What is a EKIBEN? The Railway Lunch box

ekiben shinkansen

What is a EKIBEN 駅弁?

Picture that: it has been a long day already, you are late, tired and hungry. You are running through the large Tokyo station to find your way to the Shinkansen. You finally arrive at the right platform. You have five minutes left before boarding your train to Kyoto and you are starving. It is at this moment that you notice it; a Bento shop selling a special kind of lunch box: EKIBEN.

Ekiben shop
EkiBen Shop – Credit – Tamaki Sono.

 

The EKIBEN (駅弁):

Ekiben is made from the contraction of the word EKI, meaning Station, and Bento, meaning Lunch Box. Simple Right? The Ekiben are basically special Lunch Boxes sold at train stations. You can find them all around Japan.
The concept of EKIBEN was born in 1885 at Utsunomiya Station. The Japan National Railways company needed a solution to provide quick Lunch for hurried employees. The first EkiBen was modest rice balls with pickled plum. Nothing special in comparison to what you can find nowadays. From that first lunch box, the development of EkiBen grew with the expansion of the Railways network in Japan.

beautiful ekiben
A beautiful Ekiben. Nothing to do with the first Ekiben served in 1885

If you have been to Japan you know that it is not common to see Japanese people eating in public transportation, train journeys are a different story. As with everything in Japan, if they decide to do something it is usually well organised and pushed to perfection. Someone must have thought: Why should we sell cheap snacks on the go when you can provide train passengers with beautiful lunch boxes highlighting the specialities of regional cuisine and cultural heritage? Hard to argue. I would love to see the same thing in France. Imagine boarding our old and always delayed lovely TGV somewhere in the south-west of France; And being able to buy a beautiful lunch box with local specialities such as foie gras, canard confit or magret de canard on your way to Paris, instead of the cheap overpriced chocolate bars. #BringtheEkiBentoEurope.

Presentation: EkiBen emphasis on a beautiful packaging representing several aspects of the Japanese culture. .

A cultural phenomenon:

To grasp the importance of EKIBEN in Japan you have to understand that EkiBen is a really massive cultural phenomenon. You can find thousands and thousands of different varieties of Ekiben all around the country. Each region of Japan put an emphasis on regional specialities with local and seasonal ingredients and a special preparation method.

ekiben box shinkansen
An EkiBen with a beautiful packaging representing different aspect of the regional culture

delicious ekiben shinkansen

Collecting EKIBEN can be as famous and rewarding as collecting Pokemon on Pokemon Go. You have all kind of special events nationwide related to Ekiben such as the super famous Annual Ekiben Fair. There you can find all types of EkiBen from all around Japan. Reminiscence of a previous trip anyone? I must say i am looking forward to attending one of them.
The Japan Railway (JR) company even used to publish an annual EKiben guide with the names and variety of all the Ekiben you could find at each railway station in Japan. It is kind of a national Michelin guide for lunch boxes available at the train stations all around Japan, can you picture that?
As with everything else related to Food in Japan. You have a lot of different ranking highlighting the best Ekiben available such as the one provided by Gurutabi. You also have a large crowd of Ekiben enthusiasts, who collect these lunchboxes and do not hesitate to travel around Japan to try new and seasonal specialities.

Despite the practical aspect of EkiBen, you can understand that there is a strong cultural heritage related to these lunch boxes. There is also a philosophy around that, Ekiben, because of the preparation process can’t really be kept and stored for later. It means that you must eat them on the go, here and now.

I believe that it is once against a good example of pragmatism and dedication to the craft that only Japanese manage to deliver so well. I believe that you need to 3 things to travel: your Feet, your Belly and your Eyes. While eating Ekiben during your journey, you have a mix of those three elements. What’s best than combining beautiful landscapes with a local and delicious meal on your way to the unknown. In the end, the most complicated thing about Ekiben is always to decide which one you want to buy at the station.

ekiben shop variety
Hard to decide … !

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