{Japan: Eat} Lunch On A High-Speed Train: Ekiben From 6 Different Cities

Hiroshima Station ekiben store

An ekiben store in Hiroshima Station

On this last trip to Japan, M and I managed to hit 16 cities in a little over 3 weeks.  This means that we spent a lot of time on trains as we zipped all over the country.  Because we live in California where traveling by train is not common (I’ve taken the Amtrak once in my whole life), we really enjoyed our travel via rail: the speed, the convenience, getting to ride on so many different kinds of trains, all the wonderful scenery, and, of course, the FOOD!  And by food, I am referring to bentos, those wonderful boxed lunches that contain all sorts of Japanese culinary delights.  Go to any major train station in Japan and you are sure to find a store or kiosk selling bentos for all the hungry commuters that pass through daily.

However, not all bentos are created the same.  To start off with, there are regular bentos that you can also find at any convenience store in Japan.  They’re cheap (around 500 Yen) and usually contain some kind of protein with a serving of rice and vegetables.  Here’s  a look at some of the bentos we consumed during our 2012 Japan trip:

assortment of bento

These are NOT ekiben. But yes, they were still very good.

And then there’s the ekiben, which are bentos sold primarily at train stations and on long-distance trains.  Unlike regular bentos which are fairly generic, ekibens take great pride in showcasing the cuisines for which that region is known.  They are also more expensive than the standard bento and this price difference is reflected in not only the food, but the packaging and care with which the ekibens are put together.  On this most recent trip, we picked up ekiben from 6 different cities: Sapporo, Tokyo, Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Sendai, and Kumamoto.  I’m a bit sad that we missed getting one from some of the other cities we visited (Hakodate, Fukuoka, Osaka) but we’ll just have to leave that for a future trip!

SAPPORO

Sapporo Ekiben box

Sapporo Seafood Ekiben

If you’ve ever been to Sapporo then it should come as no surprise that many of the ekiben were of the seafood variety.  Ikura, in particular, is a very popular topping on seafood donburis and this ekiben had a decent sized portion of it.  I was also very happy that there was crab included since we ran out of time to eat any while we were in the city.

TOKYO

Tokyo miso katsu ekiben box

tokyo ekiben 2

Miso Katsu Ekiben

Tokyo Sukiyaki Ekiben box

Tokyo Sukiyaki Ekiben

Sukiyaki Ekiben

We picked up these two ekibens at Shinjuku Station to eat on the way to Hakone.  We were in a bit of a hurry so we just grabbed the first couple we saw without putting much thought into what we were getting.  (It also doesn’t help that our kanji reading skills are fairly terrible, so all the time in the world wouldn’t have affected our decision much anyways!)  I was a little surprised when I opened the first box and found it to contain miso katsu which is actually a dish that Nagoya is famous for.  But since we hadn’t gotten to eat any during our very short time in that city back in 2012, it was nice to get this second chance.   Although tasty, it was unfortunately cold and I let M eat the majority of it.  Very unfortunately, the second ekiben was also cold and quite a disappointment since I like sukiyaki very much.  Not surprisingly, by the time we arrived in Hakone I was starving while M was sitting on a full stomach.  Luckily, these were the only cold ekibens we ate during our entire trip.

NAGASAKI

Nagasaki ekiben box

Nagasaki ekiben

Oops, I left the plastic protector on the top half!

Nagasaki ekiben top half

The top half without the plastic protector.

Is it any surprise that a Nagasaki ekiben would include a wedge of castella?  Even though I’d eaten lots of castella by the time we got this ekiben, I was still glad to see my favorite dessert from that city.  There was also a slice of kamaboko included which Nagasaki is famous for.  I think M was a bit disappointed there was only one piece, he is quite the kamaboko lover.

HIROSHIMA

Hiroshima ekiben box

Hiroshima Ekiben

hiroshima ekiben

hiroshima musubi ekiben

The first of the two Hiroshima ekibens really highlighted some of the seafood that the city is known for: oysters (the fried morsel on the left side of the box), conger eel (upper right corner), and octopus (upper left corner, there is a small piece of the rice).  This was one of my favorite ekibens because I could really get a feel for the city while eating it.  The second ekiben was a bit more standard but I did appreciate the musubis since the first ekiben was somewhat lacking in rice.

SENDAI

Sendai Gyutan Ekiben box

Sendai gyutan ekiben

Gyutan (Beef tongue) Ekiben

Sendai Woman's Ekiben

Sendai Ekiben

Sendai is famous for their gyutan (beef tongue) and it didn’t seem right to get an ekiben that didn’t include it in one way or another.  M pretty much ate that one while I had selected an ekiben that looked like it was catering to a female customer.  I loved the packaging that the food came in, it resembled a basket, of sorts.  Everything was arranged very prettily and it was delicious, to boot.

KUMAMOTO   

Kumamoto ekiben

Kumamoto ekiben

This, I think, was the best-looking of all the ekibens we had during our trip.  But to this day, I wonder if the little hunk of meat in the bottom row was from a horse (a Kumamoto specialty).  One famous regional food that was included was the karashi renkon (the bright yellow ball in the upper left corner) which is lotus root filled with mustard.  Wow, did that mustard give me a kick!  I also really loved the manju in the bottom right corner.  The transparent jelly was mochi-like in texture and the inside tasted like lemon, so good.