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Meals on Rails: Ekiben

The Japanese people love their railroads. They have created a veritable rail-culture, with stories behind many railways lines, whole histories behind the creation of some freight and passenger trains and more recently, whole trains wrapped with anime decals. These are just some intriguing elements of Japanese rail culture. But the most iconic part of this culture is unarguably Ekiben.

Ekiben is a contraction for Eki Bento, which means station take-away, they can be purchased at Shinkansen Stations and are typically priced at a 800-1200 yen price range.

Ekiben Stall in a Japanese Train Station

Although conceived as simple a boxed meal to accompany commuters on lengthy train trips, train lines and prefectures now use Ekiben as a way of curating and showcasing local specialities to tourists and commuters.

Using only seasonal ingredients, these meals are often of extremely high quality and can garner whole cult followings and incredible fame. They also often come with their own gimmicks and these include Self-heating contaniners and Ekiben boxes that double as collectibles.

Tourists have embarked on whole Ekiben trips where while their time in Japan away scouring the rails for Ekiben and profiling the tastes of individual prefectures in Japan.

For whatever reason, certain Ekiben have distinguished themselves above and beyond their counterparts. Below are Six of the more interesting Ekiben that can be found along the Japanese Railway.

1. Ika Meshi

Ikameshi: Braised Squid stuffed with glutinous rice

Hokkaido’s Ekiben often showcase the seafood produce of the area. It is therefore no surprise that one of Japan’s most famous seafood based bento comes from Hokkaido’s Mori Station.

Meaning Squid-Rice, Ika-Meshi is made by stuffing sticky rice into squid and then boiling the squid and rice in a simple braising liquid made of soy sauce and sugar. The result is one of Japan’s most well-loved Ekiben.

The Ika-Meshi Ekiben comes with two pieces of rice-stuffed squid and is Priced at 500 yen.

2. Omatsuri Hello Kitty

Omatsuri Hello Kitty

Originally marketed towards children. The reusable, Hello Kitty shaped Ekiben container is themed around Momotaro, a famous Japanese fairy-tale, and has become something of a coveted collectible.

Sold at the Okayama station. This fun bento contains kid-friendly fare in the form of cocktail wieners, a slice of hello kitty themed fish cake, de-shelled prawns and shredded omelette. This limited edition ekiben is manufactured only in small numbers and is snapped up nearly immediately when it is available. Another way of obtaining this Ekiben is through reservation by telephone.

The Omatsuri Hello Kitty Ekiben goes at 950 yen.

3. Amiyaki Gyutan Bento

Amiyaki Gyutan Bento

Sold at the Sendai station or In-train on the Tohoku line, this Ekiben is known for its self-heating container. Pulling a string dangling out of the ekiben’s side can activates the heating mechanism which works by the way of an exothermic reaction caused by the mingling of calcium carbonate and water.

Technicalities aside, inside this bento contains barley-rice topped with pickles, carrots and slices of Gyutan, grilled cow’s tongue. A packet of Shichimi Togarashi, a spice mix akin to chilli powder is also included within the bento.

Extremely iconic to Sendai, the custom of cooking Gyutan originated from the area in 1948, when occupation forces left rations of “inedible” cow tongue behind. The people of Sendai began adapting to the new food, grilling it and eventually making it a local delicacy.

The Amiyaki Gyutan Bento is sold at 1,000 yen.

4. Tonosama Bento

The Tonosama Bento is one of the higher end Ekiben available.  Tonosama can be translated to “Feudal Lord”.

From Kumamoto, the ekiben boasts fresh premium ingredients. Its main draw is the Sawara Saikyo-Yaki which is Miso-baked Spanish mackerel as well as a single, plump whole Shrimp simmered in Dashi Stock. Served with rice balls topped with pickled plum, the Ekiben also has little paper cups filled with
mini-dishes like stuffed tofu and simmered yam in it.

The Tonosama Bento costs 1,500 yen.

5. Hippari Dako Meshi

The beautifully crafted octopus pot

Inside: Sliced octopus on rice

 Hippari Dako Meshi means “Popular octopus rice” and that is exactly what it is.

 At first sight, the Hippari Dako Meshi seems to stand out from the rest due to the beautiful glazed pot it comes in. Found in the Nishi-Akashi station, the food comes in a beautifully glazed traditional octopus trap.

The bento is sealed by means of a string tie and a piece of waxed paper. Remove the wax paper to reveal slices of steamed octopus and eel lovingly arranged on flavoured rice. This one is not only delicious to eat but lovely to look at as well, a bonus being the fact that you can retain the pot as a keepsake.

Hippari Dako Meshi sells at 900 yen.

6. Miyagi Ougonkaidou

The Miyagi Ougonkaidou comes in a crisp looking hexagonal wooden box. Sold from Miyagi station, the ekiben is filled snugly with some pretty good stuff. The seafood-based bento contains Ikura (Salmon roe), Uni (Sea Urchin roe), Anago (Sweet Conger Eel), Scallops and salmon atop a generous bed of kinshi tamago and rice.

Miyagi Ougonkaido sells for 1,000 yen.

7. Katsu Sando

Katsu Sando is a contraction of Katsu and Sandwich. Each ekiben contains sandwiches made of sliced white bread and pork katsu drizzled with the iconic Bulldog katsu sauce.

The Ekiben has silenced many of its inexperienced detractors who insist that a breaded pork schnitzel cannot possibly retain its charm and flavor once it has cooled down. Many vouch for its deliciousness, even at room temperature.

This quick meal goes for 600 yen.

8. Shirataki-hime no Okurimono

Meaning Princess Shirataki’s Gifts, this is undoubtedly the Ekiben with the most poetic name on this list. 

The Bento itself comes in a compact white box with an attached handle, very much like a purse and two paper trays in it. One contains rice balls and fried stuffed tofu and the other contains various ingredients like Tamagoyaki which is thick fried omelette, unagi and simmered vegetables.

This elegant packet goes for 850 yen

The Japanese railway is known for yielding not only beautiful sights, but beautiful tastes too, a far cry from your average airplane meal, each Ekiben is labour of love.

Tell us about your experiences with Ekiben!

Written by Ash.

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