Ekiben: Train Bentos & My Top 5 To Try List!

Ekiben are a quintessential part of long-distance train travel in Japan. Virtually every (if not every) train station that services a long-distance train (such as shinkansen bullet trains, but also other reserved seat trains like limited express trains) will have at least one shop selling bentos for travellers to enjoy while they ride the rails. While eating on a moving train might not be for everyone, if you can, ekiben are a great way to enhance your train trip! Even stations that don't serve reserved seat trains have started to sell ekiben: while people generally don't eat on ordinary trains, you can still buy ekiben to bring home (or back to your hotel room from a day trip) so you can enjoy local food at home.

What makes ekiben so great? Probably the main attraction is that they allow travellers to sample local specialties. While many bento stores often sell more "standard" bento with popular foods, it's usually the regional specialties that are the most popular! As well, because these bentos focus on regional specialties, they can only be found at specific stations: so if you don't get it, you won't be able to eat it unless you come visit again! Japan's food culture varies widely from region to region, and so the sheer variety of ekiben available across the country is amazing.
A variety of ekiben from all over Japan, available at Tokyo Station! There are so many types of ekiben available! I don't even know how I'd choose from this many... Image from https://www.instagram.com/p/BItytpggq4f/.

With that, here's my list of the top 5 ekiben that I think are worth checking out! Of course there are many, many more that I would love to include, but this article would stretch on forever... so here are just 5 ekiben I want to try soon! In no particular order because really, I can't. I want to eat all of them. 

1. Pittari Takomeshi

Image from https://gurutabi.gnavi.co.jp/i/i_7019/.

Loosely translated as "precisely octopus rice", this bento features cooked octopus and boiled seasoned vegetables with rice. One review states that octopus pieces are large, and the rice really absorbs the flavors of the toppings. Not to mention the adorable and unique container! I would definitely be the type to keep this container and bring it home to use for something: it's both a useful container and a souvenir! This bento is available at a number of stations all year around, including Shin-Kobe, Nishimaishi, Kobe, Osaka, Shin-Osaka, and Kyoto Station. 

2. Matsusaka Maibutsu Mootaro Bento

Image from https://gurutabi.gnavi.co.jp/i/i_6991/.

Kobe beef is probably the most well-known form of Japanese beef overseas; but in Japan, Matsusaka beef is considered to be of the same quality as Kobe beef or even better. Of course, that also means Matsusaka beef generally comes at a premium cost. So if you're on a budget, this ekiben featuring Matsusaka beef cooked sukiyaki-style, will let you have a taste of the famous beef without breaking the bank. As you might expect, this bento is only available at Matsusaka Station (though it is available all year around), so if you're coming to Matsusaka for a day trip, you can pick this up to eat on the train ride back. (Matsusaka is about two hours from Osaka/Kyoto, or an hour to an hour and a half from Nagoya. Or if you're visiting Ise, it's just 15 minutes!) 

3. Kohoku no Ohanashi

Image from https://gurutabi.gnavi.co.jp/i/i_7010/

This ekiben features roast duck and chestnut rice, along with a few other side dishes. Roast duck generally doesn't come to mind when you first think of Japanese food, so if you're looking for something really different from the usual, this might be the ticket. Plus, the box and wrapping cloth make for a stunning presentation! While this looks like a fall bento, it's available all year round at Maibara and Nagahama stations. Both are accessible from Nagoya or Kyoto by shinkansen. 

4. Kinka Sababou Sushi

Image from https://gurutabi.gnavi.co.jp/i/i_6474/.

I'm a big fan of this kind of sushi: an entire fillet of cured fish pressed against a bed of rice. It's an older form of sushi that isn't so common these days compared to the likes of nigiri sushi or maki rolls, but can still be found as a local specialty in some areas. Mackerel is commonly used for this kind of sushi, and that's the featured fish in this bento. It's simple but delicious and filling. If you like mackerel sushi, this is a great bento to go for! It's only available at Sendai Station, but is available all year. 

5. Okayama Korakuen no Obento

Meant to express the four seasons, I love how this ekiben is not only beautiful but also allows provides a variety of dishes in small portions to enjoy. While I like simple bentos that focus on a specific specialty (that type also generally is more popular), there's also fun in a variety box like this! This kind of ekiben is a great way to try a bit of everything if you're not sure what you want to try. Plus, the variety of small dishes gives it a very classy feeling, like a fancy dinner in packed lunch form, at a cheaper price! Again, this is available all year around, and only at Okayama Station.

And I know I said top 5, but quickly, some honorable mentions:
Image from https://gurutabi.gnavi.co.jp/i/i_6617/.
  • Sanjyuu-hinmoku Baransu Bento. This ekiben is aimed at the health-conscious traveller: while its ingredients are healthy, the variety of ingredients help make it delicious instead of bland and boring. While its mostly plant-based, it's not vegetarian: just lower in calories than the typical ekiben. This ekiben is available at several stations in Tokyo all year round, including Tokyo, Ueno, Shinjuku, Omiya, and Shinagawa. 
  • Anagomeshi. Anago is the Japanese name for conger eel; while sushi fans may be more familiar with unagi, or freshwater eel, anago is also a delicacy in its own right with a different flavor and texture than unagi. This bento is simply named anago rice, and that's exactly what you get: generous amounts of cooked anago over rice. This bento is only available at Miyajimaguchi Station, near Hiroshima (though it is available all year): it's the station you head to when taking the ferry from Hiroshima to Miyajima Island. Incidentally, this is apparently the #1 most popular ekiben in Japan! It misses out on top 5 for me because while this is an ekiben, I'd probably only buy this to take to eat in my hotel room, since the train from Miyajimaguchi to Hiroshima is short and an ordinary train, not a limited express train where I can sit and eat. 
  • Sandai Kani Aji Kurabe Bento. Hokkaido is paradise for seafood lovers, and it shows in the ekiben they have available. This is just one of many types of ekiben that feature seafood: this one is cooked crab on a bed of rice. If you like crab, rest assured you can eat it even on a train ride. This ekiben is only available at Sapporo Station, all year round. 

While I tried to showcase a variety of ekiben, there are many more types: my bias for rice is pretty obvious, but there are bento with sandwiches and noodles, too, as well as ekiben with dishes like curry, katsu, and omurice. There are ekiben for children, usually in cute boxes. Some ekiben are made in relatively large quantities, while others - especially at smaller stations - are made in limited numbers and can sell out quickly. Some ekiben are even only available during a specific season! The variety of ekiben is as boundless as the variety in Japanese food culture, and they're really more than just a convenient meal: they represent what food the local area wants travellers to know about and eat, providing delicious food even when you're on a train. 

thyna vu