Ekiben – Train Station Bento Boxes

May 20th, 2009 | By | Category: Food

We’ve all heard of bento box meals, in fact, they are one of my favorite cheap eats in Japan, but did you know that there is a special class of bento that are only sold a train stations?  Ekiben, a shortened form of eki bento, literally station box meal, are sold at train stations across Japan and are standard fare on Shinkansen (bullet train) Platforms.

ekiben wrapper bento Japan Ueno 1968

Ekiben are special not only for the delicious regional foods within but also for lovely artwork on the protective paper wrappers.

Tsuyoshi Uesugi has colleted over 6000 ekiben wrappers over his years of train travel in Japan and has created a website (in Japanese) showcasing his collection and has also published in a book titled “Ekiben Kakegami Monogatari” (Station box meal cover paper story) that organizes the wrappers by rail routes and describes the significance of the regional designs and the contents of the ekiben. Asahi.com reports that he looks forward to monthly railway trips throughout Japan, where he eats 5-6 ekiben a day, and enjoys adding to his collection by searching out old wrappers at antique shops.

Uyesugi’s collection includes wrappers dating back to 1900’s and the artwork on some is very simple and on others very graphic and stunning.  The paper wrapper pictured above dates back to 1968 and features the logo of the the Osaka International Exhibition EXPO70, the distinctive diamond logo of the Japanese National Railways that operated from 1949-1987 and represents a the one hundred year anniversary of the start of the Meiji Era (1868 – 1912) when Japan first opened its doors to the west.

ebiken bento Japan Matsumoto The artist behind this ekiben wrapper managed to capture the contrast between Commodore Perry’s blackship that entered Yokohama Bay in July of 1853 and the modern Shinkansen train in a striking graphic image that pays homage to the amazing modernization that occurred in Japan during and after the Meiji Era.

While the outside of the ekiben wrappers are beautiful and reflect regional scenes for many of us its what’s inside that counts – the food!  On the right is an ekiben purchased in Matsumoto featuring local fish and seafood, picked vegetables and other ingredient atop a bed of rice.

Today you can visit the Ekiben Room online to peruse images of eki bento available at train stations across Japan.  In a nod to Uyesugi and others like him they showcase not only the wrapper but the variety of shapes and sizes of the bento boxes and the contents of each regional ekiben on a clickable map of Japan.

Image Credit: Ekibento.jp, nos-ueno1 & Flickr, eki-bento

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