It’s always a festival (in Japanese, a matsuri) of feasts between tracks 6 and 7 at Tokyo Station. Here, at Ekibenya Matsuri, travelers bustle around choosing from nearly 200 different kinds of ekiben, portable meals meant for the Shinkansen bullet train and other local trains that set off from the cosmopolitan city’s central train station.
A portmanteau of eki (Japanese for “station”) and ben (from the Japanese bento, meaning “boxed meal”), each ekiben holds bite-size holistic representations of Japan’s food culture, portioned out in compartments of beautifully designed bento boxes that resemble wrapped and string-tied gift boxes.
At each train stop in Japan Railways’ vast network, vendors sell ekiben containing the specialties of that particular region. In Hyogo prefecture, this might mean the hipparidako meshi ekiben: A rice, octopus, eel, and vegetables dish served in a miniature takotsubo, modeled on the traditional earthen pot designed to catch octopus in the area. At Shizuoka station, travelers might line up for the tai meshi, a locally popular dish of sea bream and rice. But circling the displays at Ekibenya Matsuri, one can find most of these region-specific novelties, stacked against one another in a single frenetic train station shop. The popularity of Ekibenya Matsuri, which sells over 10,000 ekiben daily, covers the cost of sourcing ekiben from all the prefectures of Japan.
Indulge your inner child with an ekiben shaped like a train. Or, take advantage of seasonal ekiben, made only with location-specific seasonal produce. Then there’s the high-tech self-heating ekiben, packaged in a box that heats up when a string is pulled. Or, you might keep it traditional, with the Daruma bento, packaged in a box that looks like Daruma, a doll meant to represent Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism. The box has a slit at the mouth, and can be used as a coin bank, making it a lucky keepsake.
The average price of a box at Ekibenya Matsuri is about $10, and travelers will typically purchase several boxes for themselves and as gifts. Ask for a warmed bottle of miso soup when you pay, or grab a bottled matcha tea, or even single-serve bottles of wine, which they also sell. Travel through Japan’s culinary foodways with ekiben that look like boxes of jewels, as you traverse its beautiful landscape on your rail journey.