Bento is already a ubiquitous term, referring to the packed meal that contains a variety of staples and small dishes neatly stuffed into a compact box. In Japan it’s a part of everyday life, and you could find it anywhere under your nose from the kitchen to the convenience store to restaurants dishing out lunch takeaways.
There’s a special subset in this world of boxed lunches known as ekiben, essentially bento boxes that are sold specifically at train stations. The bullet train is one of the most common forms of long-distance travel within Japan, known for its speed and unparalleled comfort. The journey can be an experience in itself, especially with ekiben. At most major train stations you can find a huge selection of ekiben at moderate prices.
The History of Ekiben
Train stations began selling ekiben in the late 19th century, back when the trains were still steam locomotives that took much longer to travel. Since then they’ve grown into a quintessential part of train travel in the country. There’s a distinctive pleasure in buying an ekiben to take on a trip and opening it on board to reveal a beautifully arranged meal perfectly packed into a box. From the colors to the textures to the flavors of every ingredient, it’s a small yet extravagant treat to make your journey a little more enjoyable. They’re often filling too, so you can be sure you’ll be satisfied till you get off at your next destination.
The appeal of ekiben also lies in their regional specialties—each is unique to the region they were made in, often boasting famous ingredients and recipes from where they came from. You can taste the local production for yourself and explore different cultures and cuisine even within Japan. Ikameshi (literally squid rice), for example, is a famous product of Hokkaido and is beloved for its simple but delicious combination of plump squid and seasoned sticky rice. It’s compact too, making for a quick and easy meal to bring along for the train ride.
The ekiben distinguishes itself from the ordinary bento box with its specially designed packaging. They’re often wrapped beautifully so as to attract the thousands of commuters that rush through the train station every day. Although they’re made to be disposable and eco-friendly, the makers spare no expense to aesthetic. Customers will pick up an ekiben that whets their appetite; first it’s a feast for the eyes, and then for the mouth. Whether it’s a mouthwatering picture of the food inside or an attractive arrangement of colors and elements, packaging plays an important role in making ekiben a visual delight on top of its contents. It makes them even more appealing, and a worthy souvenir of your travels.
Of course, everyone has their own preferences. Children aren’t left out—there are many varieties of ekiben that are designed for children. Some use famous cartoon characters, and some model the boxes after the bullet train itself. It’s a fun and playful way to enjoy your meal, so as long as you’re a child at heart these ekiben are the perfect addition to your journey.
The ekiben culture is just one of the many timeless features of Japan’s gourmet culture. Even as transportation grows and develops, the ekiben will always remain a delightful constituent of railway travel. There are so many regions you can explore just by tasting a single boxed meal, so that might be reason enough for you to take a step out and board the next bullet train to somewhere. Your journey starts from the moment you open that box of delicious treasures.
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