Ekiben: A Delicious Way to Travel in Japan
A portmanteau of the Japanese kanji characters for station (駅) and boxed meal (弁), Ekiben (駅弁) are pre-packed meal boxes (i.e. bento) widely sold at Japanese train stations for consumption during long-distance train rides.
Far from being dreary refrigerated dinners or processed lunches, Ekiben meal boxes offer a convenient, affordable, and delicious way to sample a variety of local culinary delights while traveling in Japan. Within Japan, there is even an Ekiben fan base that eagerly travels around the country to try new varieties or indulge in evergreen favorites.
For me, Ekiben tasting has long been one of my favorite Japanese travel experiences. I love these colorful meal boxes not only for their visual appeal but also how even the simplest set would contain a variety of dishes – they are simply perfect for learning about Japanese cuisine. The following are nine Ekiben meals that I feasted on during my 2018 autumn holiday in Japan. Even if you are not a lover of Japanese food, I’m sure you’d still agree that these meal boxes are truly wonderful photography opportunities. How could one not look forward to them during a Japanese holiday?
Note: This is not a top-10, “must-have best Ekiben” list. I deliberately chose lesser-known Ekiben to showcase the incredible variety sold.
How is Ekiben Pronounced in Japanese?
Ekiben is pronounced as air-key-ben.
1. Rice with Various Side Dishes, Autumn Style (秋の幕の内, Aki no Makunouchi)
Purchased at Kyoto Station.
Major Japanese train stations sell special “limited period only” Ekiben to complement ongoing festivities or travel seasons. The above is one such seasonal Ekiben that I bought at Kyoto Station after a long day of autumn foliage viewing. In Japan, rice with mushroom, or Kinoko Gohan, is traditionally associated with autumn. Indeed, one sniff of the earthly aroma immediately conjures impressions of bountiful harvests. With a little imagination, I could even visualize myself in the midst of exuberant countryside celebrations.
Needless to say, the overall orange theme of this Ekiben also completes the sensation of golden fall time. Do note the little slice of carrot in a corner that’s delicately trimmed into the shape of a maple leaf. What is more representative of the Japanese autumn than that?
What is Makunouchi (幕の内)?
The Japanese term Makunouchi, frequently used to name Ekiben, refers to rice accompanied by a variety of side dishes.
2. Sixteen Colors (十六彩弁当, Juu Roku Aya Bento)
Purchased at Hakata Station.
Because of its proximity to the Asiatic mainland, and with Nagasaki being Japan’s oldest trading port, Kyushu cuisine has long enjoyed a distinctive international flavor.
The above Ekiben, so aptly named, offers a taste of that flavor, including within it a Chinese-style Siew Mai, Western-style fried chicken, and even a mini croquette. In addition, famous Kyushu delicacies like Fukuoka Mentaiko (seasoned roe) are also used as condiments, making it a truly dazzling food journey within a box.
Last but not least, everything being bite-size makes this Ekiben perfect for long, panoramic train journeys. May I share I took one hour to finish everything while traveling from Fukuoka to Kagoshima by Shinkansen.
3. Chinese-Style Siew Mai Bento (しやおまい弁当, Shiyao Mai Bento)
Purchased at Hakata Station.
I have long felt that it is a must to have Chinese-inspired food when visiting Nagasaki. The problem though, there is so much to see and do in the historical port, one often runs short of time for a sit-down meal. This is especially so when visiting the city on a day trip. Or when including nearby Gunkanjima and Huis Ten Bois in the itinerary.
Fortunately, Nagasaki style Chinese food is widely sold as boxed meals throughout Kyushu. During my latest trip, I managed to buy one such Japanese Ekiben at Hakata Station after returning from a long day trip. Now, as a Chinese, I must highlight that the Siew Mai in this Ekiben, renamed in the Japanese language as Shiyao Mai, are quite different from those served by restaurants in Chinese cities. To begin with, these are noticeably larger. The taste, on the other hand, is more than decent. The main staple of rice served with sweetened chicken also provides an intriguing contrast. Like Nagasaki itself, this Ekiben meal box is full of flavors and heritage.
4. Handmade Burger & Prawn Fry (手こねハンバーグとえびフライ, Tekone Hanbagu to Ebi Furai)
Purchased at Hakata Station.
I had this for breakfast on the morning I left Kyushu. It was a very early morning ride; I was at Hakata Station before the sun was up. The previous night, I had foolishly misplaced something important. The short of it was that I was in need of comfort food. I also needed a heavier bento to lift my spirits and combat travel fatigue.
Did it do the job? Oh yes, it certainly did! Japanese-style western food, or Youshoku, could be weird to the uninitiated but if you’re looking for richer and stronger taste, Youshoku seldom fails to do the job. In this case, I particularly enjoyed the Japanese-style (和風) onion sauce, which went really well with the soft patty. Notice too that a Chinese Siew Mai, with Chinese soy sauce, was included with this sinful Ekiben. Many chefs in Kyushu do not forget to promote their unique history and culture, regardless of the overall theme of the Ekiben.
Ekiben are not strictly for train rides only. You could enjoy one anywhere. They are also perfect for picnics or takeaway meals in your hotel room.
5. Sukiyaki Bento (すきやき弁当, Sukiyaki Bento)
Purchased at Okayama Station.
To be honest, I was a little hesitant when buying this Ekiben. A purist with regards to such things, my notion of a proper sukiyaki meal is that of a steaming hot pot of savory broth before me, and with me cooking each slice of beef myself. In short, the idea of a cold, pre-cooked sukiyaki dinner didn’t quite appeal.
But I was in a rush. I also wanted to experiment with something different for the sake of this write-up. My verdict after trying, this was actually quite fine. The beef slices weren’t chewy or oversweet. The capsicum and pumpkin toppings were also, well, an unusual twist.
In fact, my only complaint with this Ekiben is that it didn’t quite last the three-hour train journey I took thereafter – as in, I got hungry again before I alighted. All in all, this was an Ekiben worth trying. I’d probably go for it again when visiting Japan in the future.
Is Ekiben Always Eaten Cold?
Generally, Ekiben meal boxes are eaten cold. Supposedly, rice tastes just as good, if not better, when chilled. However, for some Ekiben, stall-owners will offer to warm them up.
6. The Beauty of Izumo (出雲美人, Izumo Bijin)
Purchased at Matsue Station.
According to the cover label, this gorgeously packaged Ekiben is a favorite with ladies.
It features seafood delicacies from the Shimane province, all “respectfully,” i.e. delicately, prepared using Shimane wine in the Chirashi Sushi style. Now, as a guy, I must confess I’m clueless as to why the ingredients or preparation would particularly appeal to women. I personally found everything to be absolutely delicious, and I finished everything within 15 minutes.
Perhaps this interesting accolade has something to do with the use of a certain unusual ingredient in the rice topping. If you look carefully, there’s a sizeable piece of cheese beside the crab legs. While cheese is manufactured in Japan, most famously in Hokkaido, it’s seldom used this way. Or maybe, maybe, it’s not the cheese but the mochi contained within the lilac wrap. The chewy sweetness of this rice cake dessert was such a perfect gentle end to the meal.
What Is the Best Time to Buy Ekiben?
Generally speaking, most Ekiben are sold out by evening-time. Don’t bet on getting one after evening rush hour.
7. Daimyo’s Roll (大名巻, Daimyoumaki)
Purchased at Himeji Station.
This was the simplest Ekiben I had during this Autumn trip. It was also the one that tickled me the most.
Daimyo means feudal lord in Japanese. Among their many historical deeds, daimyos are famous for building castles. I had this Ekiben right after visiting Himeji Castle, the most gorgeous and famous Japanese castle.
To put it in another way, I had fun briefly imagining myself as a modern-day daimyo. An important, powerful warlord having a light meal right after visiting my most beautiful castle.
Jokes aside, this simple meal was actually pretty refreshing. The chilled rice and pickled fillings made eating the roll almost akin to having a salad. With all that rice, it was also quite filling, keeping me full till over six hours later. In short, this was a nice and cheeky end to a busy morning at stunning Himeji Castle.
8. The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter Bento (竹取物語弁当, Taketori Monogatari Bento)
Purchased at Shin-Fuji Station.
In a previous write-up on famous Japanese folklore stories, I introduced the curious story of Kaguya-Hime and Mount Fuji, which I invite you to read if you’re unfamiliar with the myth.
At Shin-Fuji Shinkansen station, this lyrical story takes center stage, with the station not only adorned by a huge mural depicting the tale, but also selling many related souvenirs and snacks. As for Ekiben, you’d see from my picture that the ingredients used, which includes bamboo shoots, are all pretty rustic and oriental. Everything is also atmospherically presented within a woven basket.
By the way, this was a pretty expensive Ekiben as it contains abalone and Sakura shrimps. In the original story, the father of Kaguya-Hime, i.e. the Bamboo Cutter, became very wealthy after repeatedly finding gold pieces within bamboo stalks. I was briefly able to imagine myself as the lucky man while nibbling on flavorful abalone.
9. Sukeroku Sushi (すけろくすし, Sukeroku Sushi)
Purchased at Ueno Station.
Sukeroku Sushi are sushi packs made without the use of fish. They always consist of a combination of Inarizushi (rice wrapped in deep-fried tofu i.e. the brown ones in the picture) and Makisushi (seaweed roll) too. Named after one of the most beloved characters in Kabuki, Sukeroku Sushi is said to have originated as takeout packs during performances of the related play. Because of the ingredients used, they are cheap and often vegan. These make them perfect for use as Ekiben.
I had this pack right before visiting famous Ashikaga Flower Park. As it was a chilly day, and I made the mistake of eating it outside the park, I must admit I didn’t quite enjoy the meal. It’s cheap though, and pretty filling given it contains so much rice. Incidentally, Sukeroku Sushi packs are my standard “go-for” in Japan when low on travel budget or when lacking an appetite. Again, they are cheap and filling, and widely sold. The light and refreshing taste make them suitable for any hour too.
Wouldn't you love to sample an exotic Ekiben when traveling in Japan?
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