A trip to Japan is incomplete without trying an ekiben during your train ride. What is ekiben? You've probably seen it sold in train stations, or on trains, in Japan.
Ekiben is "eki bento" for short, which means "station box lunch". It's a special bento or lunchbox that is usually filled with Japanese rice and a delicious assortment of meat and seafood, vegetables, and sides.
Commuters can buy ekiben for takeaway at train stations, but the best way to enjoy an ekiben is while taking a train trip. This allows you to sample local foods while taking in the scenery. Eating and drinking on commuter/local trains is generally frowned upon in Japan, so it's best to eat your ekiben while on a Shinkansen and long-distance train trip.
Story of Ekiben
The creation of Ekiben and the practice of eating it are closely tied to Japan’s history and culture. Ekiben’s history can be traced back to the development of railways and trains in Japan in the 1800s. Early versions of ekiben were believed to be sold by sellers on the train platforms and they were made of humble onigiri (rice balls) with pickled vegetables wrapped in bamboo leaf.
Ekiben has evolved over the years but remains an integral part of the Japanese way of life. You can buy ekiben in many train stations - from small, rural stations to the busiest urban stations. Sometimes train staff will sell ekiben and drinks during the train ride as they push their trolley through the train carriages.
Types of Ekiben
You’ll be amazed by the dazzling variety of ekiben you can enjoy in Japan. While ekiben can be purchased for convenience, the quality of the food is high. Each prefecture is proud of their local ingredients and they feature them in their exclusive ekiben sets, which are usually available only at specific shops in their region’s train stations.
The staple in most ekiben sets is Japanese rice, which is paired with a meat dish such as seasoned chicken, pork, sumptuous seafood, or even wagyu beef, along with a variety of sides. There are also vegetarian ekiben that are equally delectable with fresh local produce.
Ekiben is different from the regular bento as they are made specifically for consumption during travel. One interesting difference between ekiben and bento is that ekiben are presented in exquisitely designed boxes and packaging. Most ekiben boxes are wrapped in decorative wrappers covered with illustrations highlighting the ingredients and the place they are from. Some ekiben are so pretty that you can keep them as souvenirs.
Some of the memorable ekiben sets I have tried: Anpanman ekiben in Shikoku that hosts a network of Anpanman-themed trains and crab-shaped ekiben in Tottori, the famous spot for snow crab.
This Japanese train lunch box has grown into an important part of train travel and food traditions. Fans of ekiben travel around Japan to try the different types of ekiben and collect ekiben memorabilia. The Japanese are so passionate about their ekiben that they celebrate ekiben day every year on April 10 and there are contests and websites listing the best ekiben and recommendations. Remember to savor Japan’s culinary delights through ekiben for your next train trip in Japan!
About the author:
Wendy writes about her travel experiences to escape from her city life in Singapore. Her content creator’s journey started when she had the opportunity to live and teach in Okinawa and circumvent the world with Peace Boat. A compulsive-obsessive traveler and culture enthusiast, she believes that when we know more, we travel better. Or in true foodie spirit, when we eat more, we travel better.