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All about 'ekiben': Travel around Japan tasting train 'bentos' at every station

Malay Mail logo Malay Mail 15/6/2019 Kenny Mah
a pile of food: Stacks of carefully arranged 'bento' boxes ready to be enjoyed in the office, at the park... or on a train — Pictures by CK Lim © Provided by Malay Mail Sdn Bhd Stacks of carefully arranged 'bento' boxes ready to be enjoyed in the office, at the park... or on a train — Pictures by CK Lim

TOKYO, June 15 – Walk into any Japanese supermarket or konbini (convenience store), and you’ll definitely find a chiller space dedicated to bentos – the ubiquitous Japanese packed lunch box.

Some contain rice with tori katsu (fried breaded chicken); others offer unctuous yakisoba (stir fried noodles). There are always smaller compartments for pickles and condiments, making it a complete single-portion meal on the go.

These stacks of carefully arranged bento boxes await customers to grab them, to be enjoyed later in the office, for a picnic at the park or even on a train.

That last option opens up an entire world of culinary possibilities – there’s no knowing what you can get from an ekiben or station lunch box (“eki” refers to the railway station, “ben” a shortened version of bento).

The very first version of ekiben were probably the onigiri sold at Utsunomiya Station in 1885. Wrapped in young bamboo leaves, these rice balls were simple, affordable fare for the hungry traveller.

a box filled with different types of food: The “mixed” 'ekiben' (train bento) is popular as you can try a bit of everything (left). Hokkaido is famous for their seafood-based 'ekiben', such as this 'hotate-ekiben' full of plump scallops (right) © Provided by Malay Mail Sdn Bhd The “mixed” 'ekiben' (train bento) is popular as you can try a bit of everything (left). Hokkaido is famous for their seafood-based 'ekiben', such as this 'hotate-ekiben' full of plump scallops (right)

Three years later, a more complete ekiben of rice with side dishes were sold at Himeji Station and the practice soon spread to other railways stations and areas in Japan.

Today, most train stations in Japan have kiosks and shops selling different types of ekiben, prepared freshly every day.

For long-distance journeys, ekibens are often sold from a pushcart onboard trains such as the Shinkansen.

Typically there two types of ekiben: First, the standard ekiben or makunouchi-bento, which can be found everywhere and contains the usual suspects – rice, meat, fish cakes, pickles and other common items.

The name makunouchi-bento means “lunch box between acts” and is a relic from the time when bentos were sold during the intermission of kabuki theatre performances.

These “mixed” ekibens are popular as you can try a bit of everything.

a person standing in front of a store: Train stations in Japan have shops selling different types of 'ekiben', prepared freshly every day © Provided by Malay Mail Sdn Bhd Train stations in Japan have shops selling different types of 'ekiben', prepared freshly every day

The second type of ekiben is more regional and differs from prefecture to prefecture, and even city to city.

The idea is to eat something native to the region through which you’re travelling. Fans of manga or Japanese comics may be familiar with Ekiben Hitori Tabi by Hayase Jun.

The story features a middle-aged man named Daisuke who travels all over Japan on trains and gets to try each region’s particular ekiben.

While you’d be hard pressed to imagine anyone other than the most dedicated otaku replicating such a journey in real life, each region in Japan does have its own ekiben made from local specialties (tokusanhin).

When you travel by rail in Japan, truly it isn’t only the destination but the journey itself which can be a huge part of the experience.

Hiroshima is known for its anago-meshi, fat conger eels cooked in a special sauce and garnished with deep-fried eel bones.

a close up of food: Pull the string on a self-warming 'ekiben' to begin the heating process (left). With a self-heating 'ekiben', you can enjoy a hot meal anytime during your train journey! (right) © Provided by Malay Mail Sdn Bhd Pull the string on a self-warming 'ekiben' to begin the heating process (left). With a self-heating 'ekiben', you can enjoy a hot meal anytime during your train journey! (right)

Kagoshima has ekibens where marinated beef steaks are paired with soboro (minced meat braised in shoyu).

Hokkaido is probably the superstar of ekibens thanks to their oceanic bounty. At Wakkanai Station, you can enjoy sanpo-meshi, a trinity of Hokkaido seafood: uni (sea urchin), zuwagani (snow crab) and ikura (salmon roe).

Mori Station is famous for their ikameshi or squid stuffed with rice. Lovers of scallops will be thrilled with a hotate-ekiben from Hakodate.

Even when you’re only travelling within the capital – bearing in mind the Greater Tokyo Area is huge and literally a labyrinth of rail lines, with over 1,000 stations – there is much to delight in.

Instead of regional ekibens, you can make your train ride more luxurious with a premium wagyu beef ekiben – such decadence!

a close up of food: Make your train ride more luxurious with this wagyu beef 'ekiben' © Provided by Malay Mail Sdn Bhd Make your train ride more luxurious with this wagyu beef 'ekiben'

Some ekibens are limited time offerings that have less to do with the provenance of the ingredients and more with pop culture.

For something utterly kawaii, hunt down the Hello Kitty-themed ekiben exclusive to the Okayama Station, to be enjoyed on the Hello Kitty Shinkansen. That’s probably the cutest – some would argue kitschiest – meal you could have on a bullet train.

Other ekibens are more practical in nature, showcasing the Japanese knack for ingenuity and love for convenience. One of my favourites is the self-heating ekiben.

Upon unpacking the lunch box, you’ll discover a string dangling out. Pulling it begins the heating process (thanks to a chemical reaction) inside a hidden packet beneath the box. Within five minutes, you can enjoy a hot meal – there’s nothing quite like the fresh aroma from the steam wafting out!

There is no end to the variety and creativity showcased in each ekiben. Every station lunch box is a something new waiting to be uncovered, much like Japan itself. Every meal and every journey a surprise, a mystery, an adventure.

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