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TokyoTreat Japanese Snacks BlogEkiben: Best Boxed Lunches on a Train!

Ekiben: Best Boxed Lunches on a Train!

James LauJames Lau
Published Time
Posted on 
November 07, 2023
Modified Time
Updated last 
November 09, 2023
An ekiben in a nine square lacquer box.

An ekiben is a culinary treasure showing Japan’s unique food culture. Found at train stations across Japan, they offer a delicious variety of regional cuisine that transforms your journey into an exciting food adventure. From Hokkaido’s Crab Bento to Yonezawa’s Beef Ekiben and the interesting Hippari-dako Meshi from Hyogo, we’ll explore some of the most iconic train bento boxes every traveler should experience!

What is an ekiben?

An ekiben is a boxed meal designed for train travelers in Japan. Coming from the combination of “eki” (meaning train station) and “bento” (referring to a boxed meal), ekiben offers a delicious journey through the flavors of Japanese cuisine.

An ekiben in a bullet train shaped container.
They’re especially popular at the train station! Image via Shutterstock

These meals are readily available at train stations, making them the ideal on-the-go dining option for those going on a train adventure. Ekiben boxes are not only filled with delicious food but are also regional representatives. The colorful packaging often has local culture, landmarks, and seasonal themes, making the ekiben experience unique.

What’s inside an ekiben?

These boxed meals typically contain rice with various toppings, including meat, seafood, vegetables, or a combination. Ekiben can focus on one characteristic, like meat, sushi, or a blend of flavors, like a Makunounchi bento. With so many options, picking the perfect ekiben can sometimes be a problem you want to have!

Most ekiben are for room temperature enjoyment. But there is a hot meal option for convenience. Some boxes feature a heating device that is activated by pulling a thread. Within about five minutes, your ekiben transforms into a steaming, delicious feast.

An ekiben featuring whitebait.
You can pick them up at any convenience store in the train station! Image via Shutterstock

Originally, ekiben were exclusively available at local train stations. However, today, travelers can find many ekiben on special express or bullet trains. Specialized shops offer a wide range of bento options sourced from regions across Japan. While ekiben may be slightly higher than a convenience store bento, using top-quality ingredients ensures that every bite is worth the cost!

Many ekiben also come with a special sauce or dressing, enhancing the meal’s flavor profile. These sauces are typically region-specific, providing a unique taste to the dish as a preview or a memory of the local region. Some boxes may offer a small dessert! This can be a sweet rice cake or a sweet inspired by the region’s cultural traditions!

Are you interested in enjoying delicious food while riding the bullet train? Check out TokyoTreat! TokyoTreat delivers the latest Japanese snacks, sweets, drinks, candy, and noodles from Japan directly to your door!

Iconic Train Bento Boxes

Oshamanbe’s Culinary Jewel: Kanaya’s Crab Rice

In Oshamanbe, Hokkaido, you’ll find the meal known as Kanaya’s Kanimeshi or Crab Rice. Oshamanbe is a town that has combined its rich culinary heritage into its daily life. Kanimeshi enthusiasts can enjoy this delicious meal by simply notifying the attendant on the Limited Express Hokuto or Super Hokuto trains at least one hour before reaching Oshamanbe. While Kanimeshi is a beloved dish in Japan, Oshamanbe’s version is one of the most enjoyed.

An Oshamanbe Kanaya Kanimeshi, which is a boxed crab lunchbox from Hokkaido.
This delicious bento is from Hokkaido! Image via Kakenagashi

This boxed lunch highlights sea flavors, mixing crab meat and broth into the rice. Served in flat wooden boxes with blue crab-themed covers, it’s a visual and tasty delight. The bento originates from using whole-boiled Hairy Crabs, or “kegani,” to create a delicious meal.

Yonezawa Beef Ekiben: A Taste of Tohoku’s Finest

In the Tohoku Region, many local specialties are waiting to be tried! Among these delights, Yonezawa beef, one of Japan’s best Wagyu beef varieties, is a must-try! At specific stations on the Yamagata Shinkansen, Ouu Main Line, and Yonesaka Line, there’s the Gyuniku Domannaka ekiben. This beef-bowl-style lunchbox features Domannaka rice—a local Yamagata specialty—with minced beef and sautéed beef slices in a special tare sauce.

A Yonezawa Beef Ekiben, specifically Gyuniku Domannaka.
Yonezawa Beef is some of the best beef in the country. Image via Japan Rail and Travel

The Yonezawa Beef Domannaka Ekiben is a loved bento with a history going back to the opening of the Yamagata Shinkansen. Launched in July 1992, it has become famous becoming popular among travelers from across Japan.

With its tender layers of Wagyu beef, cooked sukiyaki-style, and served over Domannaka rice, this ekiben is an explosion of flavors. Yonezawa also takes pride in its range of excellent boxed lunches! Gyuniku Domannaka, created to celebrate the Yamagata Shinkansen’s launch, has become a national favorite, making train journeys an enjoyable food experience!

Unveiling Hyogo’s Culinary Gem: Hipparidako-Meshi

Kobe’s signature bento, Hipparidako-Meshi, stands out as an incredible option! This delicious meal is full of flavors, with ingredients like boiled octopus, conger eel, bamboo shoots, carrots, boiled eggs, and shiitake mushrooms beautifully placed on soy sauce-infused rice. What makes this bento unique is its ceramic container, yours to keep you enjoying your meal! Hipparidako-Meshi is super popular, with an astonishing 14 million units sold!

A pot containing Kobe Hipparidakomeshi.
Octopus is the main ingredient in this Hyogo bento! Image via Goodie Foodie

The birth of Hipparidako-Meshi was created to celebrate the opening of the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge. The jar’s unique design, resembling traditional octopus-catching pots used in Akashi, represents the city’s fishing heritage. Hipparidako-Meshi has become a symbol of strength, with a series of collaborations starting in 2017. These partnerships with companies and iconic characters allowed the ekiben industry to thrive even during the COVID-19 pandemic!

Why should you try ekiben?

Ekiben is an enchanting culinary adventure that beckons you to experience Japan’s diverse food culture. Ekiben offers a unique opportunity to explore regional flavors! Each box has the distinct tastes of its locality, allowing you to embark on a flavorful journey through Japan’s local flavors! Ekiben are also designed with convenience in mind. It’s the perfect choice for train travelers and is readily available at stations, ensuring you can enjoy a delicious meal.

An ekiben with lotus root and burdock root.
These boxed lunches feature the best ingredients in the region! Image via Shutterstock

These boxed lunches connect people to the local regions of Japan! The packaging, ingredients, and presentation of these boxed meals show off the local heritage, immersing you in the traditions and stories of each area. As well, the visuals of ekiben are another draw. The carefully designed boxes make delightful souvenirs, serving as souvenirs of your travels through Japan!

Don’t miss the opportunity to savor the diverse flavors of Japan while traveling across the country! Ekiben is your ticket to a culinary journey, a testament to the rich and varied food culture of Japan. From the Crab Bento of Hokkaido to the Beef Bento of Yonezawa and the Hipparidako of Hyogo, there’s something for everyone to enjoy! Have you had the chance to enjoy ekiben on your travels? Which one did you enjoy? Let us know in the comments below!

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