Tz and I both love taking trains in Japan. For Tz, its the excitement of seeing his favourite shinkasen trains come to life and for me, I am in awe of the beautifully prepared ekibens they have at different eki stations all over Japan. Buying and experiencing the ekiben on the trains is a tourist attraction all by itself. We were very lucky to savour some of them recently in Japan for the Spring 2015 season.
A short history on ekiben (adapted from Aki Tomura’s book “The Ultimate Travel Food EKIBEN”):
During the Meiji period (1868-1912) railroads were first built in Japan, and bento were made available (and still are available) at each station. Ekiben is mainly eaten on train journeys, and the word itself is an abbreviation of “eki-bento” (eki=station and ben=bento). Ekiben feature regional delicacies and traditional cuisine from each stop around the country and is very popular among Japanese. Its packaging also deserves special attention as it often incorporates local culture and a unique style.
I was so happy when I found her book in Japan as its in English. You can find out more about her book at http://shun-gate.com/en/power/power_style_15.html
I discovered so many types of ekiben while exploring the many bento stores at train stations in Tokyo, Iiyama, Kanazawa and Nagano.
Some beautifully crafted ekiben packaging are reusable that means they are collectibles too! Some include sake and glass, meshi bento with all ingredients on top of rice like sea urchin or oyster toppings for 1 person, etc.
The ekiben is a gourmet artform all by itself. Some popular ekiben need to be reserved in advance as they are produced in limited quantity daily by e.g. husband and wife teams. You can really feel the dedication, the love the preparers put into preparing these bentos. So when I eat them, I observe each piece of food and savour them very slowly in appreciation of the bento makers.
Some of the bentos featured in the picture on the left include Daruma Bento, Kaga-nodate bento” ekiben, Koshu Wine Lunch” ekiben, Tohge-no-Kamameshi.
As we were traveling from Tokyo station to Iiyama and then from Iiyama to Kanazawa on the Hokuriku new route on the E7 shinkasen, I was determined to find E7 bentos for Tz. They are reusable bento boxes prepared just for kids.
First bento box featured in the above picture is a shinkasen shaped box with stickers for kids to paste on the bento box. The food prepared is generally similar for children bentos like hotdog, tomato rice, tempuras, tomagoyaki, etc. The second box in the picture can be folded and flatten when not in use to save space.
As for me, I always go for grilled beef don for my first bento as the beef are of very good quality like Hida beef or wagyu beef from famous wagyu producing prefectures. Some bento boxes now even feature a self heating device to warm up the food without electricity. How cool is that?
I got this grilled beef bento from Tokyo Station. It comes complete with chopsticks, wet napkin and sauce. I paid about US$18 for this ekiben.
Next bento I got to try is this gorgeous one featuring food of 4 seasons including namagashi from Kanazawa station. This box costs about US$28. I was lucky to get the last box, customers bought in batches at one go.
Bought this oshizushi (pressed sushi) wrapped in bamboo leaves and enjoyed the whole meal with sake from Shirakawago in Gifu. The meal could not have got any better than this while enjoying the scenery of Japan sea coast and quaint traditional villages. If only the meals on Euro rails can just be as delish as this.
Airlines traveling to and from Japan nowadays serve pretty impressive bentos too. My favorite airline bento meal has always been ANA but this time round I flew on Singapore Airlines and was quite impressed with their Hanakoireki bento that includes a starter bento, a main bento and a dessert. I posted a menu description below.
This whole bento journey has been truly eye opening for me about Japanese food culture and I would love to return again solely on an ekiben travel itinerary to discover more wonderful food of the changing seasons in Japan serve on these trains. Stay tuned for more updates of my Spring 2015 trip in Japan.