Translated by Jelena Kitamura
Tokyo Station's Ekibenya Matsuri - Savor Bentos From All Over Japan!
Have you ever tried a Japanese bento? Each bento is made differently, carefully packed, and extremely tasty! At Tokyo Station's Ekibenya Matsuri, you get to try ekiben lunches gathered from all over Japan. Let's see which are the popular ones together!
Written by miho
Have you ever taken a bite (or a few hundred bites) of a tasty-looking Japanese ekiben? If you haven’t heard of it yet, let us share some wisdom with you – it comes in different tastes, filled with local gourmet specialties of each city or region, and even the packaging itself looks beautiful and is prepared with much devotion. The taste, you ask? Well, we’ll let you find out for yourself!
The perfect opportunity for you to try out some of the tastiest of them all is Ekibenya Matsuri, or the Train Station Bento Box Festival, a shop in GRANSTA, at Tokyo Station. It has as many as 200 different lunch boxes from all over the country. This time, MATCHA's editors have decided to walk you through this unique shop, and show you which ekiben lunches are the most popular and thoroughly enjoyed, and where you can get your hands on those precious boxes.
A Little Bit of History – Where Do They Come From?
Japan saw the development of its railways in 1872, but nobody can tell for sure when the exactly did the first ekiben find its way to a customer’s stomach.
There are a few versions of how the ekiben came to be. Some tell the story about a merchant who was running a ryokan back in 1885, how he wrapped black sesame and pickled daikon radish onigiri in some bamboo skin and sold it to a customer at Utsunomiya Station on the Tohoku Line. Others believe it was the people of Kansai to whom we owe that delicious discovery back in the year of 1877.
About 130 years ago, the time it took to travel by train was quite long since they were powered by steam locomotives, often resulting in people spending a night (or longer) aboard. It was, therefore, necessary to prepare lunches for the passengers, and since the bento culture was present in those days as well, an easy and very satisfying solution was found in the ekiben.
But, Why Is the Ekiben Cold?
There might be people who’ll have to think twice about a cold serving such as the ekiben, especially if they’re used to eating out-of-the-oven, freshly prepared, warm dishes. But, do not think badly of the store selling it – it is not due to a lack of sincerity and devotedness to their craft! In fact, it is precisely out of sincerity that they sell it cold, in order to make sure the food is fresh and safe to consume.
It doesn’t have to mean that the customer intends to savor the meal right after they bought it, especially if he or she is to spend long hours on the train. And, as you might already know, warm dishes tend to go bad if the environment and the temperature they are being kept in isn’t appropriate. Therefore, to be able to enjoy the dish at its best and while preserving the original quality of taste, one has to cool it completely and instantaneously, and to keep it at the optimum temperature.
What Makes the Ekibenya Matsuri So Special?
In case you somehow missed this very important point of ours, this shop is the place where you can find bento boxes from all over the country. Expressed in numbers, you can choose your most appetizing ekiben out of 200 types, and about 10,000 of them get sold per day! Isn’t that something? Since freshly made bentos get lined up on the stores’ shelves every day, over and over again, you get to experience the taste of various parts of Japan, from as far as Hokkaido to as far as Kyushu, without even going there!
We can’t even decide on the most thrilling part of this shop – is it the preparation of the long awaited ekiben in front of your eyes, or the countless ekiben discoveries, as new bentos make it to the shelves each week? Oh, the mighty freshness and the exquisite taste of the just-made bento!
Other than bento lunches, there are special alcoholic drinks and canned miso soup to double (or triple) the joy. It’d be a pity not to try the limited edition beverages, trust us!
The Best 3 Ekiben You Can Get
Finally! Let’s get down to some ranking business – we present to you the three most celebrated ekiben you can buy and relish at this store.
No.1: Yonezawa Specialty Gyudon Bento
Voila! This bento will have your mouth watering and your heart fluttering, with the copious amount of minced beef meat and its savory juice, combined with the rice from Yamagata prefecture. It was created to commemorate the grand opening of the Yamagata shinkansen line.
No.2: Japanese Black Sukiyaki Stacked Lunch Box
A brilliant combination of beef and onions, cooked in soy sauce for a sweet and spicy flavor, and the delicious white rice, will have you thinking that you’re eating a through-and-through sukiyaki helping. It is a luxurious and filling treat that can deceive your sense of taste with ease.
No.3: The Original Mori Specialty - Ikameshi
How do you feel about a dish made by filling a Hokkaido specialty, squid, with some white and glutinous rice, then boiling and cooking it in a top-secret, passed-from-generation-to-generation sauce? Well, you’ll feel even better when you find out it has a fairly reasonable price, too! The only thing is, as it's so popular, you might have to outsmart everyone else and get yourself one as soon as possible.
How About Our Editor’s Personal Recommendation?
Rilakkuma Dararan Kamameshi
First of all, let us just comment on the looks – yes, that’s a steady 100-point look for you! The meal is served in a super-cute Rilakkuma shaped bowl, which you get to keep after you’ve enjoyed your meal (and have given it a nice wash). It can serve as a bowl or container to keep you precious things, as long as they’re small. A nice deal, don’t you think? The meal itself consists of a delicious chicken meat with skin, sweet tamagoyaki (Japanese omelette), as well as two skewers of three-colored dango. But, don’t let its colorful look deceive you – the dango is actually made of fish paste. Even the rice has a gentle chicken flavor to it, owing to the savory juice from the chicken meat. However, the portion is a tad smaller than a regular one, so it might be fitted for ones who don’t need great amounts of food to keep themselves full.
Just go ahead, open that lid, and be amazed by an octopus leg spread across your bento – the whole thing is just lying on top of it! The texture is, of course, beautifully chewy, and the taste is even more beautifully savory, with the vegetable side dish making it all the more colorful and likable.
This lunch box was created to celebrate the opening of Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge. Also, you get to keep this octopus-shaped bowl as well!
Warm-Style Sendai Beef Tongue Bento
We believe that almost everyone has heard about the famous gourmet food of Sendai – Sendai beef tongue dishes. We bring you something different this time – a warm-style bento, for which you don't need any microwave! If you don’t believe us, here comes the explanation!
If you follow the instructions and pull the string hanging out of your bento box, the steamer will activate and warm your dish in just 10 minutes. You just need to be patient and let your appetite build up – then you’re free to enjoy your magnificent meal! The salty beef tongue is well balanced with the sweet minced meat. Also, the beef tongue is cut in perfectly sized bites, so you won’t be able to stop your hand from reaching for another one, and another one - the whole bento might be gone in a matter of seconds!
Shinkansen-Shaped Bento Lunches
Lastly, you can even buy a lunch box shaped to resemble Hokuriku Shinkansen type E7, once ever so popular in Taiwan. The bento looks great in every sense – on the outside, it looks adorably similar to a real shinkansen, and on the inside, you’ll discover a colorful world of traditional Japanese dishes such as onigiri, various tasty-looking okazu (side dishes), and other treats.
So, may we assume this article has successfully inspired you to see for yourself how delicious and special these ekiben lunches are? One bento will not only reflect the flavors of a particular area in Japan, it will also tell you a lot about its culture, tradition, and customs, with the bento’s packaging, dish in which it is served, and other characteristics. And of course, the taste is outstanding! If you happen to be in Tokyo Station, treat yourself to an irresistible ekiben at Ekibenya Matsuri!