All about ekiben, Japanese train station bentos

(First off, my apologies for the long silence around here. I’ve been terribly sick since getting back from Japan last week, due to a bad cold that I seem to have picked up on the long journey home. I’m slowly getting back into the swing of things though. Anyway, back to bentos!)

I’ve always contemplated getting a Japan Rail (JR) Pass to do some extended travel around Japan by train, but until this most recent trip back I’ve never done so, due to time and budgetary constraints. This time around, I knew that there were two long trips on the Shinkansen bullet train in the works, so I took that as an excuse to splurge on a 14-day JR Pass. I didn’t ride the rails every single day of those 14 days, but I did take several trips and got to see parts of Japan that I’d never seen before. And of course, I indulged in several ekiben or station bentos along the way.

I’ve talked briefly about ekiben before. Of all the different manifestations of bentos that exist in Japan, ekiben occupy a special place. They’re not just dull meals to fill up hungry travelers, like airline meals or the boring sandwiches and such that you get on European trains. The best ekiben provide a small window into the regional cuisine and culture of the place where the bento is produced. The people who make and sell these bentos do so with great thought and pride in what they do. They’re regarded as a means of drawing tourists and bringing fame and fortune to the region. For travellers, they’re just plain fun.

Where to buy ekiben

In urban areas, ekiben are sold mainly at train stations with long-distance trains going in and out. You won’t find ekiben at stations with only regional commuter lines or subway/metro lines. So for example, while Tokyo Station has hundreds of ekiben for sale by multiple vendors, Ginza Station has none (or just a couple that target residents and commuters). Out in the countryside, you may find ekiben for sale at larger train stations on local lines, though the number of really regional ekiben sellers is sadly dwindling.

If you’re taking the Shinkansen anywhere, you will be spoiled for choice when it comes to bentos. Every Shinkansen platform has at least one store or pushcart selling ekiben. Here’s an ekiben kiosk at Tokyo Station.

ekiben-tokyostation.jpg

Here’s one at Sendai Station, with the nose of a Shinkansen train passing by.

ekiben-sendaistation.jpg

And this more elaborate booth is at Morioka Station in Iwate prefecture up north.

ekiben-moriokastation.jpg

You can also find other ekiben vendors along the corridors going to the platform, as well as in the shopping malls and depachika (department store food halls) that are attached to large train stations. And if you forget or just don’t have the time to buy one before you get on the train, don’t worry - most long distance trains, including the Shinkansen, sell bentos, snacks and beverages from food trolleys on board.

Soraben (空弁) are basically ekiben that are sold at airports (kuukou) rather than stations (eki). In the Tokyo area Haneda airport has far more ekiben sellers than Narita does. Presumably domestic travellers buy bentos more than international ones. (Note: Haneda has recently resumed international flights.)

How to buy ekiben

Buying ekiben is simplicity itself. They are set up to be easy to choose and just grab and go. More often than not you’ll see a display of the bentos for sale, either the real thing or plastic models, with prices clearly marked. All you have to do is point and buy. This is the display at Morioka Station.

ekibendisplay-morioka.jpg

How much do they cost?

Prices range from as low as 300 yen for a small snack bento to above 3000 yen for elaborate bentos. Most full meal size bentos are in the 700 to 1200 yen range.

Are there ekiben guidebooks?

Yes - in Japanese only though. You don’t really need one unless you are dead serious about trying particular ekiben. Just grab what appeals to you, or ask someone from the area what they recommend.

Am I stuck eating rice if I do an ekiben tour?

Most ekiben are rice based, but you can also find noodle bentos, dumplings and more. You can also go for sandwiches, donuts or sweet pastries at the bakery/coffee stalls if you wish.

What is there to drink?

Anything that is sold at a Japanese kiosk or from a vending machine is available, from hot or cold teas or coffees to soft drinks and more. You can also buy beer, sake and other alcoholic beverages. (If you’re on a long distance train at night, you may encounter people eating ekiben and getting tipsy. Most of the time they don’t get drunk enough to be bothersome.)

So let’s look at some ekiben!

These are just some of the ones that I had in the past few weeks. I think I have a few thousand more to go before I’ve tried every single ekiben in Japan. Not only do I love eating ekiben, they also give me tons of ideas for homemade bentos.

These are small snack bentos (4-600 yen each) that we ate for breakfast on an early morning Shinkansen departing from Tokyo Station. There’s a packet of 3 onigiri wrapped in a real bamboo leaf, and a packet of delicate ham and butter sandwiches in a pretty retro design box.

ekiben-tokyoshinkansen.jpg

The sandwiches may look boring, but were really delicious. The box proudly proclaimed the provenance of the ham used (kurobuta pork cured by an old charcuterie in Kamakura).

ekiben-sandwich.jpg

This is a bento sold at a regional train station, Ohdate in Akita prefecture. It’s called torimeshi bento (chicken-rice bento) and is so famous that people make a detour to Ohdate just to pick up these bentos. They feature free range happy chicken meat cooked in a soy sauce-based sauce in rice. This huge, filling and delicious bento is just 850 yen (about US $10).

ekiben-hanazentorimeshi.jpg

This is a wappameshi bento, packed in a wappa or bent “wood” box, also from Akita. (Sadly the box isn’t made of wood, but of disposable wood grain-printed styrofoam.) The actual contents look remarkably like the photo on the kakeshi or paper wrapping. There’s a bed of delicious akitakomachi rice under all the goodies you see. It, too, was delicious, if a trifle salty.

ekiben-wappameshi_0.jpg

This is a yakisoba (stir fried noodle) bento, with a twist. When you pull on a string on the side of the bento box, the box heats up with a whooshing sound. It sounds good in theory, but in practice the box gets a bit too hot to handle with bare hands or balance on ones knee, while the insides don’t get that hot. Plus, it makes the whole train compartment starts to smell like halfway-heated noodles, which may not be appreciated by your fellow passengers. At least it was fairly tasty, filling and cheap (800 yen).

ekiben-yakisoba.jpg

On the other end of the price scale is this elaborate bento for two, purchased at Kyoto Station. It cost 3200 yen or so, but was worth it I think - it was so beautiful and delicious.

ekiben-kyotomakunouchi.jpg

Here are several sushi bentos. Most sushi sold as ekiben features cooked or processed (salted, marinated, smoked, etc.) fish. If raw fish sushi is sold, you’re reminded several times to eat it right away. This temarizushi bento from Kyoto Station is a favorite that I keep going back to again and again. It’s about 1300 yen. (Yes, Kyoto tends to be more expensive.)

ekiben-temarizushi-kyoto.jpg

This is a kanizushi (crabmeat sushi) bento bought and consumed on the Hokuriku Honsen line going from Kanazawa to Echigo Yuzawa, along the Japan Sea side of the country. It’s a chirashizushi - a bed of sushi rice with tons of sweet cooked crabmeat on top. I thought about saving the cute crab shaped baran, but it was a bit too crabby.

ekiben-kanizushi.jpg

This is another kind of ekiben sushi, oshizushi (pressed sushi) purchased at Matsumoto Station, in Nagano prefecture. All the fish used here is pre-processed (salted or marinated in vinegar). Each piece is wrapped individually in plastic, which isn’t too eco-friendly, but is handy if you’re too full to finish the sushi in one go.

ekiben-matsumoto-sushi.jpg

These little wrapped sushi are a definite step up. They are wrapped in fresh persimmon (kaki) leaves and are called kaki no ha sushi. They’re from Kyoto Station again, from the Isetan department store food hall. Each one features a small square of pressed sushi rice topped with a piece of crabmeat, cured salmon, omelette and so on.

ekiben-kakinohazushi-kyoto.jpg

And finally, here’s the ekiben that is still my favorite - the scallop rice bento from Kiyoken in Yokohama, featured here in detail. I like it so much because it’s so well balanced, and even includes a little dessert. It’s available at Yokohama and Shin Yokohama stations and is 980 yen.

ekiben-yokohama-kiyoken.jpg

So there you have it. I hope that it gives you some inkling as to the variety of ekiben available. If you decide to go on an ekiben trip of your own after reading this, please let me know. ^_^

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Re: All about ekiben, Japanese train station bentos

Everything looks so mouthwatering.. yum yum... I hope I can go on an ekiben trip too someday...

Re: All about ekiben, Japanese train station bentos

I'm visiting Tokyo, Kyoto and Miyajima soon with lots of Shinkansen travel! I'm so excited about ekiben as I've only had second (and probably third) rate bento in the UK! What do you recommend at Tokyo station?
Great information; thank you very much x

Re: All about ekiben, Japanese train station bentos

Well, Tokyo Station is so HUGE that you may find it too bewildering to get around, unless you are really determined. (I find it hard myself without a map in hand.) If you can find it there is a bento called the Tokyo Shinise Bento (shinise means 'long-established and respected company' basically) which is made up of various components made by famous restaurants and the like from around Tokyo. They are sold by NRE (Nippon Restaurant Enterprise) ekiben stores. Here's how it looks like and it is 1600 yen. But even if you just grab any bento, you probably won't be disappointed!

Re: All about ekiben, Japanese train station bentos

Thank you so much for this wonderful post! I enjoyed reading it very much and looking at all of the lovely pictures was fun :D I would have been tempted to find a way to take the fancier boxes home!

Re: All about ekiben, Japanese train station bentos

Wow, so detailed! I really love this post as it's a great introduction to a newbie like myself to ekiben. I hope one day to make it to Japan and try this out!

Re: All about ekiben, Japanese train station bentos

I was able to enjoy several of these esp. while riding the Shinkansen. I love the variety and every one I tried was delicious! I'd love to have one now!

Re: All about ekiben, Japanese train station bentos

When I visited Japan with my school, we took trains everywhere we went and frequently bought these for lunch. Looking at your pictures reminded me of all the fun bentos we tried - thanks for reminding me of the happy memories!

Re: All about ekiben, Japanese train station bentos

Wow! These pictures totally got me goin' crazy. I lived in Mizusawa for a while--and for a very short period I lived in Morioka. I often visited Sendai when I needed to get-away to a big city. I've been to these stations tons of times throughout my time in Japan. What a beautiful area!

Re: All about ekiben, Japanese train station bentos

Maki great article!!! I go to Japan every year to see some of my wife's family and i love trying the different eiki-ben. last year we took a trip to Niseko in Hokkaido and got to fly through Haneda airport. i was so happy that i was able to get some great soraben for the flight. i'm just so dissapointed that Narita doesn't offer the same selection. Since i always fly into/out of Narita i'm hoping one of these years they'll up the soraben choices. Keep up the great site!

Re: All about ekiben, Japanese train station bentos

I'm planning a trip to Japan next Spring (just bought the tickets!) and I will surely keep this guide handy, especially since I was planning a week of traveling around Japan with my friends.

Re: All about ekiben, Japanese train station bentos

I feel like you are sharing a whole new world with me!

Re: All about ekiben, Japanese train station bentos

Haha OMG, I loooooooove ekiben!! It's one of my favorite parts about traveling in Japan. The JR pass is definitely handy. Anytime I go on a train, I buy a bento or two, even if I've just eaten! I definitely prefer Kyoto's ekiben over Tokyo's. Though I do remember wandering around in the Tokyo station in early morning hours and there was a mass of ekiben stands selling freshly cooked rice for the bento! That was AMAZING!

(And oh man, only in Japan will you find something inside the wrapper looking exactly like it's advertised!!)

Re: All about ekiben, Japanese train station bentos

My husband, then two-and-a-half-year old daughter and I went to Japan on holidays last year and did a little bit of travel on the Shinkansen. I loved both travelling on the trains and the ekiben shops, even if I didn't have a clue what I was eating half the time. This blog post gave me such pangs of nostalgia and longing.

A few months after we got home, I told my daughter that the following day we would catch the train into the city and she could have her favourite food, sushi for lunch. She said she wanted to get sushi from the lady on the train and I had to explain that doesn't happy in Sydney.

Re: All about ekiben, Japanese train station bentos

I really enjoyed your post. It brings back many fond memories of travelling from Nagoya to Kyoto or Tokyo and enjoying the wonderful train snacks. Thanks.

Re: All about ekiben, Japanese train station bentos

Great pictures, everything looks delicious! I will be traveling around Japan in February and will take the train quite a lot. Unfortunately I don't like cold food, especially not in winter..do you know if long-distance trains also have a restaurant wagon where you can get some hot meals? Thanks!

Re: All about ekiben, Japanese train station bentos

Japanese long distance trains nowadays rarely have restaurant cars (shokudousha, 食堂車). The only exceptions are some special trains, especially ones that people take for overnight trips. They feature full service, expensive restaurants. The Shinkansen for instance doesn't have restaurants on board (according to Japanese Wikipedia the last one was abolished in 2000). You can get hot tea from the food carts though. Keep in mind that the bentos are never ice cold, they are sold at an ideal temperature for eating. There are also a few bentos, like the yakisoba one in the article, that are meant to be eaten hot, though they are rather rare.
(Sometimes you may be able to get cup noodles, but I'm not sure about that.)

However you can get hot food at the stations, usually ramen or udon or some time of noodle soup, often hot Western style soups, curry dishes, and so on. And the department stores that are attached to the big stations always have sit-down service restaurants. In a pinch, conbini (convenience stores) often have some hot or heat-uppable food of some kind. Also keep in mind that most beverage vending machines, which are everywhere, sell hot drinks (tea, coffee, sometimes even corn soup and such) as well as cold. You will never have to go hungry in Japan. ^_^

Re: All about ekiben, Japanese train station bentos

thanks a lot for the reply! I can't wait to be in Japan and try all the amazing food there. I am planning a trip to the ramen museum in Shin Yokohama :)

Re: All about ekiben, Japanese train station bentos

This was a facinating post for me - I really enjoyed it.

Are there any signs in English in Japan? I didn't see any in your pictures.

Re: All about ekiben, Japanese train station bentos

Official signage is in English, or roma-ji (phonetic spelling of Japanese words with the western alphabet). For instance all train station name boards have the roma-ji version there, so you know what stop you're at. Trains and subways in the Tokyo area usually have announcements in English too. (I think Kyoto's subway did too.) In areas or attractions frequented by tourists or foreigners in general, you see more English signage, as well as Chinese and Korean. Big department stores may have English signage, but smaller stores usually don't.

Re: All about ekiben, Japanese train station bentos

Great blog, Maki. Love reading everything. :)

I have a few questions about eikben. The first being about how fresh they are. Are ekiben made daily where they're sold, or is it sort of shipped in or whatever from else where? Also, if they aren't made fresh, do they have preservatives? If so, does that affect the flavour?

A more specific question now. What are the items in the wappameshi bento? I've seen some of those ingredients before, but I wouldn't have a clue what they are (for example, that thing hiding behind the fish with the holes in it).

Thanks. :)

Re: All about ekiben, Japanese train station bentos

Ekiben are not only made daily, they are often made several times throughout the day. For example, my favorite scallop rice bento above from a place called Kiyoken in Yokohama is only made in small batches, 2-3 times a day, so they often are out of them when I go to get one. I've learned to time my visits so that I have a better chance of grabbing one. Individual ingredients may have preservatives (just like food you buy at a supermarket) but overall ekiben, and all takeout bentos sold in Japan for that matter (e.g. ones sold in department food halls or at convenience stores) are made to be eaten within a few hours of production. The "eat before" date on the box often even has a time of day on it, e.g. "please eat by 9pm of today".

The wappameshi bento has, clockwise from the top: the square yellow thing is a tamagoyaki, the pale green rectangular things are the stewed stems of fukinotou (butterbur plant), the brown round thing is a stewed scallop, the round thing with holes is a slice of stewed lotus root, the pale greenish ball is a chestnut (I think), the fish is grilled salted salmon, there 's salmon roe/caviar, the long beige pointy thing is ...I forgot, but it was fairly bland and crunchy (maybe a young bamboo shoot...), the dark brown round thing is stewed shiitake mushroom, then there are a couple of snow peas for color and a slice of stewed fish cake (I think...could be wrong again.) The reason I don't remember all the details is my mother ate most of it ^_^;

Re: All about ekiben, Japanese train station bentos

Thanks for that. :) The reason I asked about how fresh ekiben are is because the packaging for some of them confused me. The packaging for the cheaper ekiben look mass produced, and at least one looked shrink wrapped. Not really something I'm used to seeing for freshly made food here in Australia. Glad to hear the preservatives are minimal too (I can understand individual ingredients having some preservatives, but when a whole meal has them it just tastes bad).

Also, thanks for listing the items in the wappameshi bento. :) But...now I'm hungry. >_<

Re: All about ekiben, Japanese train station bentos

The packaging is definitely mass produced, but the contents are freshly made. I guess you are looking at the topmost bentos, the small ones. Most likely they are packaged like that because they're sold from a buffet cart, where the seller has tons of bentos and other foods stacked up.

And as far as plastic and shrink wrapping, in Japan you sort of get used to most things being (from the standards of some other places) over-wrapped! Think individually wrapped buns, donuts, etc... though that is changing very slowly due to eco concerns and the like.

Re: All about ekiben, Japanese train station bentos

Wow! The American airlines couldlearn a lot from these folks, both for comp meals and sold meals. Honestly, I'm not a great fan of Japanese food, but I'd rather eat one of these bento boxes than ANY of the glop snacks that I've recently while flying.
Hold one, they say... sure you can get a meal on an airplane today! True. Your have two choices: Fly about 8 hours (coach) or spring for a First Class ticket. The coach fare is Gawd awful, often worse than the purchased stuff on domestic routes and the First Class meals (on U.S. carriers) seen to be the well preserved leftovers from the last included coach service, nearly ten years ago. If flying internationally, the smartest option is to pick code-shares (non-German) flying your intended route. Some of the foriehg flagged carriers have cut back too, but not nearly as much as have the American ones. Brightfully so, it IS still possible to get a decent meal on some international carriers. And yes, watch those code-shares! If international, you want to be on the Other Half of the deal, especially on the in-bound run! Otherwise, you will starve.

Re: All about ekiben, Japanese train station bentos

Amazing, amazing, amazing. I have always wanted to go to Japan... The wanting has not become less after reading this. It has a new dimension to it though. Now I'd love to go to Japan with you as a food guide...

Re: All about ekiben, Japanese train station bentos

I keep coming back to this post to look at the pretty pictures! If only we had such good "on the go" foods here.

Re: All about ekiben, Japanese train station bentos

I was in Kyoto in November and stopped in at Isetan in Kyoto station to buy a bento for the plane from Kansai airport. The selection was fabulous--I ended up spending about $20 for a two-layer bento: kuri-meshi and vegetables in one layer and nine compartments in the second layer, each with a different little taste, including duck, crab, omelet and a sweet. When I opened my bento on the plane, the Japanese couple next to me and even the flight attendant were oohing and aahing.

Re: All about ekiben, Japanese train station bentos

Aw! I love this site, I use it to get ideas to make bentos for myself and my Japanese boyfriend on our travels! I'm living in China right now but spent a few years in Japan. I'm back next week and thinking about what kind of bentos I'll make for our train ride! I had to comment after I saw the photo for the article on the main page, the ekiben stand with a mountain sign - Mt. Iwate! I lived in Morioka two years and loved it. I climbed Mt. Iwate last summer and ate a bento on top - Iwate and bento love <3<3<3<3<3<3<3<3

The best ekiben I ever ate was on a trip to Kyushu (southern most island in Japan, aside from Okinawa). It was my first sanshouku bento and I've been addicted ever since!!!

Re: All about ekiben, Japanese train station bentos

Hi Maki,

I love this post. All the food looks delicious and so pretty! I just happened to stumble across this youtube user, http://www.youtube.com/user/sparro009 who documents their rail travels in Japan and the ekiben eaten in the journeys, among other things. Was just wondering if this might interest anyone.
Thank you for sharing your lovely pictures and tips with us :)

Re: All about ekiben, Japanese train station bentos

That's a great channel sneha. Thanks for sharing it! ^_^

Re: All about ekiben, Japanese train station bentos

That's a great channel sneha. Thanks for sharing it! ^_^

Re: All about ekiben, Japanese train station bentos

Thank you for posting this! Next month, I plan to go to Nara from Nagano and it will surely be a long trip.
I am happy to know about ekiben! Thanks so much. Cheers from the Philippines!

Food for thought...

Typing from Kyoto as I try to go to sleep. Went to Osaka and got some kani (crab) ekiben from the famous crab vendor in Dotonburi area with the HUGE crab as signage. I had no idea that ekiben was this varied and awesome! I'm gonna get some tomorrow night before my overnight train back to Tokyo and before the airport.

One question though, can you take the ekiben on a flight back to the US? I thought there were food restrictions and such... especially if it's sushi or something.

Re: Food for thought...

You can bring food on a plane (no liquids over 100ml though) but you just have to consume it before you land in the US if it contains anything raw or disallowed (any raw fruit or veg, plants, cured meat cheese from raw milk, etc).

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