Experience train travel in Japan like a local, and grab an ekiben, the much-loved lunch box. Ekiben has a long history in Japan. These dishes showcase local specialties or highlight the culture of a region. Eating an ekiben is one of the highlights of traveling by train. Where can you buy ekiben and are there any rules for eating them? Find out more about the history and cultural role of ekiben.
BY Lori Ono
Would you like to travel like a local during your time in Japan for the Olympic and Paralympic Tokyo 2020? Try an eki-bento (affectionately called ekiben), a special travel experience loved by Japanese and inbound tourists alike. You might already be familiar with the term, bento—the boxed lunch to eat on the go, designed to be delicious without reheating. What makes ekiben different from bento? The name gives it away: eki (station) and bento (boxed lunch). Ekiben are sold at train stations and these meals to-go showcase local specialties or use local cultural themes for their design.
Before high-speed trains and affordable air travel, a trip across Japan took hours by train. The journey from Tokyo to Kyoto by the fastest Shinkansen, Nozomi, takes about 140 minutes. Without high-speed trains, this trip can take up to 9 hours with several transfers.
In those days, ekiben was not just a highlight of the trip, but a necessity. Food was prepared locally, and ekiben sellers walked along the train cars. The original ekiben was a simple ball of rice with daikon radish pickles wrapped in a leaf. Passengers purchased a meal and the vendor passed the ekiben through the train window. At the height of popularity in the 1980’s, most stations sold ekiben. As train travel became faster, the number of places selling ekiben decreased. Ekiben also used to be sold by attendants walking through the train aisles. The frequency of this service is declining and selection is now reduced to drinks, snacks and occasionally a sandwich.
Ekiben is still a highlight of traveling by train. Bentos are now made by larger food companies. They are available in larger train stations, particularly if it has a Shinkansen stop. Even today, part of the charm of taking the train is trying the seasonal and local delicacies offered at the ekiben shop.
Ekiben are usually sold inside the station gates. If you have time before boarding the train and entering the Shinkansen gate, explore some of the food selling areas. Tokyo Station is well known for its large selection of ekiben and dessert omiyage (gifts for friends, family and coworkers). If you don’t have time to take in the huge selection, there are satellite shops inside the gates and on the platforms themselves selling many of the same meals.
Several ekiben companies operate in Tokyo Station. One of them, Ekibenya, offers over 200 different types featuring recipes from across Japan at their largest shop, Ekibenya Matsuri, in Gransta Mall inside the station. If you miss the bigger shops, you can find satellite shops on the Shinkansen platforms selling the most popular meals.
Ekiben design can also reflect cultural traditions or events. You can learn a lot about Japan by discovering the inspiration behind packaging or menus. Some companies like Tokyo Station Betno play on the nostalgia of the early days of train travel with their packaging design. Old train logos are popular. A Momotaro-themed ekiben (Momotaro no Matsuri-zushi) reflects the area of Okayama. The peach-shaped container references the story of Momotaro, a childhood story known throughout Japan. Momotaro is the boy discovered in a peach by an elderly couple. Momotaro’s birthplace is Okayama—the land of peaches in Japan. Ekiben also come in packages that look like models of the Shinkansen.
Not every ekiben makes a cultural or local specialty claim to fame. The Iberico pork ekiben (made of thin grilled pork on a bed of rice) is a popular dish because it’s delicious, and easy to eat hot or cold.
The love for ekiben permeates pop culture. Keio Department Store holds an Ekiben Fair in January every year and 2020 marks the 55th year. At this fair, vendors vie for the attention of foodies and bento fans with scrumptious lunches and cute designs. Magazines often run articles ranking the top ten ekiben, but you can find whole books or magazines devoted to exploring the ekiben of the country.
You could plan your trip in Japan according to what ekiben you want to try next. The manga Ekiben Hitori Tabi (Ekiben for the Single Traveler) by Ken Sakurai and illustrated by Jun Hayase does just that. This manga tells the story of Daisuke Nakahara who travels around Japan to discover and enjoy local ekiben. The series focuses on the romance of train travel and love of food.
Taking a picture of your ekiben on your travels and posting it on social media is now part of the train travel ritual. Check #Ekiben to see what people are eating and share your own ekiben adventure.
Ekiben are for long distance travel, not local city commutes. While not officially banned, it’s more a matter of etiquette. Commuter trains are very crowded and you probably wouldn’t want to eat there anyway. A good rule of thumb is that if the train seats line the wall, you shouldn’t eat there.
If the seats are facing forward (or backward) you can consider it okay to eat there. Any Shinkansen, Narita Express or Romance car train is fine. One exception would be a train like the Shonan Shinjuku line. The regular fare cars have seats lined against the wall. But if you pay the upgraded fare to the Green Car, the seats face forward and have drop down tables making it easy to eat there. If you enjoy an ekiben on your trip, don’t forget to take your trash with you. Shinkansen often have a trash receptacle by the exit but otherwise, keep an eye out for a nearby trash bin.
Playing on the word ekiben, soraben (sora meaning sky) are for air travel. Soraben fill the gap created by changes in airline service policy and the rise of discount airlines for domestic trips. You may want, or need to, bring your own lunch. Soraben are available at the main domestic airports including Haneda and Narita airports.
Take part in this delightful rite of travel while riding the train (or airplane!) in Japan. Remember: #ekiben!
I’m a Canadian writer and photographer based in Tokyo. I love helping people enjoy their time in Japan.