You can find many station bentos, or ekiben, in Japan, but some of them are greater than others. That’s why the Keio department store in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward is currently holding its 57th Original Famous Ekiben and National Delicious Food Tournament, to introduce the public to some of the most unusual and impressive ekiben on the market.
Our reporter Yuuichiro Wasai stopped by the event on the way to work recently and scanned the area looking for an ekiben he hadn’t seen before — and believe us, he’s seen a lot. That’s when this beauty called the Mito Inro Bento caught his eye.
Mito is the capital of Ibaraki Prefecture, while inro (literally “seal/stamp basket”) refers to a small, palm-sized case used for holding small objects, which was traditionally tied to obi kimono sashes with a small rope.
Inro became popular as a men’s accessory in the Edo period (1603–1868), when they were often decorated with lacquer and family or clan crests, and prized by wealthy members of the samurai classes. Today, these cases, often known as “pill cases” due to the fact they were also used to carry medicine, still hold a traditional charm, especially for samurai enthusiasts like Yuuichiro, so he wasted no time in purchasing the mysterious Inro bento to see what it held inside.
When he took it out of its packaging, he couldn’t help but raise one hand to cover the gasp that emanated from his mouth. This samurai-esque pill box was stunning…and HUGE.
The pill box came with a vermillion rope tie and the three-hollyhock-leaves crest of the Tokugawa clan, who had a branch ruling from Mito during the Edo period.
Mito is famous for natto (fermented soybeans), so Yuuichiro had a hunch they might feature as a key ingredient in this mystery bento. However, when he lifted the lid on the glorious pill box, he found it contained two tiers…and neither of them contained natto.
Yuuichiro was pretty pleased with this, seeing as his colleagues might’ve complained about the smell of natto, and as he took a closer look, he found that the upper tier contained side dishes like pork, ganmodoki (fried tofu fritter), umeboshi (pickled plum) and a simmered carrot and shiitake mushroom.
The lower tier contained seasoned rice, a scattering of grated omelette, and some octopus and chicken. To Yuuichiro’s surprise, this was a pretty standard bento, with none of the contents boasting any local specialties like a lot of ekiben are known to do.
However, that’s when he remembered Mito is famous for the Mito Plum Blossom Festival at Kairakuen Garden, which is home to around 3,000 plum trees in over 100 varieties.
▼ Hence the delicious pickled plum
The plum was definitely a plump, premium variety, and the pork also had a slight plum aroma. As he ate his meal, Yuuichiro started to feel bad about his initial assessment of the boxed lunch being standard, as it was actually filled with quality ingredients, and everything in the Edo-esque box was delicious.
Once he’d polished off his meal, he was then able to use the gorgeous box the bento came in. Nobody would ever guess this gorgeous inro once contained food, and after he washed it and displayed it proudly on his desk, he was immediately inundated with compliments and questions about where it came from.
For 1,080 yen, this bento was a great purchase, and after a quick search online, Yuuichiro found it can also be purchased at the New Days convenience store at Mito station, and at Oarai Station and Aqua World on Saturdays and Sundays.
All those locations are in Ibaraki Prefecture, though, so if you’d like to own this neat pill box without travelling outside of Tokyo for it, be sure to stop by the ekiben tournament at the Keio department store before it ends on Jan 20,
57th Original Famous Ekiben and National Delicious Food Tournament / 第57回 元祖有名駅弁と全国うまいもの大会
Address: Nishishinjuku 1-1-4 Keio Department Store Shinjuku 4F & 7F,
東京都新宿区西新宿1-1-4 京王百貨店新宿店 4F＆7F
Hours: 10 a.m.-8 p.m. (closes at 5 p.m. on the last day)
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