by Lakshmi Kalarikkal
We’ve all been on long, arduous train journeys where our feet ache, our tummies grumble and we yearn for sleep. Tokyo has the solution to one of those problems! At any store in Tokyo, you can find bento boxes made for the main purpose of being eaten on a train. They’re called ekiben, combining the words eki, meaning station and bento, meaning lunch box.
I have seen Japanese bentos replicated all over the world. They’re coveted for their utility, sheer cuteness and the obvious care that goes into each one. Ekibens are no different. The practice of buying them began in the Meiji period, i.e., the late 1800s when train journeys were slow and air travel was a pipe dream. It was necessary to eat on journeys that could last up to days and hence, the market for ekibens opened up.
Originally, lone ekiben salespeople would hang trays around their neck and rest their wares on them. Today, kiosks of ekibens are seen at every train station. The containers and the food within can both vary according to regional cuisine and culture but they generally contain some form of protein, vegetables and rice or noodles. You can even find ekibens in the shape of the trains themselves!
Although, all bentos reflect a sense of homeliness these ekibens are generally mass manufactured with the JR Tokai Passengers company shipping them all over the country. Giant industrial cauldrons and pans chug away in the backs of industrial buildings with hundreds of employees working together to put together the perfectly proportionate and traditional Japanese meal.
The food is tested and developed in order to last through the long train journeys without heating or refrigeration. Most ekibens are served cold although more expensive self-heating ekibens are also available. The food content is also devised to be eaten in cramped train cabins. Food safety is given prime importance, ensuring that the expiry dates are clearly mentioned and instructions on how to eat them safely are also delivered.
Ingredients are generally locally sourced and are inspected minutely. Most of the processing and washing happens through machines but a lot of the preparation is still done by hand in order to ensure quality. Settings and temperatures are adjusted to ensure perfectly cooked food, but a second quality check is also conducted.
Once prepared, the food is placed into different compartments into a bento box, combining to make a fresh, balanced meal. The ekiben comes equipped with disposable chopsticks and other cutlery if necessary. For the aforementioned self-heating ekiben an extra pouch is added. This pouch is intended to contain a chemical reaction that causes the whole ekiben to grow warm when triggered.
Although the ekiben has lost its popularity with the advent of faster train travel and air travel, ekiben enthusiasts keep this culture alive. Travelling all over Japan in order to try all the different varieties of ekiben is a popular activity and has even inspired manga and a TV show.
The best thing about these ekibens is that they’re not designed for tourists. It is traditional Japanese food, packaged in a traditional manner for Japanese people. Ekiben fairs have also been held at department stores since 1996. For the keen traveller who is interested in a peek into the way Tokyoites go about their lives, a journey on a train accompanied by an ekiben is an easy way to unite the two finest things Tokyo is known for, its railway lines and its cuisine. There is a saying among us, ‘the view from the window of the train adds spice to the ekiben that cannot be found in any other bento.’