The Food Culture of Ekiben in Japan
One of my fond childhood memories in Japan is, wherever we took a long train journey on holiday, we always had a packed lunch box bought at a local train station on our way to a holiday destination. Whether we were leaving Tokyo Station by bullet train to a seaside resort, or by a slow local long distance train to a hot spring in the mountains, it was a “movable feast” called Ekiben that we never missed to enjoy on our train journeys.
In Japanese Eki means station, and Ben is a short form of Bento meaning boxed meal. I would say it is almost essential for Japanese travellers to take ekiben with them for their long train journeys in Japan.
If you are travelling by train through major railway stations in Japan, you won’t miss ekiben shops offering a variety of box meals neatly packed and displayed in a showcase (made of wax usually). For example, my hometown Tokyo Station where many long distance train lines are leaving from and arriving at, has huge selections of ekiben shops in the basement as well as on the train platforms offering various popular local specialities from across Japan.
Every region of Japan has their own unique cuisine in their local food culture, and it’s such a pleasure for travellers to taste a local meal in a box prepared by local people on their train journeys.
The food culture in Japan is quite diverse from one region to another, and one secret of much sought-after ekiben is that in such a small packed box you can taste local cuisines unique to a different region, and a train journey could bring you already to such a destination. Ekiben, not like merely standardised fast food that is the same everywhere, boasts of the local elements of its region. Locally harvested vegetables in season, fresh fish only caught in its region, or a certain type of beef fed by beer, and so on are cooked uniquely and used as ingredients for a vast selection of ekiben.
The boxes could be also linked to regional folktales and play a part in an ekiben’s appeal. For example, there are ekiben boxed in a shape of Hello Kitty or typical manga or anime characters as well as a shape of Shinkansen bullet train for fun.
The first ekiben originally appeared in 1885 at a local train station named Utsunomiya. The first ekiben was very simple rice balls with umeboshi (pickled plum) which is more or less our portable soul foods nowadays. In those early days there didn’t exist a dining car on the train, so people packed rice balls and started selling them to passengers through windows or at platforms. That was the start of first ekiben. After all, a simple rice ball is still one of my favourite ekiben I would pick whenever I have a chance to go back to Japan.
Nowadays, there are so many more varieties of ekiben sold throughout Japan than there used to be, and the business has been continuously flourishing.
If you are interested in what kind of ekiben are popular in Japan, here, for example, is a list of the best ekiben selected by Japan Rail Pass.
Hopefully you too are interested in taking a long train journey in Finland this summer and why not create your own delicious Finnish style ekiben for fun?!
Lastly, below are photos of my Japanese class students in a very summery cotton kimono called Yukata in the Japanese garden at Kumpula Botanical garden, Helsinki.
Text: Rika Aoyama-Hunt, teacher of japanese