Sightseeing, shopping, and food may be the fun parts about traveling, but if you take a train during your trip, then you should buy “ekiben,” a boxed lunch that is sold at the train station and sometimes inside the train. Apparently, more than 2,000 kinds of ekiben have come out in the market since they began in Japan in 1885. Here are five recommended ekiben filled with the charms of each region in the country.
1. Ikameshi (Hakodate)
The addicting Ikameshi is a dish of salty-sweet squid stuffed with rice and seasoned in soy sauce. Born in Hokkaido, this bento (boxed lunch) comes with two stuffed squids. Now, you might wonder to yourself, “Is that it?” but don’t despair! This ekiben boasts of an amazing track record, having won the No.1 prize in sales in 32 out of the 35 times that the Ekiben Contest has been held in Tokyo. It has been bagging the top award in that contest every year since 1971! The photo below shows the Ikameshi (650 JPY (incl. tax)). How about daring yourself to try this bento if you happen to see it?
Major sales area: Hokkaido
Main distributor: Ikameshi Abeshoten Co.
Route: JR Hakodate Main Line
Station: Mori Station
2. Gyutan Bento (Sendai)
Originally, Japan didn’t really have a custom of eating beef tongue. However, the creation of gyutanyaki (grilled beef tongue) turned beef tongue from a delicacy to a common, popular ingredient. The gyutan bento (beef tongue bento) is a bento that will let you enjoy the delicious flavors of meat that come out by grilling the beef tongue after it is salted overnight! This beef tongue bento is the Amiyaki Gyutan Bento (1,050 JPY (incl. tax)), an ekiben with a heating function so you can enjoy piping hot beef tongue. First, pull the string that is protruding from the box to activate the heating unit inside, and you will see the bento box swell up. If you wait for few minutes and then open the lid of the ekiben, then your eyes will be treated to the sight of hot beef tongue and mugimeshi (barley rice). You will get addicted to the savory goodness of beef tongue that was carefully grilled piece by piece. This is a must-try for meat lovers out there!
Major sales area: Miyagi
Main distributor: Kobayashi
Routes: JR Tohoku/Hokkaido Shinkansen, JR Tohoku Main Line, JR Joban Line, etc.
Station: Sendai Station
※Photo is for illustration purposes
3. Ebi Senryo Chirashi (Niigata)
“Chirashizushi” is a style of sushi where a variety of toppings are generously sprinkled on top of a bed of rice. The bento that bears the name “chirashi” is a fun-filled ekiben! When you open the lid, you'll see a sheet of egg on top. You might feel deceived as that's not how chirashizushi is supposed to look, but actually, underneath that layer of egg is kabayaki-style unagi (skewered eel grilled with a thick sauce), boiled shrimp, and other delights mixed with the vinegar rice. This ekiben has an appealing way of appearance but also there's pride in the delicious taste, too. In Japan, they say that the first thing that sushi connoisseurs order is egg. Based on the taste of the egg, they can assess the skill of the chef as well as the quality of the shop itself. In light of that, the presentation of the eggs ahead of everything will make you feel the strong confidence of this ekiben’s creator. You have to test with your own tongue how much of that is true. The photo shows the Ebi Senryo Chirashi (1,300 JPY (incl. tax)) at Shibata Sanshinken.
Major sales area: Niigata
Main distributor: Shibata Sanshinken
Route: Joetsu Shinkansen, JR Shin’etsu Main Line, JR Echigo Line, etc.
Station: Niigata Station
4. Toge no Kamameshi (Gunma)
This ekiben was born after Mineji Takamizawa, its now-deceased creator, found out based on his conversations with travelers that people want warm and fun bento that remind them of home during their trips. Inside this ekiben is rice that is filled with chicken meat, thin shavings of burdock, bamboo shoots, chestnuts, and other ingredients that are faintly seasoned with soy sauce. Now you have to see the container that it comes in: a ceramic pot! If you return the pot to the shop after you’re done eating, they will accept it. However, you can apparently use this earthenware pot to actually cook rice, so it might also be a great, albeit a little strange, Japanese souvenir. The photo shows Toge no Kamameshi (1,000 JPY (incl. tax)).
Major sales area: Gunma
Main distributor: Oginoya
Route: JR Shin’etsu Main Line
Station: Yokokawa Station
5. Kaki no Ha Zushi (Nara)
Kaki no Ha Zushi is a local cuisine of Nara that is made by wrapping and pressing a slice of mackerel or some other fish and vinegared rice in a piece of "kaki" (persimmon) leaf. This dish is composed of only three ingredients (fish, vinegar rice and persimmon leaf), so the way to draw out the appeal of its ingredients is crucial. You will not get enough of the marriage of the exquisite chewy sensation of the rice that is unlike what is used on regular sushi, the right level of acidity, and the refreshing aftertaste of this delight. So, why not take this ekiben crammed with persimmon leaf sushi, which has gripped the hearts of Japanese people since it debuted onto the market during the Edo period (1603 – 1868), with you on your journey via railway? The photo shows the Kaki no Ha Zushi Omiyagebako with 12 pcs. (starting at 1,583 JPY (excl. tax)) of Hiraso.
Major sales area: Nara, Osaka, Kyoto
Main distributor: Hiraso
Route: Tokaido Shinkansen, JR Nara Line, JR Kosei Line
Station: Kyoto Station
Did you find an ekiben that you like? There is no doubt that the experience of stuffing your mouth with delicious ekiben while gazing at the scenery from the train window will be a page in your book of unforgettable memories. So, make sure to enjoy Japanese ekiben in your next train journey!
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.
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