Taking the Shinkansen high speed rail around Japan is one of the fastest, smoothest and most relaxing ways to get around the country. And to make the journey even better, there is the ekiben, a prepackaged bento box for the trip. These beloved lunch boxes are found at all main railway stations, and are the perfect way to enjoy your Shinkansen experience.
The name ekiben is a portmanteau of two words; eki (station) and bento (boxed meal). They are pre-packed lunch boxes sold at many places in Japanese train stations, so hungry passengers can eat during long-distance train journeys.
The ekiben has been around as early as there were train windows to sell them through. Origins are probably around 1885, when onigiri were sold at Utsunomiya Station from vendors with wooden trays draped around their necks. These onigiri were rice balls wrapped in bamboo leaves, perfect for any meal of the day for travellers. A more complete ekiben lunch box was sold from Himeiji station three years later, and before long stations all around the country were offering ekibens for sale!
Ekibens are available from all major train stations in Japan, and can also be purchased on board the Shinkansen as the food cart makes its way down the aisles. There is plenty of choice for lunch, but as rush hour wraps up in the evening, they can sell out pretty quickly!
What’s inside an Ekiben?
Ekiben can be pretty much anything! Typical ekiben, such as a makunouchi ekiben, are selections of different dishes served together. Others may be just beef and rice, seafood themed, tori katsu (breaded and fried chicken), sushi platters – even sandwiches and onigiri can be found in ekiben.
The makunouchi Ekiben is a popular ekiben which contains a little bit of everything. A makunouchi bento typically contains a large selection of foods, such as rice, fish, meat, pickles, eggs, vegetables and umeboshi (pickled plum). For those who are indecisive, th makunouchi bento is a great way to have a balanced lunch.
Sometimes ekiben have interesting themes, whether they be to appeal to children, or to reflect the type of food inside. As ekibens get more sophisticated, some play music and even heat up automatically!
Shinkansen E7 Kei Bento
The kids version of an ekiben comes in a shinkansen-shaped plastic box! It’s a fun way to enjoy lunch on the Shinkansen, and there’s a reusable souvenir to keep at the end. Inside, there’s usually onigiri, fried chicken, radish and cake. The Shinkansen Bento can be found in Tokyo station.
Hello Kitty Ekiben
Exclusive to Okayama station is the Hello Kitty ekiben, with a kawaii Hello Kitty head as the box. Inside, there is beef, prawns, rice, and a little Hello Kitty head printed on a fishcake. When the special edition Hello Kitty Shinkansen was launched in 2018, a Hello Kitty Shinkansen lunchbox was also released, packaged in a beautiful ceramic pink Shinkansen, complete with Hello Kitty bow. Of course, there’s a Hello Kitty fishcake again, a passenger in this great Shinkansen model. This collector’s item is available from Shin-Kobe and Kobe stations.
Moo Taro Ekiben
Celebrating the deliciousness of Wagyu beef is the Moo Taro Ekiben, available from Matsusaka station, which comes packaged in a black plastic cow’s head. The ekiben contains gyudon – a serve of rice, topped with sliced wagyu beef. The wagyu beef is some of the best in Japan, with the cows given beer to drink, and massages of shochu (a rice/barley spirit) to give the meat extra tenderness and flavour. The ekiben even plays a Japanese tune called Furusato when the lid is opened.
One of Japan’s best ekiben regions is Hokkaidō, and many travellers can’t wait to get their hands on the local ekibens from here. Hokkaidō is Japan’s northernmost home island, known for its stunning landscapes, winter sports, and, in this case, its fresh seafood. So, passing through Hokkaidō by train (especially Sapporo, the largest station in the prefecture) is a great chance to try some of the area’s great fresh seafood.
Probably Hokkaidō’s most popular ekiben, the kaisen Ezo-shomi is a rice lunchbox with kabi (crab), salmon, ikura (fish roe), and uni (sea urchin). This ekiben is a great tasting platter of many of Hokkaidō’s best seafood. There is also pickled crab included. Ezo is the historic name for Hokkaidō, meaning that the translation for this ekiben is ‘delicious seafood of Hokkaidō.’
Other Hokkaidō Specialties
There are many other bentos available to buy in Hokkaidō. Ishikari shake-meshi is a salmon bento box, sold since 1923. Sandai Kani Aji Kurabe bento has three different kinds of crab in one bento. Shiretoko torimeshi is the region’s teriyaki chicken bento. For Ainu-style cuisine, the Irankarapte ekiben is a very interesting option, with traditional Ainu dishes such as millet rice and imomochi, a kind of potato mochi.
Self Heating Ekiben
Most ekiben are sold and served cold, or warmed up back at the station. However, there are some ekiben that contain heating elements to allow hungry passengers to enjoy a piping hot ekiben when they’re ready to tuck in! These self-heating ekiben contain a heating pouch underneath the lunchbox, which is activated with a drawstring. A chemical reaction is triggered, and after 5 minutes, the lid can be opened to reveal the heated meal!
These are just a fraction of the ekiben that you can find all throughout the train stations of Japan. There are thousands to discover! But one thing is for sure – choosing a delicious ekiben for a Shinkansen journey makes the ride more enjoyable, and definitely more tasty!