Japanese Bento – Ekiben!

One of the most recognizable types of bento are ekiben… and this month, we’re excited to explore these boxed meals that are famously found at railway stations!

Ekiben are special types of bento, or boxed meals, and the name is a compilation of “eki” which means station and “ben” short for bento. They were originally only available at railway stations, to travelers looking for fresh food, and were designed to enhance the adventure of travel. Imagine being able to eat a wholesome, carefully prepared meal while watching the scenery go by!

The advent of ekiben coincides with the advent of the Japanese railway. In 1872, the first train began service in Japan, from Yokohama to Shimbashi in Tokyo. As the rail system grew, travelers’ needs grew, too, and ekiben made their debut in the late 1870’s to the early 1880’s. This first ekiben was essentially a rice ball. Realizing how large of a market there might be for fresh, boxed meals for travelers at railway stations, more and more vendors began selling ekiben, showcasing their wares by holding them in carriers around their necks and selling them to passengers through the open windows of trains. By 1910, ekiben had increased in popularity to such an extent that vendors began creating regional recipes and packaging to reflect the specialties available at their local train stations. One of the most famous specialized ekiben was introduced in 1941 by a local ekiben shop in Hakodate, Hokkaido, during a time when rice was not plentifully available because of World War II. They stuffed a small amount of rice into squid and simmered it in a savory sauce. This rice-stuffed squid is still popular today!

Ekiben design and ingredients were also influenced by popular culture. In the 1970’s, when popular television shows became a mainstream form of entertainment, vendors began selling ekiben that mimicked those found in TV. Travelers always recognized them! But soon after, many Japanese stopped traveling as much by train, as owning vehicles and traveling by plane became easier. Ekiben sales decreased by approximately 50% between 1987 and 2008! To counter this downward trend, ekiben vendors got even more creative and innovative, such that today travelers can find elaborate ekiben at stations.

The Shinkansen E7 Series Bento is a great ekiben to purchase when traveling by bullet train, especially for kids! The container looks like a shinkansen train and it can be used to hold small keepsakes after the food is gone. The Gyu-tan Bento, from the Sendai area, uses a self-heating container that heats the food inside when activated. The Feel Good Meal sold at Matsue Station comes with sake. Rustic ekiben evoke nostalgia, like the Toge No Kamameshi rice bowls. Sometimes the boxes seem ordinary, but the wrappers are works of art, commemorating modern and historical events, samurai, manga and famous people.

Ekiben are made by independent artisans and also in larger factories. Regardless of where the ekiben originate, freshness and quality are of utmost importance. Even department stores have gotten onto the ekiben train! They host multiweek festivals, showcasing ekiben from various regions of Japan and giving buyers a chance to experience the flavor of travel, without leaving home.

When you’re feeling the bug to travel but can’t manage a trip to Japan, try making some popular items found in ekiben. As always, white rice is a key ingredient in bento, and items like mini-hamburgers and aemono are great additions to a balanced bento. Try out these recipes and let us know what your favorite bento items are!

Japanese Bento – Get ‘Em At Your Local Store!

In case you can’t tell, we love bento! We’re continuing our Japanese Bento series this month with an entertaining look at where to find ready-made bento in Japan!

Bento are quite often made at home to take to school, the office or outdoor events, but delicious bento can easily be purchased at shops, railway stations, convenience stores and department stores across Japan, too.

During the late 19th century when Japan was going through the height of industrialization, travel by rail became commonplace and enterprising vendors began selling prepackaged bento at train stations. These bento were called ekiben, with “eki” standing for station and “ben” for bento. These types of bento made prepackaged, wholesome food available for workers and travelers outside of their homes, and the trend spread to vendors and shops throughout cities. Prepackaged bento became more and more popular, especially after World War II, and began to be sold in supermarkets. In the 1980’s, convenience stores started to sell bento boxes, and with soaring demand, dedicated bento shops opened, offering some of the most tasty and innovative combinations. These shops are sometimes open 24 hours a day!

An ekiben with a vast array of bento combinations in Shin-Osaka Station (photo by bryan…)

So where should you go for bento?

Konbini, or convenience stores, are ubiquitous and serve various combinations of premade bento, including hamburger patties, steak, karaage fried chicken and salmon, at an inexpensive price. In cold weather, tonjiru or miso soup with pork, and other soups are popular additions to a bento set. The nice part of getting bento from konbini is that customers can take the meal home or to the office and warm it up in a microwave.

Customers buy bento at a Hokka Hokka Tei location (photo by 山海风)

Bento shops serve freshly made bento along with prepackaged ones. Some of the most popular shops in Japan are Hotto Motto, Hokka Hokka Tei, Origin Bento and Honke Kamadoya. These dedicated bento shops often allow customers to create their own combinations by selecting mains, sides and salads from the restaurant menu. Nori seaweed sets with grilled salmon, savory breaded tonkatsu pork and fried karaage chicken are often the most popular items. Served with pickles, salad, vegetable sides and rice, these bento from dedicated shops are the best takeout–and can be purchased at around ¥500 (or $5 USD)—in Japan!

Supermarkets are onboard with bento as well. At the end of the aisles, in sozai (prepared side dish) corners, supermarkets in Japan also carry several bento that you can take home to eat. These bento often become easy dinners for many working people in cities.

Vendors selling an array of food in a depachika (photo by ayustety)

When looking for a fancier bento meal, depachika are the best places to go. Depachika are the basement levels of department stores, where groceries, delis, gourmet food stalls, sweet shops, chocolatiers, alcohol and bento vendors are located. The bento found in depachika range from the kinds found at konbini and bento shops to fancier ones with premium items such as Kobe beef or matsutake mushrooms. Depachika vendors are also constantly adding new and flavorful items to create innovative bento. While many customers pick up bento to go, some diners prefer to select their bento and enjoy the public eating areas, like small gardens or the store rooftops, for their meal. Some even call depachika a bento wonderland!

Bento are very popular in Japan and they can be found at train stations or airports. Stay tuned for our post next month where we talk about ekiben and the types of the wonderful items in them!