Azusa Suganuma

Graduate of a MA of Social Sciences from the University of Hitotsubashi and a MA  Storia e Cultura dell’Alimentazione from the University of Bologna, Azusa Suganuma works for a Japanese firm specialised in food processing. She is in charge of Italian products imports such as pasta, olive oil and tomato tins, and is a renowned olive oil sommelier in AISO.
Since her early years, Azusa became curious about cultures from different countries, especially their cuisine. She realised soon enough that a country’s cuisine is often linked to its History and its culture, which is why she now wishes that Japanese gastronomy be known as part of its authentic History.

Ekiben: the boxed meal for railway trips in Japan



When you take a long-distance train in Japan, you may see a group of friends laughing and talking and, at a certain point, they take out some boxes, put them on their knees and begin to eat from the boxes in the train. Or you can encounter a businessman board the bullet train with a plastic bag, especially in the evening when he might finish his work. A minute after the train leaves the station, he takes a canned beer from the bag, drinks it a little then opens the box and begins to eat from it with chopsticks. These boxed meals taken in trains are called “Ekiben (駅弁)” and they are seen quite often at the stations for long-distance trains. In this article, I would like to present this Ekiben phenomenon in Japan and try to show some varieties of regional characteristics demonstrated in this boxed meal for the railway trips.


Railway development in Japan

When the steam locomotive was introduced in England for the first time in history in 18251, Japan was still under the control of Samurai and the Tokugawa shogunate had taken the policy of isolation called Sakoku 鎖国 in the first half of the 17th century. During the Sakoku period it was prohibited to go out from the land and contact with foreigners was limited to commercial trade with China, Taiwan and the Netherlands on the small island of Dejima at Nagasaki. It lasted for about 200 years until 1854. The Tokugawa government has ceased in 1868 and when it was replaced by the reign of Emperor, the new government decided to introduce occidental habits and technology to modernize the country, which was to catch up with Europe and America where Industrial Revolution had already taken place.


The railway was one of these technologies introduced in Japan and the first rail was constructed in 1872 between Shinbashi and Yokohama 2. It passed the coast of Tokyo for about 30km and the Meiji Emperor, important Japanese politicians and several occidental ministers took the first train. It was a single-track operation as a passenger train3. The government finances were severed by internal conflicts and private companies constructed railways at the beginning, which mainly remained as regional railways. In 1907, the main railways were nationalized by military policy4. Then Japanese National Railways remained as the public corporation until 1987, when it became Japan Railways (JR Group) with 6 companies for passenger purpose. Today JR Group is the prominent railway that covers the whole national territory with 20.135,3 km. There are 198 railway companies including JR Group itself and the total distance of rails recorded in Japan was 35.544,8 km in 20125


On the other hand, Japan is famous for its bullet train called Shinkansen (新幹線). It appeared in 1964 when the Tokyo Summer Olympics were held. It took 3 hours and 10 minutes for a Tokyo – Osaka with 163 km/h in those days but it shortened a lot and now it takes 2 and half hours with 207 km/h6. Shinkansen covers the Japanese islands except Hokkaido and Okinawa running 2.620,2 km as seen in the Figure 1. 324.442 thousands people used the Shinkansen in 2012, equal to 888.882 passengers per day7.


Today, thanks to the presence of the Shinkansen and the network of local trains, it is easy to access the 47 Japanese prefectures: 1 metropolis (Tokyo), 1 circuit (Hokkaido), 2 urban prefectures (Osaka and Kyoto) and the other 43 prefectures.

Fig1. Map of Shinkansen and major JR railways from Japan Rail Pass8


Ekiben, the boxed meal for railway trips

Ekiben is defined in the Japanese-language dictionary Daijirin published by Sanseido as “a boxed meal sold at a railroad [train] station or inside the train. Ekiben is an abbreviation of Ekiuri (駅売り, station-sold) and Bento (弁当, boxed meal).” The first Ekiben has appeared in 1885 at Utsunomiya station situated 110 km north of Tokyo. It was a rather simple one wrapped in bamboo leaf and it contained two rice balls seasoned with salt and sesame, and some Daikon radish pickles9. Boxed meals with side dishes had begun to appear since 1889 but the former style remained the most current until 1930s (Fig. 2).

A scene of railway and Ekiben can be reconstructed from the novels and reviews of those days. Let’s look at an example of Sanshiro, the novel written by Soseki Natsume in 1908. Sanshiro is the name of a young student from the southern island called Kyusyu and he takes the train for Tokyo to start his study at University of Tokyo. A scholar of Japanese literature Fujimori analyzes the description of Ekiben in this novel and assumes from the side dish of fish appearing in his boxed meal that Sanshiro might have bought it at the station of Maibara, 110 km north of Osaka10. This side dish was sweetfish (Plecoglossus altivelis) cooked with soy sauce and sugar and it was the specialty of Lake Biwa, along which Sashiro’s train passed. Fujimori cites the contents of Ekiben at Maibara station from a volume of culinary review Syokudouraku published in 1905 and, according to this review, Maibara station’s Ekiben was consisted of grilled egg, Kamaboko (蒲鉾, cured surimi), sweeten beans, cooked chicken, cooked sweetfish and white rice. It is described as not putrid but it did not taste especially good. The box of those days was made of thin wood and bamboo leaves or cast-iron plant (Aspidistra elatior), used to separate the side dishes to avoid the tastes to be mixed and to be served as antiseptic. Usually there were vendors who came to the train to sell the Ekiben through the windows (Fig. 3). There should have been also a dining car in Sanshiro’s train since it had appeared in 1899 but he never tried it. The above-mentioned culinary review Syokudouraku describes one of the lunch menus of the dining car as follows: soup, three dishes, sweet, fruit, bread and coffee for 1 yen. There was also a à la carte menu including “ham and eggs” (ハム・エンドエツグス) for 25 sen11, “sandwiches” (サンドウイツチ) for 20 sen, bread and butter for 5 sen and coffee or tea for 10 sen. The occidental style as seen in these menus was fashionable and seen as status symbol of the intellectual at that time12 but it could not be allowed for the young student like Sanshiro who ate Ekiben of 15 sen.

ekiben3                      ekiben

Fig. 2. Ekiben at its early stages13                               Fig. 3. Vendor of Ekiben at 1950s14


Ekiben developed with the expansion of railways and stations and since many stations had their Ekiben with regional specialities, it became a pleasure of the railway trip. It is difficult to know exactly but presumably 3.000 types of Ekiben are sold today 15. The price is normally between 500 yen and 1,500 yen. The wooden box and bamboo leaves have been replaced gradually with plastic and paper ones. The kiosk and sales onboard became more popular than the vendors because of the structural change of trains: they stop at the station for a very short time and windows are always closed now16.


Meanwhile, the diffusion of this Ekiben phenomenon should be thought in the culture of boxed meal consumption in Japan. The boxed meal is called Bento (弁当) in Japanese and it also gave its name to the Ekiben (from Ekiuri-Bento as we saw). Its origin is not clear but seems to date back to the late 16th century. It was a portable meal for Samurai to go to war or for the elite to view the flowers in Spring or autumnal tints in autumn at outside banquet17. From 17th century, it became more popular and it was brought for travelling, theater or work. Today, Bento culture is still common for Japanese people. Students bring the home-made Bento for junior high school or high school and some bring it also for the office. It is always welcomed for picnics or trips. In this context, Ekiben was easily accepted as an extension of Bento boxes. As to the boxed meals for rail trips, we can say that it was accepted by Japanese mentality that found it an efficient use of the time too.


Some examples of Ekiben of today

Makunouchi Bento (幕の内弁当) is the representative boxed meal that is seen almost in every station where Ekiben is sold18. The word Makunouchi (幕の内) means between the acts at theater. It dates back to the Edo era (1603-1868) when the popular theater like Kabuki became common amongst  people and both the audience and actors had taken this boxed meal between the acts. The first appearance of Makunouchi Bento for Ekiben was in 1889 at Himeji station, 90 km west of Osaka, and we can see its image reproduced by the producer (Fig. 4)19. Usually Makunouchi Bento contains white rice and different kinds of little sub-dishes like fried egg, Kamaboko (cured surimi), grilled fish (salmon or mackerels) or chicken, fruits, vegetables and sometimes specialities of the place. An example of the speciality in Makunouchi Bento of today is that of Obihiro station, situated in the northern island of Hokkaido. This island is famous for salmon, potato and maize and they are used in its boxed meal. Another example is that of Niigata station, which is at the end of the mainland. Since Niigata is famous for rice cultivating and it faces Sea of Japan, its Ekiben contains the Niigata rice and seafood products.



Fig. 4 First Makunouchi Bento by Maneki-ya20


Ekiben with pottery container (Tokiiri Bento, 陶器入り弁当) is a genre of Ekiben for which pottery container is used. Many production areas of pottery and porcelain exist in Japan and their products have been used for Ekiben containers since the 1950s21. The first pottery Ekiben was Touge no Kamameshi (峠の釜飯) sold at Yokokawa station in Gunma prefecture, 130 km north of Tokyo, in 195822. It is still in production as seen in Figure 5 and the model of the vessel is the pottery kettle to cook the rice. Even though the electric rice cooker replaced it in many Japanese families today, this vessel can be reused to cook the rice at home. Hipparidako (ひっぱりだこ) is another example of the pottery Ekiben sold at Nishi Akashi station in Kobe prefecture, close to Osaka. Akashi is famous for octopus and the pottery vessel is designed as an octopus pot for gathering them (Fig. 6)23. Pottery Ekiben contained often rice cooked with soy sauce, meat or seafood, and vegetables. Pottery vessel is heavy but it can be a souvenir of the trip and it can be used also as container of stationeries.



Fig. 5 Touge no Kamameshi24                               Fig. 6 Hipparidako25


Western and Chinese (洋食中華) Japanese are open and positive to the introduction of foreign cuisines and many styles are absorbed in Japanese eating habits, for example Western, Chinese, Thai, Indian or Italian. It may owe to the government policy of 19th century when the country opened its border and it began to soak in foreign cultures. These foreign cuisines are also reflected in Ekiben. For example, Shumai Bento (シウマイ弁当) as seen in Figure 7 was born in 1954 at Yokohama where one of three famous Chinatowns in Japan are situated26. Syumai are Chinese pork dumplings but now they are commonly consumed at Japanese family tables too. An example for western style is the steak Ekiben of Kobe station (Fig. 8). Kobe beef is one of the famous Japanese beef but it may be so expensive that the beef used for Ekiben cannot be always Kobe one. Anyway, the Steak Ekiben looks luxury and it is sold in several stations in Japan where beef production is famous in the area.



Fig. 7 Syumai Bento27                                                            Fig. 8 Steak Ekiben28


Enlargement of Ekiben out of railways


The mean of transportation is now diversified and it is not only train but also car and air plane which are commonly used. Around the year 2000, Japanese airline companies began to sell the boxed meals called Soraben (空弁). Sora means air and ben is from Bento. It took the idea from Ekiben and applied it to the air trips. The appearance of Soraben was also due to the cut of meal offer on airplanes. It is usually smaller than railway boxed meal since the table on the air plane is relatively small and sometimes the same Ekiben is sold for air plane trip. On the other hand, it gave a possibility to promote the regional speciality also for Okinawa, the most southern island in Japan where there is no railway in the area. The culture of Okinawa was influenced by Japan, China and Taiwan from its geographical position and it was also under the control of U.S.A. after the Second World War until 1972. Therefore, an original cooking culture has been raised in this southern island and its presence in Soraben should be surely interesting.


Ekiben is so well known and familiar to Japanese that not only do people travel for seeking these boxed meals but also Ekiben from all over Japan reach consumers, for instance, by the occasional events which supermarkets organize. Figure 9 represents the publicity of an Ekiben fair held in a chained supermarket of Aichi prefecture on the 30th and 31st March 2013. It is made as a ranking list and it compares some Ekiben between eastern and western Japan. The champion of eastern Japan is seen at the upper left and it is a mix of some seafood, egg and vegetables from Hokkaido. The one of western Japan is at the upper right and it is a type of Sushi with cherry salmon in bamboo leaves from Toyama. The second place in the middle, the boxes with some crab and rice are indicated for both eastern and western Japan. The third position at the lower left is for eastern Japan and there are an entire cooked squid stuffed with rice and some grilled beef tongue with rice. At the lower right, there are Sushi with different fishes rolled with Kaki leaves and rice cooked with octopus in a pod as mentioned above . Within two days of this publicity, there are presented and sold 30 kinds of Ekiben from 18 prefectures.


Fig. 9. Publicity of the occasional sales of Ekiben at a Japanese supermarket



In the small box of Ekiben, you can encounter several Japanese recipes generally eaten on the territory, specialities of the regions and some new Japanese tastes influenced by foreign cuisines. It is the gem of casket in which you can find a diversity of Japanese cuisine. Trains that connected the territory didn’t summarize the various tastes to the “national” one but it served to promote the variety of “regional” products and cuisines. Since this boxed meal has already gone out of railways to be presented independently for another kind of trip or supermarkets, who denies that you may encounter an Ekiben also in your country in the near future?

End notes

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1 Kojima, H., (2010). Railway as Culture (Tetsudou toiu Bunka), Tokyo, Kadokawa Gakugei Syuppan. P42

2 Nakanishi, T., (2010). Genesis of Japanese Railway (Nihon no Tetsudo Souseiki), Tokyo, Kawade Syobo Sinsya. P91

3 Ibid.

4 Kojima, H., (2010). Railway as Culture (Tetsudou toiu Bunka), Tokyo, Kadokawa Gakugei Syuppan. P178

5 Site from Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism

6 Kojima, H., (2010). Railway as Culture (Tetsudou toiu Bunka), Tokyo, Kadokawa Gakugei. P147

7 Site from Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism

8 Site from JR’s Japan Rail Pass

9 Koizumi, T., (2002). Wisdom of Japanese toward foods (Syoku to Nihonnjin no Chie), Tokyo, Iwanami Shoten. P194

10 Fujimori, K., (2003). Receipe of Soseki (Soseki no Recipi), Tokyo, Koudansya. P66-87

11 Sen is an old currency unit of Japan and one yen was equal to 100 sen. It was used until 1953 and today it is usesd for the stocks or price indications.

12 Ishige, N., (2001). The history and cultures of Japanese food, London, Kegan Paul Limited. p.142

13 Site from Ekiben no Komado

15 Kobayashi, S., (2005). The Comlete Book of Japanese Ekiben (Nippon Ekiben Taizen), Tokyo, Bungeisyunjyu. P10

16 Koizumi, T., (2002). Wisdom of Japanese toward foods (Syoku to Nihonnjin no Chie), Tokyo, Iwanami Shoten. P196

17 Hayashi, J., Kobayashi., S, (2000). Lesson for Ekiben Studies (Ekibengaku Kouza), Tokyo, Syueisya. P16-21

18 Kobayashi, S., (2005). The Comlete Book of Japanese Ekiben (Nippon Ekiben Taizen), Tokyo, Bungeisyunjyu. P10

19 Hayashi, J., Kobayashi., S, (2000). Lesson for Ekiben Studies (Ekibengaku Kouza), Tokyo, Syueisya. P31-35

21 Hayashi, J., Kobayashi., S, (2000). Lesson for Ekiben Studies (Ekibengaku Kouza), Tokyo, Syueisya. P138-145

23 Site from Awaji-ya

25 Site from Awaji-ya

27 Ibid.



∴ Fujimori, K., (2003). Receipe of Soseki (Soseki no Recipi), Tokyo, Koudansya.


∴ Hayashi, J., Kobayashi., S, (2000). Lesson for Ekiben Studies (Ekibengaku Kouza), Tokyo, Syueisya.


∴ Ishige, N., (2001). The history and cultures of Japanese food, London, Kegan Paul Limited.


∴ Kobayashi, S., (2005). The Comlete Book of Japanese Ekiben (Nippon Ekiben Taizen), Tokyo, Bungeisyunjyu.


∴ Koizumi, T., (2002). Wisdom of Japanese toward foods (Syoku to Nihonnjin no Chie), Tokyo, Iwanami Shoten.


∴ Kojima, H., (2010). Railway as Culture (Tetsudou toiu Bunka), Tokyo, Kadokawa Gakugei Syuppan.


∴ Nakanishi, T., (2010). Genesis of Japanese Railway (Nihon no Tetsudo Souseiki), Tokyo, Kawade Syobo Sinsya.