lifestyle

No train trip would be complete without an ekiben boxed lunch

26 Comments
By Chris Betros

There have been many stories written about Japan’s food culture, but one gem often overlooked are "ekiben" – those tasty boxed lunches sold at train stations and in some department stores. Ekiben are often full of delicacies from the region at whose station they are sold. Over the past few years, their quality has increased and they are now highly sought after by connoisseurs and train travelers alike.

“A train trip would not be complete without an ekiben,” said Emi Takahashi, who works in the market development division for major bento maker NRE Daimasu, headquartered in Tokyo’s Arakawa Ward. “Ekiben festivals at stations have become very popular. We sell more than 60 varieties of ekiben at major stations.”

Recently, ekiben have become part of tourism campaigns at both prefectural and national levels. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the sister-state relationship between Iowa in the United States and Yamanashi Prefecture, the United States Department of Agriculture asked NRE Daimasu to make a special bento – a Friendship Bento in a box with the package showing pigs flying along with a plane. The American ingredients include grilled pork, broccoli, prunes, and walnuts (for the sauce), while the Japanese ingredients are boiled white rice, burdock roots, carrots, pumpkins, onions, potatoes, mushrooms, bamboo shoots and sweet wine kuzu mochi made from arrowroot.

“We’ve been selling it as part of a three-month campaign that began on March 1 and ends on May 31,” said Takahashi. “It is a very healthy bento, low in calories at 654, and costs only 900 yen. It is available at our ekiben stores in Tokyo, Shinjuku, Shinagawa, Ueno and Omiya stations, and on some lines between Tokyo and Yamanashi.”

The Friendship Bento is part of a program titled “Partners in Agriculture” between Iowa and Yamanashi. Takahashi said the relationship began with the famous hog lift in 1959 when Iowan farmers donated 35 breeder hogs to livestock farmers in Yamanashi after two typhoons devastated the area. Three years later, the original 35 Iowa hogs had multiplied to more than 500. The hog lift was written about in the bilingual book "Sweet Corn and Sushi."

Last month, visiting U.S. Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack, U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos and about 100 passengers, including an Iowa-Yamanashi sister-state delegation, went by train from Shinjuku to Kofu in Yamanashi Prefecture to commemorate the relationship, and “they all had the Friendship Bento during the trip,” said Takahashi.

Meanwhile, another bento is playing a role in spreading knowledge of Japanese food culture, said Takahashi. “As part of the government’s Visit Japan 2010 campaign, we made Nippon no Omotenashi Bento, which has proven to be very popular. Besides stations, it is also available at Narita Airport Terminal 1,” she said. The 1,100 yen seasonal bento includes pressed red salmon sushi, grilled eel, fresh shrimps pickled in vinegar, cooked shiitake mushrooms, steamed vegetables, eggrolls and tempura.

Takahashi said that NRE is promoting its bentos as part of Food Action Nippon, a movement sponsored by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. In the campaign, the ministry asks various companies to promote increased consumption of agricultural produce harvested in regional areas of Japan.

For further information on NRE and its range of ekiben and other bentos, visit www.nre.co.jp/nre-daimasu.

© Japan Today

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.


26 Comments
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Ah, ekiben! One of the many pleasures of riding the shinkansen (bullet train).

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sorry, but I can't stand cold rice. ekiben is a no no for me. sandwiches, beef jerky and beer

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pigs flying along with a plane

Now the more cynical among us would come up with a smart comment on this one! I am not cynical and have been up all night so I can`t come up with anything...but hopefully someone else can!

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Timeon, neither can I, but recently they have boxes that warm up in an instant. You just pull on a string.

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I had ekiben on a journey from Kyoto to Nagano, and it was great! A really healthy combination of food. Much better than western style junk food.

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@kirakira25: i am not really cynical.. i have been accused of being romanchikku, baka and tawainai lol! But i think it is so wonderful that they put the pigs flying with the plane 2 commemorate that very important day in 1959 when pigs really DID fly.. when some good and kind hearted people in Iowa donated 35 breeding hogs to help the survivors of tragedy in Yamanashi; literally half of the way around the world! They should offer the friendship ekiben every year now so that such goodness is celebrated always and never forgotten.

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I dislike Japanese rice as it is tasteless, and you should not have to cover it up with stuff to give it taste, however the other food in the ekiben are good.

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thanks Bicultural, I'll look for it next time. Every time I asked, they told me they have only cold ones.

goddog, as opposite to what rice?

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@timeon: there is something like 7000+ different kinds of rice.. so it could be any 1 of them besides Japonica short grain rice that goddog prefers? i would disagree that Japonica is tasteless.. but it is very mild by itself. Nori sprinkles and a bit of soy sauce or butter really do make it nice though at least 4 me.

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Japanese rice is really only good for sushi, they are many other better rices for other meals.

For a train trip a couple of nice sandwiches made with my wifes homemade bread and a couple of beers would beat a boxed lunch anyday.

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Mikanojo, exactly what I was trying to suggest. I don't like too much the rice in the average bento, but when my friend from Niigata brings some quality (and expensive) rice, there's a huge difference.

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surprising what you can get used to - I also didn't like cold rice (or cold anything to be honest) in lunchboxes, but time has worn me down and now I can partially appreciate a good o-bento. You have to adjust your horizons though, as most of the food would taste infinitely better if it was hot (and dare I say, freshly hot?).

What amazes me is that many Japanese seem to think o-bento must be eaten with a beer. I've seen people on a bullet train at 7am getting out their o-bento and a can of Asahi to wash it down. Style!! Wonder if they are continuing from the night before?

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Timeon, neither can I, but recently they have boxes that warm up in an instant. You just pull on a string.

Reminds of that one time I ate an MRE

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Overlooked? Never. Ekibens are works of art.

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To be honest though, a 500 yen hamburg bento from the combini tastes better and have more volume than most ekiben sold on the platform or in the cars these days.

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...Now I want one for lunch!

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Bento's are good aand reliable, certainly not cuisine by anyone's standards. Fills a hole. Better than any airline food though!

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Heck, no train trip is complete without a ham and cheese and lettuce sandwich on real rye bread with spicy brown mustard.

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I recently took a number of Shinkansen trips and always included an ekiben. Conclusion: They are great. Entertaining combinations of seasonal local munchies imaginatively arranged. Advice: Get ones with as little white rice as possible. The Chinese versions were actually awful. Buy the cheaper, smaller ones as the larger ekibento actually have too much food!

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There is only one worth eating, Kamameshi from Nagano. All the others are fairly bland for me.

Japanese rice is really only good for sushi, they are many other better rices for other meals.

Good luck in your arguments with Japanese about this. I've had many, and failed to convince them to think out side the 'Japan rice is the only rice' square.

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Good luck in your arguments with Japanese about this. I've had many, and failed to convince them to think out side the 'Japan rice is the only rice' square.

In reality the buy Australian just to float the gas bill.

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The Yokohama shu-mai bento is good enough for me.

And the Bat-tera from Osaka station is always good too! ;)

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or someone 'opening their lunchbox' more like it..

Timeon, neither can I, but recently they have boxes that warm up in an instant. You just pull on a string.

yep...had one in Hokkaido and after 6 hrs on the train it was close to heavenly.

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The best ekiben for me is the "gyutan" (cow's tongue) donburi bento you can get from Sendai station, which automatically becomes hot with the pull of a string at the bottom of the bento.

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Ekiben are foul distasteful culinary abominations bereft of any beneficial ingredient, cold, tasteless, and an insult to the notion of food as pleasing to the palate. Avoid them at all costs, gimme a ham and cheese sando any ole day of the week.

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Lol, so the "ham and cheese sando" isn't bereft of any beneficial ingredient, cold, or an insult to the palate? Your standards may need a slight adjustment. :-)

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