Interested in trying unique Japanese food?

Enjoy traveling by train?

Fan of creative, intricately arranged lunchboxes?

Then ekiben might be right up your alley.

Bento, or "lunchboxes," are a ubiquitous part of Japanese food life. For many Japanese people, from elementary schoolers to businessmen, at least one meal of the day consists of a lovingly prepared box packed with rice and several pieces meat, fish, pickled vegetables, or any of a wide array of other foods, sized to portable portions.

Ekiben, you could say, is the train traveler's comfort food. Literally meaning "station bento," ekiben are special bento sold at train stations that are designed to be enjoyed on long train rides while showcasing the cuisine of the region they're from.

While biting into a smelly sandwich on a crowded inner city train is decidedly considered bad manners in Japan, pulling out your chopsticks over a freshly opened ekiben on a shinkansen or limited express train ride is almost an essential part of the journey for some travelers.

The best part: there's a galaxy of styles to try from all across the country.

A double-decker "makunouchi" ekiben with a variety of rices, vegetables and fish (origin: Tokyo Station)
Aji (horse mackerel) over rice in a pressed "oshizushi" style; an ekiben tradition over 100 years old (origin: Ofuna Station near Kamakura)
Pork filet cutlets and miso sauce, a specialty of the Aizu region in Fukushima Prefecture (origin: Aizu-Wakamatsu Station)

Ekiben around Japan

Pretty much as long as there have been trains in Japan, going back as far as the 1880s, there have been ekiben. Ekiben have long been an accessible (and affordable) window into Japan's regional cuisines. Besides just a nice meal, they offered the average train passenger a special chance to sample foods they wouldn't normally have the opportunity to try.

Today, train stations in every prefecture still sell unique ekiben. Often, the most famous ekiben feature dishes that can only be found in that particular area - or sometimes only at one particular station!

For many travelers, enjoying a freshly made seafood bento on the train from Sapporo Station or a bite of famed Yonezawa wagyu beef while traveling through Yamagata is a special way to connect to those places, and to a long history of good food.

Daruma ekiben filled with foods from Gunma Prefecture (origin: Takasaki Station)
Clockwise: A new vegan bento from Tokyo Station; "hinomaru" beef and eggs from Mito; a colorful variety bento from Sendai; octopus bento in a souvenir container from Hyogo Prefecture

Where to get it

For most of its existence, ekiben vendors carried their products on wooden trays slung around their necks and sold them right from the train platform to seated passengers. Nowadays, with the rise of the shinkansen and train windows that tend not to open, ekiben are usually sold in station stores and kiosks (though the rare rambling vendor can still occasionally be spotted at a handful of stations famous for their ekiben).

If you want to try ekiben for the first time and happen to be in Tokyo, an excellent place for an ekiben introduction is a store named Ekibenya Matsuri located in Tokyo Station.

Ekibenya Matsuri is one of a few relatively rare stores that specializes in ekiben from not only Tokyo, but all over Japan. Located just beyond the central Marunouchi entrance, the store sells 10,000-15,000 bento boxes every day and offers over 200 different ekiben from stations across the country. Impressively, the store offers different types of bento on a daily basis, including some made in-store by a rotating guest chef, special seasonal ekiben, and even self-heating bento!

The bustling storefront of Ekibenya Matsuri in Tokyo Station
A huge variety of ekiben and snacks on offer
The ever-popular shinkansen bento (pro tip: regardless of its undeniable universal appeal, it's actually meant for children)
A guest chef preparing fresh bento in-store
The staff are no strangers to helping high volumes of customers efficiently

Manager's recommendations

For a taste (pun intended) of what Ekibenya Matsuri has to offer, the store's manager has been kind enough to share this list of ekiben recommendations:

  • Gyuniku Domannaka (Yonezawa)
    A simple but delicious beef and rice bento made from high-quality Yonezawa beef marinated in a special tare sauce. One of Ekibenya's best sellers.
  • Gokusen Sumiyaki Gyutan (Sendai)
    A bento featuring one of Sendai's most famous delicacies: grilled beef tongue.
  • Kuroge Wagyu Sukiyaki (Yonezawa)
    Another Yonezawa beef bento prepared in a sukiyaki style.
  • Tokyo Bento (Tokyo)
    A popular bento consisting of a variety of famous foods from around Tokyo.
  • Ebi Senryo Chirashi (Niigata)
    A unique seafood bento featuring shredded shrimp under fluffy, cut cooked egg.
Gyuniku Domannaka from Yonezawa: Ekibenya Matsuri's best seller

And of course, there's no better place to enjoy an ekiben than at your seat on a long train ride.

My ekiben choice of the day: the Shinjuku yakiniku bento, made fresh in-store at Ekibenya Matsuri that morning

Visit Ekibenya Matsuri

Ekibenya Matsuri is located in Tokyo Station just a few steps away from the central Marunouchi entrance on the inside of the ticket gates.