That being said, not just any bento will do. Let’s take a peek into the world of ekiben, the delicious bentos on the shinkansen.
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The word ‘ekiben’ comes from the combination of two Japanese words. ‘Eki’ is the Japanese word for train station, and ‘ben’ is short for bento, or lunchbox. Put them together and you get a train station bento. But what is the difference between a konbini (convenience store) bento and an ekiben?
It’s pretty simple. Ekiben are generally just a nicer and more expensive version of convenience store bento boxes. While a convenience store bento costs between 400 and 700 yen, a nice station bento can cost between 1000 and 2000 yen, sometimes more for a luxurious one. There are usually more, higher quality, or unique items in the ekiben, so the price goes up along with it.
Before trains were invented or installed in Japan, bentos were usually packed for longer journeys as people travelled on foot.They were also available at tea shops where travellers could buy them. Kabuki (traditional Japanese dance dramas) houses also offered bentos during intermissions.
These bentos all evolved into ekiben when railways were finally introduced to Japan. Utsunomiya station was the first to make one for people to eat on the train. However, ekiben as we know them today, usually containing rice and side dishes, were finally introduced in 1888 at Himeji Station in Hyogo. Ekiben boomed after WW2 as more people started using railways, spurred on by the fact that air travel was really expensive.
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In the 1980s, air travel became more popular, trains became faster, and the shinkansen was expanded after its successful debut during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Because of this, the ekiben became less popular, but it’s still going strong today. Now, it is a more luxury version of a bento that people can enjoy on trains, at special events, or just as a treat-yourself meal.
There are even massive events for ekiben. Shinjuku station and Tokyo station both have Ekibenya Matsuri, events where ekiben makers show off their best and newest products to the public.
Much like a normal bento, there are many different types of ekiben sold all over the country. However, there are a few key elements. Rice is always a part of it although the type of rice may be different. Of course, there is white rice, but ekiben can include things like red bean rice, pickled plum rice, sesame rice, and many more.
Many ekiben also often include some kind of vegetable, usually served steamed or as tempura. Veggies can be anything like pumpkin, carrots, sweet potato, lotus root, and more. Japan also loves pickles, so expect a little bit of pickled cucumber or pickled daikon.
There is also always some kind of protein. Think beef, pork, or fish like salmon. A popular protein for ekiben is kara-age (fried chicken thigh nuggets), delicious with rice and vegetables. Karaage on its own is a popular Japanese summer festival food, so it's a perfect ekiben addition
But that’s not all. Much like Japanese Kit Kats or Hi-Chew, there are popular regional versions of our favorite station lunchboxes. For example, Shinjuku station has one featuring vegan kara-age. Niigata, famous for fish, is great for a salmon bento.
Other examples include Kobe’s octopus rice version, Hokkaido’s squid rice version, and Miyagi’s charcoal-grilled beef tongue version.
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Drinks are usually up to you, so hit up a conbini and buy whatever you feel will go best your meal. We recommend things like matcha (Japanese green tea), black tea, or alcoholic beverages like sake (Japanese rice wine). Kobe even has a wine bento that comes with wine.
As long as you're in, near, or around a station, an ekiben is easy to find. Larger stations, especially those with bullet or express train lines, are usually in central locations. In other words, there are department stores, convenience stores, malls, or bento shops surrounding the station that can sell you a nice one.
But if you’re in a hurry, the easiest option is to buy one in the station. The station usually has plenty of ekiben shops. Tokyo Station, for example, has shops on the platforms, inside of the ticket gates, or inside of the station building before you even buy your ticket.
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Before you dig into your train meal, there are a few small tips and rules. First, it’s totally okay to eat on long distance trains, like bullet trains and express trains. However, on local or commuter trains, it’s not really socially acceptable to eat there. In those cases, it’s better to just eat at the station or wait until you can sit down somewhere more appropriate.
Also, make sure that you clean up properly after you eat. It may seem like a pain, but don’t leave the container on the train. In many cases, there will be a place to throw it away as you get off the train or after.
Also, when you throw it away, make sure to separate it and dispose of it properly. Plastics in the plastics bin and burnables in the burnables bin. For the planet.
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