Japanese Food & Cuisine: Ekiben Railway Station Lunch Boxes: Ekiben 駅弁
When it comes to eating on the train, there are two very distinct types of trains in Japan. One is the commuter train where eating is strongly discouraged.
Biting into a sandwich on, say, the Yamanote, Chuo or Keio Line in Tokyo is considered rude and boorish even if the train is not crowded at all. You will rarely see a Japanese person, save a few unruly high school kids, using the time on the train for a quick snack.
The exact opposite attitude prevails on long-distance trains, especially the Shinkansen lines connecting the urban centers of Japan. As soon as the train rolls out of the station, people unpack their lunches and start munching away.
Long-distance trains offer seat arrangements that are designed to provide a certain level of privacy to the passenger. In many if not most cases, a small folding table is part of the arrangement, as well as a cup / bottle holder.
Sales ladies push trolley carts through the aisles, offering drinks, snacks and sandwiches, to be consumed right on the train. They rarely carry true ekiben, railway station lunch boxes, however.
Ekiben (Station Lunch Boxes)
The word ekiben is a shorthand combination of the words eki (railway station) and bento (boxed lunch). Long-distance train stations are the places to buy it - before boarding the train.
Larger stations feature special ekiben stores, smaller stations might have just a few little stalls or sell it on their kiosks.
Today, those stores often sell sandwiches along with the actual ekiben. In fact, there have been endless debates about what constitutes a real ekiben.
While it is certainly perfectly fine to eat a tonkatsu sandwich (sandwich with a thick slice of fried and breaded pork inside) on the train, that would not be considered classical ekiben.
Over the years, the various railway companies came up with quite a number of regulations on what could pass as ekiben and thus be sold under that name by the shops they licensed to operate at their stations. The lowest common denominator they all have agreed on is that it has to be a meal centered on rice.
Thus, onigiri (rice balls) would fit the definition but much more common are the bento boxes: a boxed lunch containing a portion of rice and a variety of meat, fish and pickled vegetables. All the many little dishes inside the box are separated by plastic partitions and it is up to the customer to choose in which order to eat them. The rice compartment is the biggest, however, and all the other tiny dishes are designed to go well with the rice.
Tokyo Station Lunch Boxes
King among those lunch boxes might well be the Tokyo Station Bento, sold only at Tokyo Station.
Selling for 1650 yen, they come with a highly decorative paper cover, a postcard featuring an image of early 20th century Tokyo Station and a detailed menu list of the type commonly handed out at traditional kaiseki(formal Japanese cuisine) restaurants.
Accordingly, the lunch includes a great variety of tiny traditional Japanese dishes, all of them made by different famous and specialized bento making companies in Tokyo.
Tokyo Station houses a great number of ekiben stores. While the Tokyo Station Bento may be a specialty available only here, the variety of ekiben on sale is staggering. There are not only lunch boxes available from all the traditional bento makers in Tokyo but there are also lunch boxes on sale from makers across Japan.
Each prefecture, each city has its own ekiben variety, using local ingredients and cooking traditions. At Tokyo Station, you can choose from a good variety of these many types of ekiben.
Typical lunch boxes from almost all Japan's prefectures are on offer. In a way, you can prepare for the place you travel to by buying a lunch box pertaining to the food culture of your destination.
Regional Ekiben Varieties
It is much more fun, however, to sample the local delicacies at their places of origin. Only the most famous of the regional bento makers will get a shot at Tokyo Station - but out in the provinces, you will be surprised by the innovative, yet traditional, use of the fresh ingredients.
Hokkaido might serve as a good example. While the typical Hokkaido combination of ikura (cod roe), uni (sea urchin) and crab meat on rice might be easily available at Tokyo Station, it just tastes so much better if you buy it at a small ekiben stall at Asahikawa Station before taking the train heading for Abashiri on the Sea of Okhotsk.
Though the composites and their freshness might not differ, when you buy the meal in Hokkaido, you buy it in its original location and you eat it on a train related to the history of that very ekiben. Your appreciation of the food as something special might be so much better if you eat it in the place it originated from.
There are several theories on when and where ekiben were introduced to Japanese train travel. By most accounts, the sale of onigiri rice balls at Utsunomiya Station in 1885 in today's Tochigi Prefecture started off the tradition. Though sushi sellers and the like were certainly right on the spot elsewhere as well when a new train line opened and a demand for Japanese style fast food seemed likely and profitable.
More interesting than the location and date of the first sale of ekiben is however how it was sold. Up to well into the 1980's, ekiben sellers walked the station platforms. They had a large wooden tray affixed to their hips, held in place by straps worn over their shoulders. On the tray, they carried their wares.
Train windows could be opened in those days and hungry passengers would just buy their food through the windows when the train made a stop. Certain locations developed a reputation for their ekiben and passengers often waited until their train had arrived at such a station and bought their lunch then and there.
In fact, those platform sellers with their tray in front of them were so popular that a sex position was named after them. In Japanese sex slang, the ekiben position means the male standing up with the female wrapping her legs around his hip, her arms holding on to the man's shoulders.
End of an Era
The introduction of the Shinkansen with its sealed windows in 1964 and the general development of air-conditioned trains whose windows couldn't be opened anymore spelled a slow end to the business of the ekiben men on the station platforms.
They first disappeared from the large urban stations but over time, they were phased out in the small towns as well. By the end of the 1980's, their time was largely over.
On rare occasions, however, old-fashioned ekiben sellers can still be spotted in remote locations famous for their ekiben. This website tries to stay on top on where to find them: kfm.sakura.ne.jp/ekiben/ebtachiuri.htm (in Japanese, has good pictures).
A Classic Favorite
Depending on the size of the station, the variety of ekiben on sale can easily get overwhelming. But some basic stables are almost always available. Yakisaba sushi is one of them: grilled mackerel on a layer of rice. It's very simple, easy to find and always delicious. My personal recommendation if there is no other, tempting local specialty in sight.
The bento sold in airports is accordingly called soraben (空弁) which translates to sky bento.
Highway buses usually depart from railway stations. Take the time for a stroll through the station to stock up on ekiben before heading for your bus.