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Ekiben, a Disappearing Culture

The author reflects on the pleasures of "ekiben," lunch boxes sold at train stations, during a ride on a limited express that stops at secluded stations.

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Special bento of the Iida Line's Hikyo Eki Limited Express. (©Sankei by Masatoshi Ono)

The Iida Line's Hikyo Eki Limited Express departed from Hiezu Station at 11:35 am. Time for some lunch. Of course, that means the Iida Line's Hikyo Eki original ekiben. These are boxed lunches available at train stations, which sell at ¥1,000 JPY (approximately $6.3 USD) a piece.

These bento boxes come wrapped in paper depicting various secluded stations, such as the renowned Kowada Station. This wrapping also features images of the 373 series train. Tsuboya Bento, an ekiben maker founded in 1888, and its skilled artisans crafted the bento. A celebrated name in the ekiben (train bento) industry, Tsuboya Bento has been collaborating with Toyohashi Station since the Meiji era.

A Journey Through Flavor

A type of shokado bento, this particular bento boasts nine meticulously arranged sections. It contains a delectable combination of shrimp in chili sauce and miso katsu (pork cutlet glazed with miso sauce), a regional delicacy. Accompanying these main dishes are elegantly presented simmered vegetables and flavorful mixed rice.

Sake Delights

My fellow railway enthusiast, whom I call "Sankei Train No 2," has brought a bottle of Yatagarasu Daiginjo on board, kept chilled in a cooler box to enjoy with our bento. This renowned sake hails from the Yoshino region in Nara.

"It has a wonderful aroma," said Sankei Train No 2 cheerfully. I was just about to ask if he had local sake instead, but stopped. Who could refuse such an offer?

And It certainly was delicious!

What is it that makes sake taste so good on the train? I also found that the bento's side dishes made the perfect drinking snacks.

Sankei No 2 clearly has a discerning eye, not just for trains but also for Japanese sake.

Iida Line's Hikyo Eki Limited Express waiting to depart from Toyohashi Station. (©Sankei by Masatoshi Ono)

From Joy to Rarity

When you think about it, ekiben truly were one of the great joys of train journeys.

Perhaps I'm being melodramatic to suggest that they no longer exist. Still, ekiben are not as common as they once were.

The nationwide Ekiben Fair held at department stores across the country, including Keio Department Store, is still thriving. However, seeking out and enjoying famous ekiben on trains now demands a lot more effort. Nowadays, they are primarily confined to department store events.

Shinkansen and limited express trains are becoming faster. Shorter travel times mean passengers have fewer opportunities to eat onboard.

If you have breakfast and leave Tokyo at 10:00 am, you'll arrive in Shin-Osaka around 12:30 pm. There you can enjoy some delicious kitsune udon. In the Showa era, the Hikari Shinkansen took three hours and ten minutes to travel from Tokyo to Shin-Osaka. Forty minutes is quite a substantial difference.


Vanishing Amid Speed and Convenience

Another factor is the discontinuation of onboard ekiben sales. Onboard sales are becoming increasingly scarce, as demonstrated by JR Hokkaido's complete discontinuation of the practice. 

In the past, on the Yamagata Shinkansen "Tsubasa," passengers could enjoy Yamagata Station's beef bento without having to make intermediate stops. Similarly, on the express train "Hokuto" connecting Sapporo to Hakodate, travelers could savor Oshamambe Station's kani-meshi (rice cooked with crab meat).

Such nostalgic services have faded away.

Convenience stores are rapidly increasing. As a result, many passengers are unfortunately choosing sandwiches or convenience store bento over the slightly higher-priced station ekiben.

Settling for such everyday fare during a special journey is disappointing and feels so mundane, at least to me.

I do not want to become an old-timer who complains, "Back in my day, we used to eat ekiben on train journeys." However, if you ever have the chance, please buy ekiben, even if they are a bit pricey.

In addition to the special experience they bring, enjoying ekiben is also a way to preserve regional cultures.

And so, as the alcohol took effect, I entered the realm of secluded stations such as Ozore. 

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(Read the article in Japanese.)

Author: Kan Emori, The Sankei Shimbun