If you’ve ever travelled by on Japan’s super speedy bullet trains then you may have noticed people taking their seat, whipping out a lunch box, and tucking into a variety of tasty looking Japanese food. These packaged lunches, known as ekiben, are available at train stations up and down the country, and are a convenient and affordable way to eat on the go! Limited time only, be sure to pick up your ekiben at Japan Centre Panton Street and Shaftesbury Avenue and Ichiba, Westfield London from Mon 22 – Sun 28 October.
What is Ekiben?
Ekiben is a mixture of the words ‘eki’ (train station) and ‘bento’ (Japanese boxed lunch). Bento lunches originated long before trains were invented and were often packed at home to eat whilst travelling, served in teahouses or enjoyed during theatre show intervals. It’s thought that the very first version of ekiben, consisting of onigiri rice balls, was sold on 16 July 1885 at the opening of the Japan Railway Tohoku main line at Utsunimoya Station. Ekiben evolved into a boxed bento style lunch packed for portability into several separate compartments and sold to hungry train passengers on long train journeys.
The Golden Era of Ekiben
Rail travel experienced a boom after the Second World War and ekiben sellers were a common sight at train stations, selling their wares from large wooden boxes and even passing boxes through train windows from the platform. By the mid 1980s, it’s estimated that around 12 million ekiben were being sold every single day! Cheaper air travel, personal cars and the super speedy bullet train led to a decline in sales, but ekiben are still popular in Japan. You won’t see vendors selling ekiben through train windows anymore, but you can still purchase them at station shops and kiosks before boarding.
What’s in the Box?
There are essentially two different types of ekiben. The first, known as makunouchi bento, can be found throughout Japan and typically contains simple ingredients including rice, grilled fish and pickles. No ekiben would be complete without rice – it’s a staple ingredient of the Japanese diet. The second type contains food that’s more specific to the region. Eating Ekiben is a fantastic way to sample traditional, local Japanese cuisine, with each box serving as a mini introduction to the tastes and culture of the region you’re travelling in. For example, Hokkaido in northern Japan is famous for its delicious seafood, so the ekiben here is often filled with local specialities such as stuffed squid or sea urchin. Most ekiben are served cold to keep them fresh (although self heating ekiben also exist) and they come with chopsticks and/or a spoon.
Aside from being delicious, ekiben are also beautifully presented, and are often housed in cute or elaborate packaging made from a variety of materials such as cardboard, plastic, wood or even ceramics. Food housed in a mini replica bullet train is particularly popular! You’ll also find limited edition ekiben designed to commemorate important events. Japanese food is extremely seasonal too, so the packaging and contents change over the course of the year. The fancier packages make great travel souvenirs. Ekiben collecting is a hobby in itself!
How Do I Eat My Ekiben?
Etiquette is very important in Japanese culture, and this applies to eating on trains too. It’s not really the done thing to start chomping your way through your ekiben on a commuter train or the subway, and if you do, you’re likely to be voted least popular person in the carriage. But if you’re taking a long distance journey on the shinkansen, it’s a whole different story. You’ll have plenty of time to eat, the carriages are laid out in a more private configuration and you’ll probably have a little flap-down tray to place your lunch on too. So sit back, relax and enjoy your ekiben as you watch the world go by. Ekiben are great for picnics too so grab one before heading to one of Japan’s abundant parks and enjoy a nutritious lunch in relaxing surroundings.
Where Can I Buy Ekiben in Japan?
Most train stations will sell some sort of ekiben from a shop or kiosk, although the variety available to you will differ depending on the station you’re at. Rural villages are more likely to offer simple fare and have a smaller selection, but if you’re in a big city like Kyoto or Tokyo with huge shopping mall style stations, you’re going to be spoilt for choice!
The very first ekiben fair took place in a Tokyo department store in 1966, selling around 200 different varieties from all over Japan. In-store ekiben fairs are still going strong today and gather huge crowds, with customers eager to get their hands on collectable ekiben and sample regional cuisine from around Japan. If you’re in Tokyo, a trip to the Tokyo Station’s Ekibenya Matsuri store is a must. You’ll get to see hundreds of different ekiben ranging from the simple and affordable to the elaborate and pricey. It’s a tourist attraction in its own right!
Ekiben Comes to London
If you’re itching to sample the delights of ekiben for yourself then you’re in luck, as you’ll shortly be able to try some right here in London!
Japan Centre has teamed up with JR East, one of Japan’s major passenger railways companies, to help launch a special ekiben. Head down to the 10th annual Japan Matsuri in Trafalgar Square on Sunday 30th September, or pop into Ichiba, Japan Centre Panton Street or the JR East pop-up at Japan Centre Shaftesbury Avenue from Monday 22nd to Sunday 28th October, and experience lunch on the go like never before.
Ten minutes for refreshments, Japan / Passengers of train leaning out windows, being served refreshments by men on railroad platform
Circa 1902. By C.H. Graves [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Ekiben for sale in Nagoya by jyw104, via Flickr.
Eating ekiben onboard the train from Shinjuku to Hakone by Alyson Hurt via Flickr
Shinkansen bento By Masataka Muto https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Ekibenya Matsuri store in Tokyo Station by Victor Lee via Flickr
Seafood Bento bought from Asahikawa Station, Hokkaido by Luke Lai via Flickr