[From March Issue 2010]
“Ekiben,” boxed meals sold at train stations, are very popular among the Japanese. They are typically filled with locally grown ingredients and dishes unique to their region, and their wrapping paper usually depicts the scenery or a specialty of the particular town. Ingenuity is often exercised in the containers as well, with shell-shaped containers being used for ekiben sold near the seashore and pottery used for ones available in towns known for their pottery.
Take for example, “Gyuuniku-domannaka,” sold at Yonezawa Station in Yamagata Prefecture. It’s an ekiben that uses ”Domannaka,” rice grown in the prefecture, and is popular nationwide. The rice that makes up two thirds of the obento (boxed meal) is topped with domestically-produced beef cooked in the style of sukiyaki (a dish of thinly sliced beef flavored with sugar, soy sauce and sake). Since it is very popular, this ekiben is sold not only at Yonezawa Station, but also on the Yamagata Shinkansen (bullet train), as well as at stations like Tokyo, Ueno and Omiya.
The “Ikameshi” from Mori Station in Hokkaido also has a reputation as a delicious ekiben. Ikameshi is a dish made by boiling squid stuffed with rice. This obento contains two pieces of squid and is sold for 500 yen, a fairly low price for an ekiben. It is so popular among ekiben fans that merchandise such as ikameshi-shaped straps and bags with the same pattern as its wrapping paper, are sold.
Not only are ekiben sold at their respective places of origin, but they are also available at ekiben events held in big cities such as Tokyo. For example, in October 2009, “Higashi Nihon Jyuudan Ekiben Taikai” (The Fair of Ekiben from around Eastern Japan) was held at Tokyo Ekitchen inside Tokyo Station. Thirty-seven companies known for their ekiben across eastern Japan participated and sold about 100 kinds of ekiben, including ones made exclusively for the event.
There are also some shops that specialize in popular ekiben. Umaimon, with branch stores in Tokyo and Omiya (Saitama Prefecture), sells 50 to 60 different kinds of ekiben from various stations around Japan. They not only gather and sell ekiben, but create new ekiben in cooperation with regional ekiben companies. They also carry hard-to-find ekiben that are not widely available at other ekiben shops.
Some people eat ekiben as a hobby while others write about ekiben for work. One person who does both is UESUGI Tsuyoshi, who has been eating and comparing all kinds of ekiben for over 30 years. He has launched a website called “Ekiben no komado” (Small Window to Ekiben), where he recommends ekiben and provides information about ekiben events. He also collects ekiben wrapping paper and has written a book about it.
Rankings of the most popular ekiben are often released on the Internet, some by food companies and others by individuals. In addition to rankings based on taste, there are various other rankings such as for containers. Uesugi’s website even ranks ekiben that are no longer available but that ekiben lovers want to see return.
Why are ekiben so popular? “Ekiben is one of the most enjoyable parts of traveling by train,” says a woman living in Tokyo, adding that eating ekiben while looking out the window at the passing scenery is fun in itself. Speaking about an ekiben that she bought at an event, she says: “By eating the ekiben, you can enjoy the feeling of traveling somewhere without doing so. I also feel happy to be able to eat something at home that I normally cannot buy unless I visit the particular town.”
“Famous ekiben at major stations are good, but there are also tasty ekiben at small stations in the country,” says KONDO Masaaki of Nippon Restaurant Enterprise Co., Ltd., the company which runs Umaimon. “Some ekiben sold at small stations in Nagano and Niigata Prefectures are handmade by cooks who are particular about seasoning and the way they broil fish.” Finding such ekiben is another fun aspect about them.
“They are fun to look at and taste great. What’s more, they’re convenient,” says MIURA Yukie of Umaimon’s Omiya branch, speaking about the appeal of ekiben. Having started selling ekiben part-time after her children had grown up, Miura is now the manager of the store. She boosted sales by recommending to her customers ekiben that she likes herself. Miura shared the following memory about ekiben.
“One time I was focusing on selling this particular ekiben by recommending it to customers. Then a customer who had bought the ekiben came back and bought it again. He said, ‘This ekiben was so good that I thought I would buy it for my mother. She is dead now, but I will place one on her grave and then share this ekiben with my family while she is with us in spirit.’ When I heard this story, I was really glad that I had recommended it to him.”
Most Japanese had their parents make boxed meals for them when they were children. Those nostalgic memories may be the reason why they are so attached to, and particular about, obento. The appeal of ekiben includes memories of travel, unique dishes and beautiful wrapping, as well as all the merits of a satisfying boxed meal. Given all that, it is only natural for the Japanese to love them.
In Japan, There are Many Kinds of Obento
Some, such as boxed meals for cherry-blossom viewing in the spring time, and ones featuring broiled eel in summer, are seasonal fare. Many people also buy or make obento for lunch. Most Japanese know ways of making a boxed meal last longer, including putting an umeboshi (sour pickled plum) in the rice.
Many people are particular about the way they make their obento. For example, some use cups or wraps to separate the different dishes from one-another, so that they don’t touch, while others consider the colors of the ingredients used so that they look beautiful together. Some even make artistic obento called “chara-ben” (boxed meals inspired by anime or manga characters) and “deco-ben” (decorated boxed meals) such as HAMA Chiharu’s. For all obento makers, a variety of stores carrying special utensils exist.
Shops that sell obento are also particular about their services. Most obento come with a pair of chopsticks and tsumayouji (a toothpick), as well as otefuki (a wet tissue for wiping your hands clean) and, you can often have your obento microwaved.
Text: SAZAKI Ryo ／文：砂崎 良