Discover the Delicious World of Ekiben on Japan’s Shinkansen

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For families with teens planning a bullet train trip through Japan, don’t miss out on the national travel food staple — ekiben. To travel like a local on the Shinkansen, make sure to pick up a train bento, a type of lunch box filled with fresh and delicious culinary delights.

The ekiben doesn’t just offer convenience for hungry travellers. With hundreds of different styles of food available inside, your chosen lunch box gives you the chance to taste regional specialities, and perhaps some new ingredients.

Here’s what you need to know about the much-loved ekiben before picking up yours.

The origins of ekiben

Before the ekiben, came the bento, a meal packed in a box, designed to be eaten on the go. Traditionally, a bento meal would consist of rice, fish or meat, and vegetables, with the aim of filling you up with nutritious food while out and about.

The term ekiben came later, combining the words eki (station) and bento (boxed meal) to describe lunch boxes sold at train stations from the late 19th century onwards. Hungry passengers making long journeys by rail were keen to enjoy a filling meal, and so the tradition was born.

With the development of air travel, the soraben, a lunch box designed for flight passengers, is now a common sight in Japanese airports.

 What’s inside an ekiben?

Over time, the tradition of creating portable meals has evolved beyond basic ingredients.

You can now find many regional or culturally themed ekibens, but some features remain standard whichever bento you opt for.

Most ekibens include rice or noodles, pickled vegetables, and some sort of protein, like fish, meat, or tofu. You’ll find the biggest variety of ekiben options in Japan’s largest cities and train stations.

Types of ekiben

Makunouchi ekiben

The makunouchi is the most classic bento option, featuring a mix of shaped rice, vegetables, and fish, or meat. While the exact components vary from place to place, the makunouchi is a standard offering and a crowd pleaser you’ll find at most stations.

Character ekiben

Character bento boxes, with special designs both inside and out, will no doubt catch your eye when choosing your ekiben. Figures from Japanese culture and animation are very popular — from Hello Kitty to anime characters.

Children’s ekiben

Specially designed for kids, these bento boxes are usually smaller, and often include foods that are appealing to little ones. Nonetheless, there’s nothing stopping you from picking one up for yourself if that’s what you fancy!

Vegetarian and speciality ekiben

You’ll be able to find a limited selection of vegetarian ekiben at larger stations, and big cities like Tokyo. They usually include tofu, shaped rice, and some vegetables. If you can’t see an ekiben that suits your dietary preferences, opt for an onigiri, or other type of portable snack.

Regional specialities

Many types of regional speciality ekibens are available, showing off the best local ingredients and recipes, such as Hokkaido’s famously great seafood. The best part is that they’re available all over the country, so you can taste something new wherever you are.

Eye-catching ekiben boxes

Ekiben don’t just look good on the inside. Your meal often comes packaged in a beautifully designed box, sometimes designed to be a keepsake. Some bento boxes feature local artwork, or animated characters. You can even buy an ekiben shaped like a Shinkansen train — a great souvenir from your trip.

Where to buy your ekiben

Ekiben were formerly sold directly on the platform from a wooden tray, and passed through the train window to hungry passengers. High-speed trains have made that tricky, so you now need to buy your lunch box inside the station itself, usually before you reach the platform.

You’ll find many ekiben stalls at all Shinkansen and large train stations, as well as at some smaller regional stations across Japan.

How to eat your ekiben

Most ekiben are designed to be eaten cold, or at room temperature. If you fancy a hot meal, larger stations offer some self-heating ekiben boxes.

All ekiben come with disposable utensils so you can enjoy your meal en route. To accompany your bento box, drinks are sold at all ekiben stalls and other counters in train stations. Alcohol is allowed on the Shinkansen, so pick up a beer if that’s what you fancy.

Japanese eating etiquette

Ekiben are designed to be eaten on the move on long-distance and bullet trains, and you’ll likely see many locals enjoying a bento box on your journey.

The Shinkansen has a tray and cupholder at each seat so you can eat comfortably.

To be polite, it’s important to follow Japanese etiquette when eating on the train. Eat quietly, and remember to dispose of your rubbish properly. Local people don’t eat on short distance trains, so it’s sensible to do the same.

Happy travels and happy eating

I hope this post has inspired you to enjoy an ekiben on your train journey through Japan. Whether you’re heading to Tokyo with teens or exploring Japan as a young adult, make sure to try a few different types or a regional speciality if you can. Meshiagare — bon appétit!

Author Bio:

Cathy Slater is an experienced content writer. She is associated with many renowned travel blogs as a guest author where she shares her valuable travel tips with the audience.

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