Aching for “ekiben”: Japan’s train station lunchboxes
Ekiben (駅弁) is something uniquely Japanese, and has captured the attention of people from all over the world. It translates as “train station lunchbox”, where “eki” means train station, and “ben” is short for bentō (弁当 lunchbox). For most parts, they are different from a regular bentō one would find at a convenience store, because they are sold at train stations. Sometimes they are sold at an ekibenya (駅弁屋 station bentō shop) on the train platform, or even on the train itself, abd they are meant for passengers embarking on a long train journey where they would become hungry along the way. Unlike in some other countries, eating on long-haul train rides in Japanese is perfectly fine, so passengers can indulge in a lavish lunchbox as they travel on the railways.
Ekiben sales booth (extreme right) at Tōkyō Station's Ekibenya Matsuri. (Image credit: JR East Foods Co., Ltd.)
Ekiben sales booth at train station platforms. (Image credit: おぎのや/663highland/CC BY 2.5)
Ekiben is one of the greatest pleasures of travelling in Japan by train, and in this article, I want to show you how it originally came to be, from its culture to its variety, and also showcase to you famous examples of ekiben that locals and foreign visitors have to come to love. Without further ado, let’s go explore the world of ekiben!
Ekiben has roots dating back to the same period when the first railway track was developed in Japan. Before the advent of rail travel, ekiben’s precursor was the bentō (弁当), whose history dates back to the Edo Period (江戸時代 Edo-jidai) and were sold at teahouses and kabuki/Noh performance theatres, by which they were called makunouchi-bentō (幕の内弁当 between-act boxed lunches). As train travel gradually became a common mode of transport, the bentō that was to be consumed on the train was called ekiben, and they grew in popularity especially after World War 2.
Ekiben sales at Yokokawa Station in the past. (Image credit: おぎのや)
In fact, it was at a particular station where the ekiben boom took off. At Yokokawa Station (横川駅 Yokokawa-eki) in Gunma Prefecture (群馬県 Gunma-ken), there is a particular ekiben named Tōge no Kamameshi (峠の釜めし) that was immensely popular among train travellers. This station used to be an intermediary stop for passengers travelling to Karuizawa (軽井沢) on the Shin’etsu Main Line (信越本線 Shin’etsu-honsen). In order to climb the steep slope between Yokokawa and Karuizawa, they had to connect to the diesel locomotive. This transition took some time, so to make good use of this time, ekiben were sold at the platform for the passengers!
Sales staff (left) and sales cart for Tōge no Kamameshi. (Image credit: おぎのや)
However, since the introduction of Nagano Shinkansen (長野新幹線) in 1997, the nearby Usui Pass was closed, and Yokokawa Station became a terminal station. The memorable sight of people buying ekiben during train connection was sorely missed, but many people still come here to explore the area, and even seek out the ekiben itself.
(Note: I wrote more about the Usui Pass in an earlier article. You can check it out here.)
What qualifies as ekiben? (Image credit: photoAC)
Although ekiben is often understood simply as a lunchbox sold at a train station, there are some basic observations on what defines it. They have a distinctive container, packaging or wrapping paper, and originally the sale of an ekiben is limited only at one specific train station, and hence many locals would have the following mindset: “if you’re going to this station, then you must try the local ekiben!”.
Official ekiben logo. (Image credit: JR East/Carissa Loh/Nazrul Buang)
Observant visitors will notice a particular logo on their ekiben (see above), and this logo carries a particular meaning. It signifies that the ekiben is sold by an authorised organisation at a JR station(s).
The first of its kind
One of the first ekiben to be sold in Japan in late 19th century. (Image credit: Ekiben Museum)
Although ekiben appeared around the same time as the advent of train travel, there isn’t any official record for the country’s first ekiben sold at a train station. One popular theory claims that the first ekiben was sold at Utsunomiya Station (宇都宮駅 Utsunomiya-eki) by Shirokiya (白木屋), an inn commissioned by Nippon Railway (日本鉄道 Nippon-Tetsudō), Japan’s first private railway company. It consisted of two rice balls (おにぎり onigiri) and pickled daikon radish (沢庵 takuan) wrapped in bamboo skin, and it was sold at the station on 16 July 1887.
It’s a wrap
The different kinds of ekiben containers. (Image credit: Ekiben Museum)
People thinking of which ekiben to go for are often spoiled for choice; there’s just too many to choose from. People will notice that it’s not just the menu that’s all different, but all ekiben even have packaging styles that are distinctive from one another! Ekiben makers put in a lot of thought and effort to make sure their ekiben stands out among the rest, and here are some of the ways they ensure their own creation is unique:
A) Wrapping paper
The wrapping paper used to wrap ekiben not only contain basic information such as the ekiben name, preparation source, and notes. They are also used to illustrate and promote the areas (e.g. Ebi Senryō Chirashi’s wrapping paper depicting the local food specialty of Niigata). It’s an effective way to create an unforgettable impression on the visitors. Some visitors even collect them as mementos from their train travels.
Who says the container must be a regular one? Ekiben markers have been creative in not only the design of the wrapping paper, but also the container itself. While some follow more conventional designs, others take a more unorthodox route by using different materials and even incorporate art into them (e.g. Daruma Bentō with a container in the shape of a daruma, Hipparidakemeshi uses an earthernware container in the shape of an octopus trap). And of course, naturally there are ekiben collectors who have gone to countless train stations just to collect containers of rare and limited-edition ekiben.
Hot or cold
Unlike most meals, ekiben are supposed to be enjoyed cold or at room temperature. (Image credit: Ekiben Museum)
Unlike regular meals, ekiben are sold and enjoyed when cold or room temperature. In fact, that’s the point: they’re supposed to be enjoyed that way, and they don’t need to be heated up! The main challenge of preparing ekiben is ensuring that they can be consumed even when cold, without compromising on the overall taste. Ekiben makers use several methods to overcome these issues:
① Some ingredients harden a lot over time, so some ekiben makers use those that can remain tender even after some time. That includes the types of meats, topping and even rice that they use to form their own secret recipe.
② Oily foods also harden over time, so ekiben makers ensure that their ekiben do not contain oil or try to remove as much oil as possible. One way is to double-boil some meats so that they become softer, more tender and less oily.
③ Food usually loses their taste when they cool down over time, so to retain the taste, ekiben uses extra seasoning and stronger flavours. Seasoning meats is important, with many ekiben makers making and using their own “secret sauce”, and in some cases the sauce has a stronger taste and is added twice.
④ The contents of ekiben are often packed to the brim with rice, and many ingredients and toppings. Packing it to the brim helps to keep the ekiben in one piece, and ensures the content does not get mixed up.
Perhaps most importantly, ekiben has helped to showcase the local specialities of each of the different regions of Japan (特産品 tokusanhin). As a haven for amazing foods, Japan’s cuisine is made up of a diverse variety of delicacies, and ekiben is an effective outlet for showcasing the specialty of each region, as many ekiben makers use local ingredients that represent the unique taste of the area.
In fact, hundreds of new ekiben are introduced every year, and since they are sold mainly in their designated train stations, people look high and low for the most coveted boxed lunches. Furthermore, there are even ekiben tournaments organised to find the best ones in Japan, showcasing the specialties of each region. For instance. East Japan Railway Company (JR East) hosts the annual Ekiben Grand Prix (駅弁味の陣 Ekiben-aji-no-jin), exhibiting the best ekiben from eastern Japan.
Map of selected famous ekiben in Japan. (Image credit: Google Maps/Ekiben Museum/JR East)
Let me highlight some of the most famous ekiben in Japan, according to JR regions (from north to south).
(Note: the prices listed for each ekiben below are all approximate and may be subjected to change. The packaging and contents of the ekiben may also vary according to the year/edition.)
JR Hokkaido (JR北海道) area
① Kakimeshi (かきめし)
Main station: Akkeshi Station (厚岸駅)
Kakimeshi. (Image credit: Ekiben Museum)
First, we begin with the northern region of Hokkaidō (北海道), in the far eastern city of Akkeshi (厚岸). As a port town facing the Pacific Ocean, Akkeshi has flourished as a fishing port since the Edo Period, and its prized specialty is oysters (かき kaki). It comes as no surprise that the town’s famous ekiben features oysters as its main highlight.
Kakimeshi is rice cooked in oyster broth and sprinkled with Hijiki seaweed, and topped with a chock full of oysters, clams, mussels, and giant butterbur. This ekiben made its debut in 1960, and has since been famous among tourists for its rich flavour and distinctive texture. It is sold at Akkeshi Station (厚岸駅 Akkeshi-eki) on the Nemuro Line (根室線 Nemuro-sen) in Hokkaido.
② Ikameshi (いかめし)
Main station: Mori Station (森駅)
Ikameshi. (Image credit: Ekiben Museum)
The next ekiben from Hokkaido is probably the most iconic in the whole region. In the quiet town of Mori (森町 Mori-machi), visitors can find one of Hokkaido’s most famous ekiben: Ikameshi. It features Japanese common squid (マイカ maika) stuffed with rice and glutinous rice (ratio of 2:1), and simmered in soya sauce. This particular ekiben has been praised for its simple yet deep taste, and is a regular feature in many ekiben tournaments.
Ikameshi has been one of Japan’s best-selling ekiben since its debut in 1941. Although it is primarily sold at Mori Station (森駅 Mori-eki) on the Hakodate Main Line (函館本線 Hakodate-honsen) in Hokkaido, more than 95 percent of its total sales come from ekiben tournaments and department stores and it has been regularly sold out at the station in the past.
JR East (JR東日本) area
③ Torimeshi (鶏めし)
Main station: Ōdate Station (大館駅)
Torimeshi. (Image credit: JR East)
Now we move southward from Hokkaidō to the region of Tōhoku, and we start with Akita Prefecture (秋田県 Akita-ken). The city of Ōdate (大館) in Akita is home to Hinai-jidori (比内地鶏), one of the most prized chickens in Japan, so it’s only natural that the city’s ekiben features the coveted poultry.
(Note: I wrote about Hinai-jidori in a previous article. Have a look at it!)
The ekiben generally features Akita Komachi (あきたこまち) rice cooked in broth made from chicken bones and soya sauce, topped with sweet and spicy Hinai chicken and scrambled eggs, and with a side of pickles and simmered dishes. The rice and chicken have a distinctive sweetness that has given the ekiben a prominent name since its debut in 1947.
What’s outstanding about Torimeshi is that it was awarded the highest honour of “Ekiben General” at the Ekiben Grand Prix twice, in 2015 and 2016. It is said that up to 470,000 sets were sold in a year! Tori-meshi is the pride of Ōdate and Akita Prefecture, and ekiben lovers ought to look out for it especially when they pass by Ōdate Station.
④ Uni Bentō (うに弁当)
Main station: Kuji Station (久慈駅)
Uni Bentō. (Image credit: Ekiben Museum)
Fans of sea urchin (うに uni) might want to make a detour to Kuji Station in Iwate Prefecture (岩手県 Iwate-ken). The train station’s representative ekiben features sea urchin covering the entire container, with rice below and served with a slice of lemon and pickled daikon radish.
Since its debut in 1986, this ekiben has been particularly sought after for several reasons. It is sold only during non-winter seasons (April–October, except for Mondays), and only a limited quantity is sold daily. It's very popular among train travellers, so one better get it when it's still available!
⑤ Gyūtan Bentō (牛タン弁当)
Main station: Sendai Station (仙台駅)
Gyūtan Bentō. (Image credit: Ekiben Museum)
Mention Sendai (仙台), the largest city in Miyagi Prefecture (宮城県 Miyagi-ken) and Tōhoku Region, and people would naturally imagine gyūtan (牛タン), which is grilled beef tongue. It’s a delicacy that is central to Sendai’s identity, and it would only be expected to see that the city’s own ekiben highlights it.
The ekiben is simple: 5–6 pieces of charcoal-grilled beef tongue on a bed of rice, with simple pickles on the side. But feasting on this ekiben is a special experience, and the secret lies in its exothermic container, where it can heat up the lunchbox and make it a lot more savoury.
This ekiben made its debut in 1990, making it a relatively young one. There are many variations of this ekiben, all of which has made Sendai Station famous. It can also be bought on the Tōhoku Shinkansen (東北新幹線) and selected major department stores in Tokyo. With this ekiben, visitors can enjoy gyūtan not only when in Sendai but also en route to the city.
⑥ Shake Harakomeshi (鮭はらこめし)
Main station: Sendai Station (仙台駅)
Shake Harakomeshi. (Image credit: JR East)
It may surprise some people, but gyūtan wasn’t always representative of Sendai. Before the Gyūtan Bentō, the number-one ekiben in the city was Shake Harakomeshi, which is salmon with roe on rice. Originally created to commemorate the opening of Sendai Station for the Tōhoku Shinkansen’s route newly built route between Ōmiya Station (大宮駅 Ōmiya-eki) and Morioka Station (盛岡駅 Morioka-eki) in 1982, it began public sales only two years later, in 1984. This ekiben can be bought at Sendai Station, together with Gyūtan Bentō.
⑦ Gyūniku Domannaka (牛肉どまん中)
Main station: Yonezawa Station (米沢駅)
Gyūniku Domannaka. (Image credit: JR East)
When in Yonezawa (米沢), eat Yonezawa beef (米沢牛 Yonezawa-gyū). This southern city in Yamagata Prefecture (山形県 Yamagata-ken) is famous for its legendary Yonezawa beef, one of the three most famous beef brands in Japan alongside Matsusaka beef (松阪牛 Matsusaka-gyū) and Kōbe beef (神戸牛 Kōbe-gyū). So, is it any wonder that the city’s representative ekiben would have Yonezawa beef in it?
(Note: I also covered Yonezawa beef in an earlier article. Have a look at it!)
This ekiben features sweet and spicy stewed Yonezawa beef and ground beef (牛そぼろ gyū-soboro) on a bed of locally grown Domannaka (どまん中) rice, served with kamaboko, scrambled eggs, and pickled radish. It’s a simple dish that combines two of Yonezawa’s best offerings: beef and rice. Since its debut in 1993, this ekiben has been a regular hit at ekiben tournaments and major department stores.
There are other variants of Gyūniku Domannaka such as miso, curry and even bibimbap. Although originally sold at Yonezawa Station (米沢駅 Yonezawa-eki), they can be found in places such as Tōkyō Station (東京駅 Tōkyō-eki) and major shopping areas such as Keio Department Store in Shinjuku.
⑧ Nori Nori Ben (海苔のりべん)
Main station: Kōriyama Station (郡山駅)
A version of Nori Nori Ben. (Image credit: JR East)
Nori Nori Ben is an ekiben that features an ingredient that’s quintessential to Japanese cuisine. As the name suggests, its main highlight is the nori (海苔 edible seaweed), and this ekiben is a specialty from the city of Kōriyama (郡山) in Fukushima Prefecture (福島県 Fukushima-ken).
It features locally grown rice wrapped in nori, sprinkled with kelp tsukudani (佃煮), dried bonito flakes, and topped with pickled plum. Accompaniments include burdock roots, shrimp potato, and others.
⑨ Ebi Senryō Chirashi (えび千両ちらし)
Main station: Niigata Station (新潟駅)
Ebi Senryō Chirashi. (Image credit: JR East)
As a city that directly faces the Sea of Japan, Niigata (新潟) is famous for its seafood, and at the same time, it is home to the famous koshihikari (コシヒカリ) rice. As such, the representative ekiben of the city naturally features both in a box. It includes a chock full of seafood―kabayaki (蒲焼) grilled eel, dried squid, vinegared gizzard shad (コハダ kohada), and steamed shrimp―sandwiched between egg omelette above, and locally grown rice below.
Ebi Senryō Chirashi is regarded as a luxurious ekiben, with a price point that’s higher than the average ekiben. It can be bought at Niigata Station and Tōkyō Station during special events.
⑩ Tōge no Kamameshi (峠の釜飯)
Main station: Yokokawa Station (横川駅)
Tōge no Kamameshi. (Image credit: JR East)
From the first look at Tōge no Kamameshi, and people would be struck by the unusual earthenware container. This is one of the most famous ekiben in Japan, and its name translates as “earthenware rice of the mountain pass”, as expected from the region’s mountainous terrain. It features brown rice, chicken, bamboo shoots, burdock roots, shiitake mushrooms, chestnuts, sardines, quail eggs, pickled ginger, and green peas. This ekiben has been on sale at Yokokawa Station since 1953.
⑪ Daruma Bentō (だるま弁当)
Main station: Takasaki Station (高崎駅)
Daruma Bentō. (Image credit: JR East)
The city of Takasaki (高崎) in Gunma Prefecture is famous for its daruma (達磨), which are hollow, round, Japanese traditional dolls. Hence, it comes as no surprise that the city’s ekiben would come in a container shaped like a daruma. Daruma Bentō is similar to Tōge no Kamameshi in two ways: one, it is also one of the most iconic ekiben in Japan; and two, it also showcases Gunma’s mountain foods. This ekiben includes chicken, chicken Hachiman (八幡) roll, red and black konjac balls, shiitake mushrooms, bamboo shoots, stewed mountain vegetables, burdock roots, eggplants, and chestnuts.
There have been special editions of Daruma Bentō made over the years, including a green version to commemorate the opening of Nagano Shinkansen in 1997, a white one for the Winter Olympics in 1998, and even a Hello Kitty version back in 2000.
⑫ Shiumai Bentō (シウマイ弁当)
Main station: Yokohama Station (横浜駅)
A version of Shiumai Bentō. (Image credit: JR East)
The city of Yokohama (横浜) is home to one of Japan's largest Chinatown (横浜中華街 Yokohama-chūkagai), and what better way to make their representative ekiben than to reflect Chinese cooking in it. Chinese cuisine is diverse, but one particular dish that stands out in Japan is shiumai. In this ekiben, you would get rice shaped like bales, shiumai (5– 6 pieces), fried chicken, kamaboko, and egg omelettes.
The contents have changed several times since its debut in 1954, and people can buy this at Yokohama Station, as well as train stations and department stores in the city.
JR Central (JR東海) area
⑬ Inarizushi (稲荷寿司)
Main station: Toyohashi Station (豊橋駅)
Inarizushi. (Image credit: Ekiben Museum)
One of the most recognisable sushi is Inarizushi, which is vinegared rice wrapped in fried tofu skins called abura-age (油揚げ). It is named after the Shintō god Inari, whose messengers are foxes that are said to like fried tofu, and Inarizushi’s shape resembles fox ears. In the city of Toyohashi (豊橋), visitors can find an ekiben filled with Inarizushi.
First-time buyers might find this ekiben overly simplistic. However, looks can be deceiving, as some have said that this is one of the best tasting ekiben in Japan, praised for its simple yet profound taste.
⑭ Ganso Taimeshi (元祖鯛めし)
Main station: Shizuoka Station (静岡駅)
Ganso Taimeshi. (Image credit: Ekiben Museum)
For fish lovers, they ought to head down to Shizuoka Station (静岡駅 Shizuoka-eki), where the city is proud to feature sea bream (鯛 tai) as the star of its ekiben. Featuring a box entirely covered with sea bream on the top with a bed of rice below, this is one of the oldest ekiben in Japan, with its first appearance back in 1897.
JR West (JR西日本) area
⑮ Masu no Sushi (ますのすし)
Main station: Toyama Station (富山駅)
Masu no Sushi. (Image credit: Ekiben Museum)
Still can’t get enough of fish? Then we shall head westward to Toyama Station (富山駅 Toyama-eki), where we can find the city/prefecture’s specialty fish: trout (ます masu). First-time buyers would be in for a surprise; the ekiben features a wooden-barrel container, and upon opening it, diners will find trout covering the whole container with a bed of rice underneath, all wrapped in bamboo leaves.
This ekiben is considered a luxurious choice and has been highly praised by many past diners. It even won the title of “Ekiben Master” (駅弁の達人 ekiben-no-tatsujin) in 2004 during “DISCOVER WEST” tourism campaign by JR West.
⑯ Echizen Kanimeshi (越前かにめし)
Main station: Fukui Station (福井駅)
Echizen Kanimeshi. (Image credit: Ekiben Museum)
Do you like crabs? Then your next destination will be Fukui Station, where visitors can find an ekiben filled with crab meat. This one made its debut in 1961, and its features rice cooked with crab miso, and a heap of crab meat made from snow crabs, the city’s very own specialty.
This traditional ekiben is one of the most popular in Japan, and perhaps the prime representative of its kind. Visitors should definitely catch this prized ekiben whenever they visit Fukui in western Japan.
⑰ Ganso Kanizushi (元祖かにずし)
Main station: Tottori Station (鳥取駅)
Ganso Kanizushi. (Image credit: Ekiben Museum)
Still want more crabs? Then head on over to Tottori Station (鳥取駅 Tottori-eki), where the prefecture and city are also known for their crabs. Moreover, they are considered the originator of the crab sushi ekiben that first appeared in 1952, as crabs were made available throughout the year because of new preservation techniques.
Like Fukui’s own ekiben, this one features vinegared Inaba rice covered with plentiful crab meat and scrambled eggs. It also won the title of “Ekiben Master” in 2004 during “DISCOVER WEST” tourism campaign.
⑱ Hipparidakomeshi (ひっぱりだこ飯)
Main station: Nishi-Akashi Station (西明石駅)
Hipparidakomeshi. (Image credit: Ekiben Museum)
At Nishi-Akashi Station, visitors can find a special kind of ekiben named Hipparidakomeshi. This one made its debut only in 1998 as commemoration for the magnificent Akashi Kaikyō Bridge but has since gotten national recognition.
This ekiben features a brown pottery container shaped like a traditional octopus trap, and inside is soya sauce-flavoured rice covered with stewed Akashi octopus, surimi tempura, bamboo shoots, conger eel, matsutake mushrooms, carrots and more. It also won “Ekiben Master” in 2004.
⑲ Shamoji Kakimeshi (しゃもじかきめし)
Main station: Hiroshima Station (広島駅)
Shamoji Kakimeshi. (Image credit: Ekiben Museum)
Hiroshima Station is home to Shamoji Kakimeshi, an ekiben that specially features the local specialty: oysters. First appeared in 1968, this ekiben features a red container in the shape of a rice scoop, with rice cooked in oyster stock, boiled oysters, fried oysters, oysters mixed with miso, scrambled eggs, and pickled Hiroshima vegetables. This ekiben is limited only during winter, from October to March, because of oyster seasonality.
⑳ Anagomeshi (あなごめし)
Main station: Miyajimaguchi Station (宮島口駅)
Anagomeshi. (Image credit: Ekiben Museum)
Another specialty that Hiroshima is famous for? Conger eel (あなご anago). At Miyajimaguchi Station, the gateway train station to Miyajima—one of Japan’s Three Great Views (日本三景 Nihon-sankei)—visitors can find the highly prized Anagomeshi. It features copious amounts of conger eel grilled kabayaki-style—soaked in soya sauce and grilled three times—on a bed of rice cooked in conger eel stock.
Making its debut as far back as 1901, it is one of the oldest types of ekiben, and many ekiben fans and experts have claimed that this is the best ekiben in Japan. As a luxurious ekiben, it is also priced higher than regular ekibens, and perhaps unsurprisingly, it also won “Ekiben Master” in 2004.
JR Shikoku (JR四国) area
㉑ Seto no Oshizushi (瀬戸の押寿司)
Main station: Imabari Station (今治駅)
A version of Seto no Oshizushi. (Image credit: Ekiben Museum)
Next up, we head over to Shikoku (四国) where a flagship ekiben can be found at Imabari Station in Ehime Prefecture (愛媛県 Ehime-ken). Oshizushi is a special type of sushi made by pressing sushi rice and other ingredients into a box or mould, and here visitors can find an ekiben that perfectly showcases that.
Named Seto no Oshizushi, this simplistic yet exquisite ekiben is pleasing to the eye as it is wondrous on the palate. It features a rectangular wooden container, vinegared rice, a bamboo leaf, and sea bream—which covers the entire top of the container—freshly caught from the nearby Seto Inland Sea (瀬戸内海 Seto Naikai).
JR Kyushu (JR九州) area
㉒ Kashiwameshi (かしわめし)
Main station: Orio Station (折尾駅)
Kashiwameshi. (Image credit: Ekiben Museum)
Finally, we move to the southern region of Kyūshū (九州), and we start off with Fukuoka Prefecture (福岡県 Fukuoka-ken). Orio Station is home to the Kashiwameshi, which has been touted by some ekiben fans as the best chicken ekiben in Japan. It features rice cooked in chicken broth, chopped seaweed, scrambled eggs and flaky chicken meat called kashiwa (かしわ).
Although originally from Orio Station, this ekiben can also be bought at other nearby train stations on the Kagoshima Main Line (鹿児島本線 Kagoshima-honsen), such as Yahata Station (八幡駅 Yahata-eki) and Kurosaki Station (黒崎駅 Kurosaki-eki).
㉓ Aritayaki Curry (有田焼カレー)
Main station: Arita Station (有田駅)
Aritayaki Curry. (Image credit: Ekiben Museum)
You may be familiar with Japanese curry, but have you heard of Japanese curry ekiben? Arita Station in Saga Prefecture (佐賀県) is where one can find the special Aritayaki Curry, which specially features an Arita porcelain container, and cheesy curry rice with minced beef. The curry is made with 28 different spices, and it is baked together with the porcelain container.
Aritayaki Curry made its debut in 2007 and has won 1st place in the the 7th Kyushu Ekiben Ranking in 2010. It is famous among ekiben fans for its unconventional design, especially with the inclusion of Arita porcelain as a container.
㉔ Hyakunen no Tabimonogatari Kareigawa (百年の旅物語かれい川)
Main station: Kareigawa Station (嘉例川駅)
Hyakunen no Tabimonogatari Kareigawa. (Image credit: Ekiben Museum)
And finally, we end our journey in the far south at Kareigawa Station, which is home to a poetically named ekiben: Hyakunen no Tabimonogatari Kareigawa. Translated as “Story of a 100-year Journey: Kareigawa”, this ekiben made its debut in 2004 as a commemoration of the Kyushu Shinkansen (九州新幹線) in 2004, and the limited express train Hayato no Kaze (はやとの風).
The container is covered in bamboo skin, and the contents are cooked rice with shiitake mushrooms and bamboo shoots, Satsuma-age (薩摩揚げ Kagoshima-style fried fishcake) tempura, croquettes, mushrooms, and simmered shiitake mushrooms and bamboo shoots. It’s a regular candidate at the Kyushu Ekiben Ranking (九州駅弁ランキング) by JR Kyushu, with a ranking in the top 5 every year, and up to approximately 6,000 boxes are sold every year.
With a wide variety of ekiben and new ones making their debut every year, people are bound to make new ekiben discoveries. Enjoy a delicious ekiben while gazing at the beautiful scenery from the train window is an experience everyone should have in their lifetime! Every ekiben is full of exquisitie charm unique to their area of origin, and since food is always welcomed, they make the best travel companion. Let’s make wonderful memories with amazing ekiben from all over Japan!
(INSIDER TIP: If you’re planning to seek out ekiben in eastern Japan, it will definitely help your quest if you have the JR EAST PASS!)
JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)
JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and where you can use it. (Image credit: JR East)
The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) is an affordable pass that offers unlimited train rides on JR East lines, including bullet trains, within the valid area. It's a 5-day flexible pass where you can choose any 5 days within a 14-day period for your travel, and the 5 days need not be consecutive either. It's ¥19,350 when you buy it overseas, making it a considerable option for visitors to the region. Pass holders can also reserve seats online for up to a month in advance for free.
JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)
JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) and where you can use it. (Image credit: JR East)
The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) is an affordable pass that offers unlimited train rides on JR East lines, including bullet trains, within the valid area. It's a 5-day flexible pass where you can choose any 5 days within a 14-day period for your travel, and the 5 days need not be consecutive either. It's ¥17,310 when you buy it overseas, making it a considerable option for visitors to Nagano and Niigata. Pass holders can also reserve seats online for up to a month in advance for free.
Header image credit: JR East/Carissa Loh