Japan’s bento, or lunchbox, is famous as a solution to the problem of dining elegantly on the fly. Sold at convenience stores, supermarkets and train station kiosks, the bento is the fuel that drives Japan.
A kind of bento sub-genre, or some might say a whole separate cuisine, is the ubiquitous “ekiben.” The word comes from “eki-uri bento,” or “lunchbox sold at train stations.” They traditionally feature local specialties of the stations where they originated, and some are so popular that they have become a pursuit in of themselves, and a delight for connoisseurs. People commonly go on trips devoted solely to two of the favorite pastimes of the Japanese — riding trains and eating.
The ekiben tradition originated in the late 1800s, as the rail network spread throughout Japan. Local stations competed to offer bentos to the passengers and to show off their local delicacies. Passengers looked forward to the different flavors as a major part of the adventure of travel. Originally, they were sold by peddlers to passengers who called out to them from the carriage widows. Later, speed became the focus of the train schedules, and it became impossible to stop long enough to buy the local ekiben, but the tradition continues. Express trains and “shinkansen” bullet trains serve them on their snack trolleys.
Big-city department stores sometimes hold ekiben festivals featuring box lunches from all over Japan. Department stores in Tokyo hold ekiben festivals periodically, and they are very popular, offering as many as 100 different kinds and selling tens of thousands during a two-week period.
They come in countless styles, varying by ingredients, mostly in the style of the basic bento — a shallow box divided into sections with different goodies in each, along with a portion of rice. Many of the ekiben containers deviate from this basic model. Some come in single portion bowls modeled on the local pottery (but usually made of plastic now), or in fanciful shapes reflecting the contents.
Here are a few of the offerings we saw at a recent ekiben festival at Tobu department store in Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture:
Ika-meshi (Hokkaido) — Squid (ika) stuffed with rice, then simmered in a sweet and salty broth. Extremely popular at ekiben festivals and department stores, where people can watch them being made.
Kani-meshi (Fukui, Toyama Prefecture) — crab (kani) on rice flavored with crab juice
Shamoji Kaki-meshi (Hiroshima) — Served in a rice paddle (shamoji) shaped container, and filled with stewed oysters on rice
Gyu-tan meshi (Sendai) — Slices of grilled beef tongue and pickles on rice
Hamaguri don (Chiba) — Stewed hamaguri clams on rice
Shumai Bento (Yokohama) — An offering from Yokohama’s famous Chinatown. The bento features “shumai,” or steamed meat dumplings, stewed bamboo shoots and other goodies.
Yukidaruma Bento (Niigata) — In a box shaped like a snowman, and containing stewed ingredients, egg and minced meat over koshihikari rice.
Masu-no-zushi (Toyama) — Pressed sushi (oshizushi) topped with trout (masu) and wrapped in bamboo leaves.
Hippari-dako meshi (Nishi Akashi) — Steamed octopus (tako) in a container shaped like an octopus pot (used for catching octopus). Hippari means “popular.”