Hungry for Ekiben: Japanese Train Bento Boxes | CoolJapan

There is something romantic about taking a train ride. Perhaps, it is the nostalgic train stations that bring back memories or the rumbling sound of the train tracks. Regardless, train travel is one of the best ways to take in the sights, especially in Japan when it comes with the promise of delicious food that you can enjoy during the journey.

For those in the know, yes we are talking about Ekiben — Japan’s famous train bento boxes!

Ekiben Japanese Train Bento Box

(Photo from: Photo-AC)

In many countries, train food is barely memorable, but in Japan it’s amazing. Ekiben, an abbreviation of Eki-bento, translates to mean train station lunchbox and it is a unique Japanese food culture that is created for train commuters to eat on the go. It is different from a regular bento that one can buy from a konbini (Japanese convenience store) because they are sold only at train stations or even on the train itself.

Ekiben: A part of Japan’s train history

There are a few theories about the origin of ekiben and a popular thought is that Japan's first ekiben starts from Utsunomiya Station, Tochigi Prefecture in 1885. What we can be sure of is that has roots dating back to the Meiji period(1868-1912) when the first railway track was developed in Japan.

History of the ekiben

(Photo from: Wikipedia)

Back then, train journeys on the old steam trains were often long and commuters would spend hours to get to their destination. Vendors spotted an opportunity and sold food outside train stations and at the train platforms for travellers to eat while on the train. With the development of the rail network throughout Japan, the convenient concept of ekiben became a hit.

In recent years, the popularity of ekiben has gradually decreased due to higher-speed limited express trains with windows that do not open, and the number of convenience stores increasing.

It is not all bad news for ekiben lovers though. The number of train bento sellers has dropped but the quality has greatly improved.

Shinobu Kobayashi, a travel journalist who has been dubbed the “Queen of Ekiben'' by the media, said, ”The industry is shrinking due to the development of convenience store lunch boxes and train stations, but the taste has improved dramatically due to competition.''

Did you know that the first forms of Ekiben are sesame-covered rice balls (onigiri) and pickled daikon radish wrapped in a bamboo sheath? Today, it has evolved into an amazing variety of delectable bento boxes filled with regional specialities and seasonal local ingredients. Indulging in an ekiben is one of the greatest pleasures of train travel in Japan!

Best ekiben to buy

(Photo from: Photo-AC)

Some of the best Ekiben you must try in Japan

Now that we are all ready to embark on an enjoyable train trip, where can we find these special train bento boxes? Train stations of course! You can buy ekiben in many train stations in Japan, especially major train stations that serve long-distance journeys such as Tokyo station and Sapporo station, and Shinkansen train stations.

Ekiben stores are either found in malls connecting to the train stations or kiosks located inside the station on the train platform. Sometimes, you can even find ekiben and beverages being sold on the train carriage itself.

1. Ikameshi (Squid Ekiben)

Shibata Shoten outside Mori Station, Hokkaido Prefecture

This Ikameshi ekiben may look simple but it is rich in taste. Japanese squid is stuffed with a mixture of non-glutinous rice and glutinous rice and then simmered in a soy-based secret sauce to bring out the delicious flavours of the ingredients.

Produced in the quiet rural town of Mori by a family-run business, the traditional taste of Ikameshi has won the hearts of many travellers since its launch in 1941. The secret to its well-loved taste is the secret sauce passed down through generations and the delicious softness of the squid.

Besides being sold at Mori station on the Hokkaido Hakodate Main Line, this speciality ekiben can also be found at certain department stores, outdoor events and festivals nationwide.

2. Kashiwameshi (Chicken Ekiben)

Orio Station, Fukuoka Prefecture

Kashiwameshi (Chicken Ekiben)

(Photo from: Tochikuken)

Kashiwa means chicken in the region of Kyushu, and one of the long-standing food specialities here is chicken rice. If you are in the area, you have to try this Kashiwameshi which is said to be one of the best chicken ekiben in Japan!

Originally founded in 1921 as a bento shop called 'Tochikuken', they had the ingenious idea to create a new recipe using rice cooked in chicken stock and a secret blend of seasonings. This flavoursome rice is then topped with aromatic chicken flakes and shredded eggs, accompanied by some typical Japanese pickles.

Kashiwameshi ekiben

(Photo from: Tochikuken)

One unique trait of this delightful Kashiwameshi ekiben is that it comes packed in an old-fashioned wooden folding box. Not only does it evoke nostalgia, the wooden box also has excellent breathability and is able to absorb excess moisture from the food so that consumers can enjoy a delicious and safe meal.

You can also try it at Kokura station, Hakata station and selected AEON malls.

3. Echizen Kanimeshi (Snow Crab Ekiben)
Fukui Station, Fukui Prefecture

Seafood lovers have to try the Echizen Kanimeshi which is brimming with chunks of luscious crab meat. This luxurious ekiben features rice cooked with crab miso and crab roe, which is then topped with a generous amount of snow crab meat. When you unwrap the packaging, you would also realise that the ekiben box is thoughtfully designed to resemble a red snow crab!

This indulgent ekiben was specially created by Banjyo Honten in 1961 to highlight Echizen crab, a speciality of Fukui town. With over 100 years of history dedicated to making ekiben, Banjyo’s snow crab bento remains a popular choice among train commuters because only the best ingredients are used.

Echizen Kanimeshi can be bought at speciality shops located at Fukui station. If you are in a rush for time, this ekiben is also available at the bright-red Echizen vending machine located at the station concourse itself.

For those who are taking a train from Tokyo, a fantastic place to pick up a train bento is Ekibenya Matsuri Grandsta Tokyo, which is located inside the ticket gate at Tokyo Station. With more than 100 years in the ekiben business, this speciality store offers more than 200 types of ekiben every day.

Here, you will be spoilt for choice with an incredible selection of delicious and exotic bento boxes from different regions across Japan. Experience the seasonal taste of various parts of Japan without even having to travel there!