Prefecture.
Examples seen in this edition of Japanology Plus include long-selling favorites like: Ikameshi, from Mori in southern Hokkaido, a hearty dish of rice-stuffed squid simmered in soy sauce and ginger; and Kaki-no-ha sushi, a specialty of Yoshinoguchi in Nara Prefecture, which features salted mackerel on rice, wrapped in fragrant persimmon leaves.
Another ekiben feature is the packaging. While still a far cry from the elegant, lacquered jubako stacking boxes historically used at stately kimono-clad picnics beneath the cherry blossoms, ekiben are much more thoughtfully presented than typical convenience store bento in their microwaveable plastic trays with transparent lids for easy perusal of the contents.
Matt tries his hand at making wooden ekiben boxes.
According to this week’s expert guest Shinobu Kobayashi, packaging is an important part of the ekiben experience, and something to be savored. The archetypal ekiben comes in a hand-crafted wooden box (which Matt Alt tries his hand at making in the show), bound in a paper wrapper printed with evocative imagery.
But amid the fierce competition of an ekiben marketplace crowded with around 3,000 individual varieties nationwide, some localities have chosen to set their wares apart with meals served in, or including, collectable, re-usable containers.
Ceramic, octopus-themed pots house the ekiben of two locations on the Seto Inland Sea: Nishi-Akashi, Hyogo Prefecture (Hippari-dakomeshi); and Fukuyama, Hiroshima Prefecture (Ganso-takomeshi). Yokohama’s Mukashinagara-no-shiumai (old-fashioned pork dumplings) feature a pocket-sized ceramic soy sauce bottle.
Some ekiben, like this one from Nishi-Akashi, Hyogo Prefecture, come in collectable ceramic containers.
Others plough further into kyara-ben territory with cute plastic containers shaped like various well-known characters, or even the trains themselves. Snowy Niigata has a snowman-shaped pack (Yukidaruma-bento), while Takasaki, Gunma Prefecture has Daruma-bento, designed like the roly-poly dolls whose name the Japanese word for snowman draws upon.
Dimensions are another key factor. As Kobayashi tells Peter Barakan, ekiben "always taste better when you’re viewing nice scenery." To facilitate dining while gazing from the window in a sometimes cramped train, ekiben are typically more compact than your average take-home bento.
And, this being Japan, there are also various technological features. While many ekiben are formulated to be tasty eaten cold, some utilize a chemical reaction for self-heating packaging to warm up your meal when you are ready to tuck in.
And to round off a sensory full house for meals that already play to four senses with taste, scent, texture, and visual dimensions, the container of the Gyukakuni-bento from Yonezawa, Yamagata Prefecture adds to its celebration of the region’s famous beef cattle by playing an electronic rendition of local folk song “Hanagasa Ondo” when the lid is lifted.
Finally, as Japan becomes more and more aware of diverse dietary requirements of foreign visitors, ekiben are following suit.
Tokyo station offers a Halal-friendly “Turkish bento,” while vegetarians will breathe a sigh of relief to learn about Kyoto’s Shojin-bento, which incorporates the Buddhist vegan cuisine that can still be enjoyed at many temples and religious lodgings, and the vegan Vege-deli-bento available for purchase aboard many Shinkansen trains.
Kobayashi and Peter enjoy the view while tucking into their ekiben.
While it is frowned upon to eat on the busy inner-city mass-transit network, ekiben are an enjoyable part of long-distance rail travel.
Manager of an ekiben factory in Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture that has been in business since 1888.
From a base in Tokyo’s historic Asakusa district, Shida runs a firm that makes bento boxes from domestically forested wood.
A craftsman who makes traditional-style wooden boxes for ekiben.
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