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