Have a Shinkansen Bento!
You can't lose
The speed and safety of the Shinkansen is unmatched when traveling throughout Japan. And there's no better way to compliment this experience than with a Shinkansen bento.
The Shinkansen, or "bullet train," is the high-speed railway of Japan. It moves passengers at speeds of up to 186 mph (or 300 kmh). Although it isn't as fast as air travel, it is usually cheaper. It also has other advantages such as roomy seats and its stations are in the middle of the city.
The best part of traveling is the "ekiben." "Eki" is the Japanese word for train station and "ben" is short for bento: the Japanese boxed lunch. So, stretch your arms, crack open a beer and enjoy the ride.
Why bother? It's just a bento
The ekiben is a bento bought at the Shinkansen station. It can be bought at shops in the terminal or even on the platform. While a bento from a convenience store or supermarket can cost about 200-600 yen, an ekiben will go for 900-1800 yen. Wow! That's a heck of a markup. Is it worth it?
Here it is: like a regular bento, the ekiben is a small meal in a plastic box. Sometimes it's Styrofoam but usually it's plastic. It is served cold. Someone made it a few hours before you bought it and you will eat it when you're on the Shinkansen. It is the exact same as hundreds of others made that day and hundreds of thousands made every day since someone thought up that particular combination. It doesn't sing or dance or grant wishes. So what's the big deal?
Friend, you are missing out! Take a look at the picture below in the example I provided. That was my ekiben going from Osaka to Tokyo. It was my first trip to Tokyo, my first ride on the Shinkansen and my first ekiben. You follow? This is sentimental and magical (I'm over 30 years old). I had to pick carefully. Price was not an issue and I had to take a picture.
Countless people, Japanese or otherwise, travel by Shinkansen every day. Be it business, vacation or visiting family, they are excited about their trip (the destination is a different story). They know it will be safe and efficient. It will take a few hours so why not have a meal followed by a nap? The ekiben answers the call.
Take a look here
This was my first ekiben. I took the top off. The shine you see on the food is plastic that keeps it separate from the top of the box. This box was wrapped in thin, tight plastic then wrapped in colorful, decorated paper with a cord wrapped around it all. That's a lot of trouble to go through.
The thin, tight plastic was to protect it from spoilage. The paper and cord was part of the magic. It's hard to describe to a Westerner but while this extra effort seems excessive, it shows a native that someone cares about his ekiben experience.
I was not surprised by what was inside the box. The places that sell the ekiben show what it looks like inside. The picture atop the boxes gives you a preview, the boxes give you the price.
Now take another look up there. I included my "hashi" (chopsticks) to show you the overall size of my ekiben. That's a lot of food. That's a large variety as well. I can't name every ingredient or dish but I promise I was not disappointed.
It was cold--the ekiben is not reheated--but it was amazing. The food was carefully prepared and placed in the ekiben. It was visually pleasing and tasted great. I didn't know where to start but as soon as I did I couldn't stop.
This experience cost me 1,000 yen.
Give me more!
The ekiben is designed to be eaten on the Shinkansen so it doesn't have a long shelf-life. For this reason, just about any Japanese dish you can think of can be found in an ekiben except for any soups, sauces or ice cream.
Aside from that, Japanese meats, seafood and vegetables are cooked in almost every possible way. This includes the many well-seasoned, fermented and dried foods that are special to Japan. Oddly, there are no foreign foods in the ekiben, despite their popularity in Japan. No pizza, burger or fries. No pasta, curry or kimchi.
Because of the variety of Japanese foods, the shapes and sizes of the ekiben vary as well. This only adds to the fun. Every time a traveler rides the Shinkansen, he can pick up a different bento.
It's big business
At all hours the Shinkansen runs, there are people packed in every place that sells ekiben.
My trip from Tokyo back to Osaka was especially perilous. What you see to the right is the crowd of customers at a Tokyo ekiben establishment. This place is probably the same size as your living room.
Everyone, including me, had tuned out the outside world. We were hawks looking at each picture and comparing it to the next. When we found the perfect ekiben we scooped it up and then went to the register. We quickly paid and left with our goodies. I'm not much of a shopper but if this kind of thrill is what a shopaholic feels then I can understand.
At the time, it was tiring. Reflecting on it now, it was fun.
Gotta catch 'em all!
To the right is the ekiben I chose in Tokyo to my trip back to Osaka.
What I later discovered is that every station has its own assortment of ekiben. This was surprising but it makes sense. Remember, each Shinkansen station stops in a different city or region of Japan. So each station proudly displays its local culinary style in its ekiben.
Think about this for a minute: countless varieties of ekiben at just one station and dozens of stations along the line. If this sounds fascinating, that's because it is. With so many possibilities and the "gotta catch 'em all" hobbyists out there, it's easy to see why there's more to ekiben than just a cold meal in plastic.
If you're in Japan as a tourist, you may not ride the Shinkansen. But if you ever do, grab an ekiben. Take a picture. Eat it and take a nap. You'll wake up in a new city and a new experience.