CultureEkiben - Railway boxed meals in East Japan

Japan is a country where a network of railways spreads all over the land. Speaking of traveling by train: be sure not to miss the “Ekiben,” boxed meals sold at stations and on trains. Today, Ekiben is far more than just a boxed lunch. The Ekiben Fair, held every January at Keio Department Store in Shinjuku, is a major annual event with 40 years of history, and it attracts millions of people. You can buy and eat famous Ekiben from all over Japan at this event, even though it is held in Tokyo. Other Ekiben Fairs are often held as popular events in department stores all around Japan.

How many kinds of Ekiben exist in Japan?

There are so many of them on both JR (Japan Railways) and private railways that it is hard to give an exact number. It is impossible to comprehend the exact number of Ekiben, because new products frequently appear while the sales of unpopular products may suddenly come to a halt. Still, one rough estimation indicates there are between 2,000 and 3,000 kinds of Ekiben.

Sampling Ekiben that are cooked with local ingredients is one of the attractions of traveling between different areas of Japan. We will introduce some excellent Ekiben across two issues, the first focusing on Eastern Japan and the next on Western Japan. In this issue we are featuring the Ekiben of Eastern Japan — those found in the Hokkaido, Tohoku, Kanto, and Koshinetsu regions.

Hokkaido

Many Ekiben found in Hokkaido feature abundant local seafood, such as crab and salmon roe, as their main ingredients.

*Ika-meshi (squid stuffed with rice)
Mori Station on Hakodate Main Line
Famous in Japan, and very popular in the Ekiben Fairs held at department stores. As trains’ stoppage time at Mori station is very short and there is no store on the platform, Ika-meshi is very difficult to obtain at the station. These days, Ika-meshi fans wait for Ekiben Fairs to indulge their tastes. This simple but tasty Ekiben comprises a squid stuffed with rice, cooked in a broth made of soy sauce and crystallized sugar.

* Ishikari Sake-meshi (salmon with rice)
Sapporo Station on Hakodate Main Line
This Ekiben has a long history, as it was the first Sake-meshi sold in Japan. A generous amount of thinly sliced fried egg, salmon meat broken into pieces by hand, and salmon roe are spread on the rice. Such a colorful combination is surely bound to whet your appetite.

*Kaki-meshi (oyster with rice)
Akkeshi Station on Nemuro Main Line
Its rice is boiled with the extract of big oysters caught at Akkeshi Bay, a salty-sweet soy sauce based soup that has been used for many years, plus a shellfish stock with hijiki (edible brown algae) added. Shellfish boiled with soy sauce, clams, shiitake mushrooms, and butterburs, together with big oysters, are placed on rice.

*Taraba-zushi (Taraba crab sushi)
Kushiro Station on Nemuro Main Line
A luxury Ekiben with a generous portion of so-called “King of Crab” Taraba’s claw meat and flakes. With salmon, thinly sliced fried egg, salmon roe, pickled ginger, and soy sauce also included, the Taraba-zushi is quite a hearty meal.

Tohoku

The Tohoku area is well known for its rice production and types of rice such as Sasanishiki and Akita-Komachi, and therefore has many Ekiben focusing on the deliciousness of those brands of rice. At the same time, many of the Ekiben in Tohoku use the local seafood and vegetables as well.

*Hachinohe Kouta Sushi
Hachinohe Station on Tohoku Main Line
This Ekiben’s bright contrast of green bamboo leaves, pink salmon, and white shimesaba (salted mackerel) has a special impact, as well as a small plectrum of shamisen (a three-stringed Japanese musical instrument) attached to it. Instead of chopsticks you can cut and eat the sushi using the plectrum. Rice and cut fish well soaked with vinegar provide an exquisite harmony of flavors.

*Sake-to-Ikura-no-Oyako-meshi (salmon and salmon eggs with rice)
Morioka Station on Tohoku Main Line
Salmon flakes and roe, pickled in soy sauce, are scattered on rice steamed with sliced kelp and shiitake mushrooms. Some green leaves are added for decoration.

*Amiyaki Gyutan Bento
Sendai Station on Tohoku Main Line
It is a very simple Ekiben: grilled gyutan (beef tongue), a specialty of Sendai, is placed on rice. The special feature of this Ekiben is the heating device it houses in its container — when you pull the tab, the container heats up automatically.

*Gyuniku Domannaka (a bowl of beef)
Yonezawa Station on Ou Main Line
Crumbled beef, flavored with a secret sauce, and thinly sliced beef are generously placed on the rice, with fried egg and other ingredients on the side.

Kanto / Koshinetsu

There are many kinds of Ekiben in the vast Kanto and Koshinetsu areas.

*Toge-no-Kamameshi
Yokokawa Station on Shinetsu Line
An Ekiben that is well known all around Japan. Passengers used to buy this Ekiben during stops when a locomotive had to be connected to the train to push it over the Usui Pass. In 1997, when the Nagano Shinkansen bullet train began an operation that detours the Usui Pass by going through a long tunnel, Yokokawa station became a terminal and the route over Usui Pass was abolished. Scenes of people selling and buying Ekiben have become a thing of the past. This Ekiben contains chicken, shiitake mushrooms, bamboo shoots, burdock root, quail’s eggs, and a sweet boiled chestnut, crammed inside a small individual pot known as Mashiko Ware.

*Daruma Bento
Takasaki Station on Joetsu Shinkansen and Shinetsu Main Lines
The container is shaped like a daruma doll (a Japanese wish doll) made of plastic. After the meal, the container can be used as a piggy bank. The ingredients of the Bento are shiitake mushrooms, bamboo shoots, seasoned konnyaku (a gelatin made from the Devil’s Tongue plant) balls and teriyaki chicken, placed on soy sauce flavored rice.

*Genkikai
Kobuchizawa Station on Chuo Main Line
This smart name, a play on words, has a double meaning. On the one hand it sounds as though it could mean “energetic Kai area (now Yamanashi Prefecture)”, but it also sounds like the expression “How are you?” in Japanese. Unusually, this Ekiben was created as the project of a TV program. In the upper tray of this double-tiered box is steamed rice flavored with minced chicken and walnuts cooked in the same way as at a famous restaurant in Kyoto. The lower box contains steamed rice with chestnuts and lotus root, produced by a Japanese restaurant in Tokyo. The tastes from both East and West Japan play together in this package.

With numerous railway lines feeding into it, Tokyo Station inevitably has a variety of boxed lunches available. Many of them have names that are related to Tokyo.

*Fukagawa-meshi
Rice cooked with clams. Clams caught on the beach facing Edo Bay around Fukagawa were called Fukagawa-meshi during the Edo-era (1603-1867). Fukagawa-meshi, now purchasable as an Ekiben, is boiled using plentiful soy sauce from Noda, Chiba Prefecture.

*21st Century Shutsujin Bento
Tokyo Station on Tokaido Shinkansen Line
It is also purchasable at other stations on the Tokaido Shinkansen Line. A bamboo basket contains three rice balls with kelp or beefsteak plants in them, with teriyaki fish, fried chicken, konnyaku on a spit, and cooked vegetables on the side. After enjoying this good value Ekiben, you can use the bamboo basket as an accessory case.

*Shiumai Bento
Yokohama Station on Tokaido Main Line
This boxed lunch has an overwhelming presence throughout Japan. It can be bought not only at Yokohama Station, but also at some JR, private railway and subway stations and department stores around Yokohama. The container is a traditional rectangular box made of a paper-thin sheet of wood. In addition to rice and five Shiumai (Shaomai Chinese dumplings), fried chicken, a fried egg, fish cakes, and cooked bamboo shoots are also in the box. “Hyo-chan,” the famous small soy sauce container in the shape of a doll, which made the Shiumai of Yokohama popular, is included with every box of Shiumai dumplings (however it is not included with the Shiumai Bento).

*Extra Aji-no-Oshizushi
Ofuna Station on Tokaido Main Line
An Oshizushi (pressed sushi), first started selling with horse mackerel caught in the sea around Enoshima in 1913. This luxury meal uses the fish cut into three fillets, and each fillet is then placed on a vinegar-flavored rice ball. Today, the fish caught in Goto (of Kyushu region), one of the most famous production areas of the horse mackerel, is used instead.

*Tai-meshi (sea bream and rice)
Odawara Station on Tokaido Main Line
A generous portion of sea bream flakes, slightly sweetened, are sprinkled on tea-flavored rice, the two ingredients complementing each other well. The wasabi-zuke (Japanese horse radish preserved in sake lees) made in Izu, and shiitake mushroom garnish are also in harmony with the sweetness of the sea bream.

Some people feel like traveling by train just because they want to eat Ekiben. It is only Japanese railroad travel that can offer you the pleasure of Ekiben. This is also one of the food cultures of which Japan is rightly proud. Why don’t you try several of the Ekiben and find your favorite? Don’t miss our next column, on the Ekiben found in Western Japan.

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