A Guide to Ekiben

food platter beside a book

Japan is a land of wonders, famed for its unique mix of tradition and modernity. This country has much to offer, from delicious sushi and warm sake to elegant kimonos and powerful sumo wrestling. It’s also a world leader in technology, as seen in its ubiquitous vending machines and the global phenomenon of anime. But something else will capture your heart in the land of the rising sun – Ekiben.

In the bustling train stations of Japan, amidst the hurried footsteps and the sound of departing trains, these iconic train station bento boxes offer a window into Japan’s diverse regional cuisines, making every train journey not just a commute but a gastronomic adventure.

Join us on a flavorful journey as we explore the world of ekiben, Japan’s iconic rail meals. We’ll uncover the history and uncover the diverse tastes these meals offer, highlighting the unique flavors from different regions across Japan. 

Our guide will simplify the process of choosing and buying ekiben, whether you’re at a bustling train station or selecting from a train’s menu. We’ll offer tips to help you navigate the options, understand the labels, and share our recommendations for some must-try boxes.

We’ll also touch on the proper etiquette for enjoying ekiben. From opening your meal correctly to disposing of waste, we aim to help you savor your ekiben experience just like a local. Embark with us to delve into Japan’s rich culinary tradition.

Key Takeaways

  • Ekiben, short for “eki bento,” are Japanese train station bento boxes packed with regional flavors.
  • They offer a taste of Japan’s diverse culinary landscape and are integral to train travel culture.
  • Ekiben comes in various types, from classics like sushi and tempura to regional specialties like Matsuri bento and Shinkansen bento.
  • Buying ekiben involves exploring the offerings at train station vendors, convenience stores, and online sellers.
  • Enjoying ekiben is not just about the food but also understanding and respecting the cultural etiquette involved.

Ekiben and Its Origin

Ekiben, a portmanteau of “eki” (train station) and “bento” (boxed meal), traces its roots back to the early days of railway travel in Japan. As train travel gained popularity in the late 19th century, railway companies began offering boxed meals to passengers for convenience during their journeys. 

The book ‘Food Tourism in Asia,’ published in 2019, comprehensively examines the ekiben’s historical roots. 

The first Ekibens were basic but fulfilling, consisting of rice, pickles, and protein. These meals came in biodegradable and disposable containers. They were made from materials like bamboo sheets or baskets, large leaves, or boxes crafted from thinly shaved tree bark. Interestingly, this eco-friendly approach has stood the test of time. Even today, these natural materials are still commonly used for ekiben containers.

Japan’s Railway Expansion

The book discussed that the journey of ekiben began alongside Japan’s railway expansion. The first railway track was laid in 1872, connecting Shinagawa and Yokohama near Tokyo. By 1889, the prominent Tokaido Line was complete, stretching from Shinbashi to Kobe. Originally, these railway lunchboxes were called “kisha-bento” (kisha meaning steam locomotive) rather than ekiben.

In 1877, during the turbulent times of the Satsuma Rebellion, soldiers frequently passed through the Kobe and Osaka stations. Both stations lay claim to selling the first bentos, catering to these military men on the move. Another claim comes from Utsonomiya station near Tokyo, alleging it sold the first ekiben in 1885. However, none of these early claims are backed by solid evidence.

But there are documented cases. Ueno station had the Fujinoya bento restaurant within its premises by 1883. Kumagaya station was known for selling sushi and bread in the same year, and Takasaki station started offering ekibento in 1884. While the exact origin remains mysterious, it’s evident that ekiben sales took off in the late 19th century alongside Japan’s burgeoning rail network.

From the Meiji to Taisho Era, spanning 1868 to 1926, the world of ekiben entered a phase of Western influence and significant improvement. By 1916, feedback from customers on ekiben and their vendors was already being encouraged. A decisive moment came in 1924 when a survey showed consumers overwhelmingly wanted ekiben featuring regional specialties or seasonal ingredients. Additionally, stationmasters urged bento companies to prioritize hygiene and prevent food poisoning to ensure customer safety, especially during the hot summer months. Remarkably, by 1923, the annual consumption of ekiben soared to 100 million units.

The Warring Periods

During periods of warfare, from the First Sino-Japanese War through to the First World War, as Japan expanded its imperial territories, ekiben spread throughout these new regions. The price of ekiben also fluctuated due to economic conditions, experiencing increases in the 1910s and 1920s and decreasing during the Showa Economic Depression in 1929.

War times saw changes in ekiben, too. With large military orders for “Gun-yo Bento” (military bento) at the onset of wars, typical ingredients included rice, fish, seasonings, canned foods, and condiments. However, as wartime conditions worsened, securing these ingredients became challenging. By the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937, an ordinary ekiben was reduced to mere rice.

Subsequently, government-imposed rationing limited even this simple offering. During the Asian-Pacific War, as food supplies dwindled further, citizens desperate for nourishment turned to ekiben outlets. In response, businesses got creative—mixing rice with other grains or sweet potatoes, substituting noodles for rice, and crafting “railway bread” from minced carrots and seaweed—to feed the starving population.

By 1944, many railway stations had faced bombings. Only those possessing Gaishoku-ken (food coupons) could buy ekiben. However, the post-war period marked a turning point for ekiben businesses. In 1952, the ekiben business association, known as “Nippon Tetsudo Konai Eigyo Chuo-Kai” or the Ekiben Businesses Association, played a pivotal role. They negotiated directly with rice farmers to secure a steady supply of lower-grade rice. This move was aimed at reviving the pre-war tradition of ekiben.

The intervention by the ekiben association not only helped resurrect a beloved dining option for train travelers but also addressed food scarcity issues. The surplus of rice obtained through these negotiations meant that ekiben vendors could sell their products without requiring food coupons. This shift allowed more people access to ekiben, contributing to a sense of normalcy and comfort during their train journeys.

In 1956, the Gaishoku-ken system was officially abolished, marking a significant step towards economic and social recovery. The ability to purchase ekiben freely once again symbolized a return to pre-war traditions and a move towards greater prosperity and stability in Japan.

Progress and Decline

The 1960s introduced a monumental change in Japan’s railway system with the launch of the bullet train, or Shinkansen. This innovation had a mixed impact on ekiben sellers. On one hand, it led to the creation of a variety of new ekiben aimed at catering to the tastes of modern travelers. On the other hand, with the Shinkansen stopping at fewer stations and the sealed train windows blocking access to platform vendors, ekiben sales saw a significant decline. To adapt, customers had to either buy their ekiben from kiosks before boarding or rely on onboard trolley services.

Yet, the popularity of ekiben remained unwavering. In fact, in 1953, before the rise of the Shinkansen, the first Ekiben Festival was held at the Osaka Takashiyama Department Store. This sparked a nationwide celebration of these unique meals, with festivals growing across the country supported by railway stations and department stores. These festivals celebrated ekiben and transformed them into a significant cultural phenomenon, improving accessibility to regional specialties and opening new markets.

During the peak of its popularity in the 1960s, there were more than 400 ekiben companies. However, as automobile ownership increased and competition from fast-food chains and convenience stores grew, the number of ekiben companies declined steadily. The privatization of National Japan Railways in 1987 further impacted sales negatively. By 2008, it was estimated that only about 200 ekiben companies remained.


Despite these challenges, recent years have seen a resurgence in the popularity of ekiben. This revival is driven by both traditional and digital media, which have played key roles in sparking global interest in ekiben and food tourism more broadly.

Today, ekiben is a cherished part of Japan’s culinary and cultural landscape, evolving from a practical solution for hungry travelers to a gourmet experience celebrated by locals and visitors alike. You can find numerous ekiben for sale around Japan, and most of them are delicious, convenient, and filling. Many of them also come in a variety of packaging, from a self-heating bento to a shamishen-like box that can double as an excellent keepsake. 

What’s in an Ekiben?

different types of food in a single platter

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While the contents of an ekiben can vary greatly, there are some elements commonly found that showcase the depth and diversity of Japanese cuisine.

  • Rice: At the heart of most ekiben is rice, often seasoned or mixed with various ingredients to enhance its flavor. This rice might come as onigiri (rice balls), sushi, or mixed with vegetables and proteins for a hearty dish called “maze-gohan.”
  • Protein: Protein plays a significant role in these meals, with options ranging from seafood, such as grilled salmon or shrimp tempura, to meat options like teriyaki chicken or braised pork. The geographical location often dictates the protein choice. Coastal regions might feature more seafood, while inland areas could focus on poultry or beef.
  • Vegetables: Vegetables are another essential component, adding color and nutrition to the ekiben. These could be pickled, stir-fried, or served fresh alongside the main dishes. Pickles are a staple in these boxed meals as they provide a refreshing contrast to the richer flavors.
  • Presentation and Packaging: The presentation and packaging of an ekiben are as important as its contents. Boxes are often beautifully designed with regional motifs or made from traditional materials such as bamboo or wood, making them not just a meal but a memorable souvenir. Through this meticulous presentation, each ekiben tells a story of its origin, inviting travelers into a delicious exploration of Japan’s regional cultures and traditions.

Methods of Selling Ekiben

Ekiben is sold through various methods that cater to the needs of travelers and showcase the unique aspect of Japan’s food culture.  

Information from a post in Japan Railway and Transport Review entitled ‘Dining Car and Meal Services on the Train,’ revealed that the most common method of selling Ekiben is in stalls or storefronts strategically positioned near train platforms, which cater to commuters and travelers alike. 

Another method is through carts onboard trains. This is a convenient way to sell ekiben directly to passengers during train journeys. On long-distance routes, especially on Shinkansen, vendors push carts through the carriages, offering a selection of ekiben for purchase. This method allows passengers to enjoy freshly prepared meals without leaving their seats.

In a bygone era, the image of hawkers carrying rectangular trays filled with bento boxes, tea, and various snacks, eagerly approaching trains as they arrived at stations, was a common sight across Japan. This method of selling Ekiben is now primarily a nostalgic memory, a vivid remnant of a simpler time in rail travel. Back when many railway lines were single-track, and trains frequently had extended waits at stations for passing trains, these hawkers provided a crucial service.

Passengers, without having to leave their train carriage, simply opened their windows and called over a hawker to make a purchase. This interaction was more than just a transaction; it was a brief but meaningful exchange between locals and travelers, adding a layer of human connection to the journey. This practice flourished during an era when train travel involved longer stops and slower paces, allowing for such direct sales to thrive.

Aside from the ones mentioned above, other notable methods of selling ekiben include:

  • Convenience Stores: Convenience stores, or “konbini” as they are known in Japan, are another key player in the ekiben market. These ubiquitous stores can be found in virtually every corner of Japan, offering a wide range of ready-to-eat meals, including Ekiben. With their convenient locations and extended operating hours, convenience stores provide travelers with easy access to ekiben whenever hunger strikes.
  • Online Platforms: In recent years, e-commerce has transformed how ekiben are bought and sold. Online platforms offer vendors the opportunity to reach a wider audience beyond the confines of train stations and physical storefronts. From specialized ekiben retailers to general food delivery services, numerous online avenues exist for selling ekiben and shipping them directly to customers’ doorsteps.
  • Ekiben Events and Festivals: Ekiben events and festivals are popular gatherings that celebrate the rich culinary tradition of Japanese train station bento boxes. These events often feature a wide selection of ekiben from various regions of Japan, allowing attendees to sample different flavors and styles in one location. Participating as a vendor in these events provides an excellent opportunity to showcase ekiben offerings and attract new customers.
  • Collaborations and Partnerships: Collaborating with other businesses and organizations can also be a fruitful strategy for selling ekiben. Partnering with railway companies, tourism agencies, or local producers allows vendors to tap into existing networks and promote their ekiben to targeted audiences. Additionally, collaborations with renowned chefs or influencers can help generate buzz and attract attention to ekiben offerings.

Exploring Ekiben Regional Varieties

Ekiben Regional Varieties

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Ekiben comes in a staggering array of varieties, reflecting the culinary diversity of Japan’s different regions. Such vast choices also offer travelers a unique way to taste local specialties. 

Each area brings its own flavors, ingredients, and traditions to its ekiben, creating a mosaic of Japan’s food culture. Let’s journey through some of Japan’s regions and explore the ekiben specialties that define them.

Hokkaido: A Seafood Paradise

The northern island of Hokkaido is renowned for its cold, nutrient-rich waters, making it a paradise for seafood lovers. Iconic ekiben from this region are “Kakimeshi,” rice cooked in oyster broth, and the “Kani Meshi,” a crab meat delight served over rice. 

One of the most iconic ekiben in the whole region is the Ikameshi. The culinary jewel hails from Mori features the Japanese common squid (maika), which is thoughtfully stuffed with a mix of rice and glutinous rice at a 2:1 ratio, then carefully simmered in soy sauce to create a harmonious blend of flavors.

What distinguishes Ikameshi is its simplicity and depth of taste that captivates both locals and travelers alike. This unique combination has earned Ikameshi widespread acclaim, making it a standout dish in ekiben tournaments where it competes against other regional specialties.

Since its introduction in 1941, Ikameshi has risen to prominence, becoming Japan’s best-selling ekiben. 

Savoring these ekiben offers a glimpse into Hokkaido’s celebrated seafood culture, featuring locally caught oysters’ and crabs’ fresh, sweet flavors.

Tohoku: Rich Flavors of the North

The Tohoku region, known for its rugged landscapes and harsh winters, offers hearty meals to match its environment. 

The simplicity and distinctive taste of the Gyutan (beef tongue) Ekiben have quickly made it a standout among Japan’s wide array of train station boxed meals. Launched in 1990, this ekiben is a relatively recent addition to the vast ekiben culture. Yet, it has swiftly garnered acclaim, making Sendai Station a must-visit spot for culinary enthusiasts traveling through Japan.

The Gyutan Ekiben’s core features 5–6 succulent pieces of charcoal-grilled beef tongue. The beef is expertly grilled, ensuring each slice is tender and smoky. These delicious slices are served atop a bed of steamed rice, providing a perfect complement to the rich taste of the beef. Accompanying the beef and rice is a serving of simple pickles, which adds a refreshing crunch and slight acidity to balance the meal’s flavors.

The success and popularity of Gyutan Ekiben have led to the creation of numerous variations, each offering a unique take on this delightful dish. Despite these variations, the essence of the ekiben remains consistent—celebrating the rich, smoky flavors of grilled beef tongue combined with the simplicity of rice and pickles.

Other notable ekiben produced in the region include Torimeshi, which spotlights the Hinai-jidori chicken, one of Japan’s most esteemed varieties of poultry, Uni (sea urchin) Bento, and Shake Harako meshi (salmon with roe on rice). All these offerings are a testament to the region’s love for deep, savory flavors and warming dishes.

Kanto: Metropolitan Delicacies

You’ll find an eclectic mix of traditional and modern ekiben in Tokyo and its surrounding areas. The “Edomae Sushi Bento” pays homage to Tokyo’s (formerly Edo) history as Japan’s sushi capital, offering a selection of nigiri and rolled sushi made with fresh, local fish.

Toge no Kamameshi, which translates to “earthenware rice of the mountain pass,” reflects its origins as a dish travelers enjoy while traversing rugged terrains. Traditionally served in an earthenware pot to retain warmth and flavor, this ekiben is known for its hearty and comforting qualities.

It’s a carefully balanced mix of brown rice, tender chicken, bamboo shoots, burdock roots, and shiitake mushrooms, with chestnuts and sardines adding depth to the flavor profile. The addition of quail eggs, pickled ginger, and green peas introduces a variety of textures and bright pops of color that make this Ekiben as visually appealing as it is delicious. 

Meanwhile, Daruma Bento is named after the traditional hollow, round Japanese dolls known for their resilience and symbolism of perseverance. The Daruma Bento is an ekiben that echoes these qualities through its robust flavors and ingredient choices. Like Toge no Kamameshi, it showcases the bounty of the mountains of Gunma Prefecture but arranges these ingredients to evoke the image of a Daruma doll.

Within this creative presentation lie layers of flavorful chicken, the special chicken Hachiman roll, and an assortment of vegetables, including bamboo shoots, stewed mountain vegetables, burdock roots, eggplants, and chestnuts. Red and black konjac balls add an eye-catching contrast, reminiscent of the Daruma doll’s traditional colors.

Chubu: Mountain Harvests

The mountainous Chubu region includes Nagano, known for its soba noodles. Hence, the “Soba Bento” is a popular choice, allowing travelers to enjoy these buckwheat noodles cold with dipping sauce or warm in a broth—a true taste of the Japanese Alps.

While Nagano boasts its Soba Bento, other prefectures within the Chubu region contribute to the area’s ekiben diversity with their specialties. Niigata is famous for producing some of Japan’s best rice, specifically the Koshihikari variety. The “Koshihikari Echigodon” ekiben showcases this rice topped with an assortment of local seafood, vegetables, and sometimes pickles, enveloping diners in the comforting warmth of Niigata’s yield. 

On the other hand, Ishikawa creates Jibuni, a traditional Kanazawa dish often featured in the local Ekiben. It consists of duck or chicken simmered with vegetables in a flavorful broth thickened with wheat flour, served over rice.

Shizuoka, Gifu, and Aichi also present excellent ekiben offerings. Shizuoka has Unagi no Kabayaki Bento, showcasing grilled eel with sweet soy sauce on rice. Gifu presents Hida Beef Bento, featuring one of Japan’s prized wagyu known for its marbling, while Aichi offers the eel-centric dish called Hitsumabushi Bento

Kansai: The Flavor of Tradition

The Kansai region, encompassing cities like Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe, boasts a rich historical and cultural heritage deeply reflected in its Ekiben offerings. Kyoto’s “Kyo-Kaiseki Bento” mirrors the elegance and seasonal focus of kaiseki cuisine with an assortment of meticulously prepared small dishes featuring tofu, veggies, and sometimes local fish, encapsulating the refined culinary arts of the old capital. 

Meanwhile, Osaka’s affinity for bold flavors shines through in its “Takoyaki Bento,” where the beloved octopus balls find a new form in a portable meal.

Chugoku: Land of Comfort Food

Stretching along the western part of Honshu, the Chugoku region is home to Hiroshima, which is famous for its oysters. The “Kaki Meshi Bento” combines rice with plump, juicy oysters cooked in a savory sauce, providing a comforting taste of Hiroshima’s cherished marine product. 

The Conger eel is another specialty of Hiroshima. Travelers can indulge in an exquisite ekiben that celebrates this local specialty—Anagomeshi—at the Miyajimaguchi Station, the stepping stone to the scenic Miyajima Island, one of Japan’s Three Great Views. 

The Anagomeshi is a culinary masterpiece featuring generous portions of conger eel prepared kabayaki-style, soaked in a savory soy sauce mixture and grilled to perfection, not once but thrice. This meticulous preparation method intensifies the flavor, imparting the eel a delectable smokiness and caramelized exterior. Its robust taste is further enhanced by laying it atop rice cooked in a rich stock made from conger eel, imbuing every grain with umami-packed notes and the essence of the sea.

Originating in 1901, this ekiben holds the prestigious title of one of Japan’s oldest ekiben varieties. Its longstanding popularity isn’t without reason. Many ekiben fans and experts have lauded the Anagomeshi as the pinnacle of ekiben offerings in Japan, a sentiment echoed by its victory in securing the “Ekiben Master” title in 2004. 

Shikoku: Citrus and Freshness

The smallest of Japan’s four main islands, Shikoku, is celebrated for its citrus production. A popular ekiben in the region is the “Sudachi Bento,” which features chicken or fish seasoned with sudachi, a local citrus fruit. It offers a refreshing and zesty flavor profile that’s perfect for energizing travelers on their journey.

Another ekiben that the region is proud of is the “Seto no Oshizushi.” This Ekiben embodies the simplicity and elegance of Japanese culinary tradition, combining artful presentation with the fresh flavors of the Seto Inland Sea.

Oshizushi, or pressed sushi, is an art form in itself. Unlike the more commonly recognized rolls or nigiri, oshizushi involves pressing sushi rice and various ingredients into a box or mold to achieve a compact, shape-retaining form. The Seto no Oshizushi takes this technique and infuses it with local flair. 

The Ekiben comes in a rectangular wooden container that immediately stands out for its natural beauty and traditional feel. Inside, vinegared sushi rice forms the base, providing a tangy contrast to the topping. A single bamboo leaf lies on the rice, a testament to the attention paid to aesthetics and a nod to traditional food preservation and presentation methods.

The star of the Seto no Oshizushi is the sea bream (tai), a prized fish revered for its delicate flavor and tender texture. Sourced from the clear waters of the nearby Seto Inland Sea, the sea bream covers the entire top layer of the Ekiben, symbolizing good fortune and festivity in Japanese culture. The freshness of the fish, the tangy rice, and the subtle scent of bamboo create an exquisite culinary experience that is as delightful to the palate as it is to the eyes.

Kyushu: Hot Springs and Hot Flavors

Kyushu is known for its hot springs and vibrant food scene. The “Mentaiko Bento,” featuring spicy cod roe from Fukuoka, encapsulates the region’s love for bold tastes. The spicy, umami-rich mentaiko paired with warm rice makes for a compelling ekiben choice that has gained fans all over Japan.

Okinawa: Tropical Influences

Japan’s southernmost prefecture offers a unique culinary repertoire influenced by its tropical climate and history. The “Goya Champuru Bento,” based on Okinawa’s staple dish, includes a mixture of bitter melon (goya), tofu, eggs, and sometimes pork or Spam, reflecting the island’s blend of Japanese and American influences. This ekiben provides a taste of Okinawa’s distinctive cuisine, which stands apart from the rest of Japan, emphasizing bold flavors and hearty ingredients.

Japan Rail Times offers a comprehensive insight into many of the popular ekiben for each region, including information on which station each product can be purchased. 

Ekiben Buying Guide

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Buying ekiben for the first time can be a delightful yet overwhelming experience. Whether you’re at a bustling hub like Tokyo Station or quaint rural stations, knowing where and how to buy ekiben can add an unparalleled dimension to your travel experience. 

Understand the Variety

Ekiben comes in countless forms, each reflecting the region’s local flavors and specialties. Before making a purchase, take a moment to explore the range available at the station. You’ll find everything from simple rice balls (onigiri) to elaborate meals featuring regional delicacies. Be adventurous and try something new—you might just discover a favorite dish.

Where to Buy Ekiben

Ekiben are widely available across Japan, and you can find them in the following: 

  • Station Kiosks and Vendors: The most common places to find ekiben are the kiosks and vendors located within the train stations themselves. These spots offer a wide selection of ekiben, showcasing local specialties.
  • Onboard Trolley Services: On longer train rides, particularly on Shinkansen (bullet trains), attendants often pass through the carriages with trolley services selling ekiben. This is a convenient option if you’ve boarded in a hurry. 
  • Specialty Stores: In major cities and some large train stations, specialty stores dedicated entirely to ekiben offer an expansive selection nationwide. These spots are perfect for tasting regional dishes beyond your travel route.

Choosing Your Ekiben

When buying an ekiben, here are some considerations to keep in mind:

  • Seasonal Offerings: Keep an eye out for ekiben that feature seasonal ingredients. These limited-time offerings are often a great way to experience the freshest flavors. 
  • Regional Specialties: Make it a point to choose ekiben that highlights the local cuisine of the area you’re traveling through. This is an excellent opportunity to engage with the local culture and culinary traditions.
  • Packaging and Presentation: Ekiben are famous for their flavors, artful presentation, and innovative packaging. Some ekiben come in reusable containers, like ceramic pots or wooden boxes, which can make lovely souvenirs. Others may feature packaging that tells a story or celebrates local landmarks and festivals.
  • Dietary Preferences and Restrictions: If you have specific dietary requirements, it helps to do some research beforehand. Vegetarian, vegan, and certain allergy-friendly options may be available, but they’re less common. Look for ekiben marked with specific dietary symbols, or ask station staff for assistance.

Purchasing Ekiben

Purchasing an ekiben in Japan couldn’t be easier. As you approach the vast array of these delightful boxed meals at station kiosks or specialty stores, you’ll notice that each ekiben is marked with its price, ensuring buyer transparency and convenience. To purchase, point to the ekiben of your choice, and the staff will promptly retrieve a fresh package for you.

Ekiben Pricing

Price-wise, ekiben caters to a wide range of budgets and appetites. Snack-size options can be found for as little as 300-400 yen, offering a taste of regional flavors without a significant investment. Most ekiben fall within the more moderate price range of 700-1200 yen, balancing quality and affordability. You can enjoy diverse dishes highlighting Japan’s regional specialties and seasonal ingredients.

However, if you’re looking to indulge in a luxurious dining experience or seek a special culinary souvenir from your travels, gourmet ekiben, which features elaborate ingredients and presentation, can cost upwards of 3,000 yen.

What to Pair Ekiben With

While ekiben can certainly stand alone as a satisfying meal, pairing it with the right accompaniments can elevate the dining experience to new heights. Whether you’re traveling on a Shinkansen or enjoying a picnic in the park, here are some delicious options to pair with your ekiben:

  • Tea: For a traditional and soothing pairing, tea is an impeccable choice. Green tea, in particular, complements almost any type of Ekiben. Its slight bitterness and refreshing quality can cleanse the palate and enhance the meal’s flavors. Whether it’s a steaming cup of Sencha for sushi-based ekiben or a cold brew Hojicha for something heavier like a Katsu bento, tea harmonizes wonderfully with Japanese cuisine.
  • Sake: Sake, Japan’s iconic rice wine, offers a range of flavors that can match the diversity of ekiben. A crisp, cold Junmai Daiginjo sake pairs splendidly with seafood ekiben, such as Unagi no Kabayaki or Mentaiko Bento, accentuating the delicate flavors of the fish. A robust Sake with deeper umami notes can be an excellent match for meatier options like the Hida Beef Bento.
  • Regional Drinks: Many areas in Japan are famous not just for their food but also for their local beverages. When traveling through these regions, look for specialty drinks that complement your ekiben perfectly. For example, Yuzu beverages from Shikoku offer a citrusy zest that can enhance the flavors of lighter ekiben. At the same time, Amazake (a sweet, low-alcohol drink made from fermented rice) from Kyoto pairs well with traditional vegetarian bentos.
  • Pickles: Pickles, or “tsukemono,” are a staple accompaniment to Japanese meals and make an excellent pairing with Ekiben. The tangy and crunchy texture of pickles adds a refreshing contrast to the savory flavors of the bento box. Choose traditional options like umeboshi (pickled plums) or takuan (pickled daikon radish) for a burst of flavor.
  • Craft Beer: Japan’s craft beer scene is flourishing, transforming the nation’s drinking culture and offering a burgeoning variety of flavors to locals and visitors alike. This renaissance was triggered by a pivotal change in 1994 when Japan revised its Liquor Tax Law, which reduced the required minimum production volume for obtaining a brewing license from 2,000 kiloliters per year to just 60 kiloliters. Thanks to that, many microbreweries now offer selections that make perfect companions to ekiben. A crisp pilsner or a light ale can be especially refreshing with spicy dishes like Mentaiko Bento, balancing out the heat with its cool effervescence. Meanwhile, a dark stout or porter with roasted, malty notes might go well with heavier, umami-laden bentos such as beef or pork-based meals, complementing the richness of the meat.
  • Sparkling Water or Sodas: For those preferring a non-alcoholic option with a bit more character than still water, sparkling water or lightly flavored sodas can be delightful. The carbonation can help refresh the palate between bites, making each mouthful as enjoyable as the first. In regions known for their citrus production, like Shikoku or Kyushu, local citrus-infused sparkling waters or sodas can add a pleasantly fruity note that pairs well with many types of ekiben.
  • Miso Soup: Warm and comforting, miso soup is an excellent pairing for Ekiben, especially during colder months. The rich umami flavor of miso broth complements the savory elements of the bento box. At the same time, the addition of tofu, seaweed, and green onions adds depth and complexity to the meal. Enjoy a steaming bowl of miso soup alongside your Ekiben for a cozy and satisfying dining experience.
  • Japanese Sweets (Wagashi): For those with a penchant for something distinctly Japanese and sweet to round off their meal, pairing your Ekiben with Wagashi—the traditional Japanese confections—can be an exquisite choice. These sweets, made from ingredients such as sweet azuki bean paste, rice flour, and agar-agar, are not only delicious but also artfully crafted to represent the seasonal themes of Japan. A subtle, sweet Wagashi can complement the flavors of your Ekiben without overpowering them, offering a harmonious end to your culinary journey.

Ekiben Etiquette: Respectful Dining on the Rails

Partaking in the ekiben tradition is a delightful aspect of train travel in Japan, offering a chance to indulge in diverse regional flavors. However, it’s crucial to pair this culinary adventure with understanding the etiquette involved to fully appreciate the experience while respecting Japanese culture and fellow travelers. Follow these guidelines to ensure your ekiben experience is enjoyable and respectful.

Purchasing and Preparing to Eat

  • Be Mindful of Queues: When buying your ekiben, observe orderly lines at kiosks or stores. Patience and politeness during the purchasing process are appreciated.
  • Prepare for Eating Before Boarding: Gather everything you might need—such as drinks or utensils—before boarding the train. This minimizes movement and disturbance once on board.

During Consumption

  • Where to Eat Your Ekiben: Eating on long-distance trains, like Shinkansen (bullet trains), where seats are designed for dining, is customary and acceptable. However, refrain from eating ekiben on local or urban trains where eating isn’t generally practiced.
  • Keep Your Space Clean: Use the tray table in front of you if available, and keep all your food contained to avoid spills that could inconvenience others.
  • Minimize Odors: Although ekiben are packed with aromatic delights, be mindful of strong-smelling foods in confined spaces, as not all passengers may appreciate them.
  • Eating Quietly: Japanese culture emphasizes ‘quietude‘ in public spaces. When enjoying your ekiben, aim to do so quietly, avoiding loud noises that could disturb others.
  • Respect Personal Space: Train travel in Japan, particularly in urban areas or during peak hours, can involve close quarters with fellow passengers. When eating your ekiben, be mindful of how your actions (such as opening packaging or moving your arms) might invade someone else’s personal space.
  • Offering to Share: While sharing your ekiben isn’t typical among strangers on public transportation, doing so with travel companions can be a delightful way to experience different flavors together. Just ensure that this sharing doesn’t disrupt others around you.

Post Meal

  • Dispose of Waste Properly: Japanese trains and stations are known for their cleanliness—a standard maintained by everyone’s effort. Ekiben packages often come with a bag for trash; use it to collect your waste.
  • Recycling Matters: If your ekiben packaging has separate components that are recyclable, take a moment to separate them. Many train stations have recycling bins alongside trash cans, clearly marked for plastics, cans, and paper. Disposing of packaging correctly contributes to Japan’s stellar waste management practices and helps keep the environment clean.
  • Carry Your Trash: In some cases, especially on smaller regional trains or less frequently serviced routes, you might not find many trash cans or recycling bins available on board or even at certain stations. The expectation in these circumstances is to carry your trash with you until you find an appropriate place to dispose of it. Keeping a small bag handy for this purpose can be very helpful.


Ekiben encapsulates the essence of Japanese culinary culture, offering travelers a taste of tradition and regional diversity with every bite. Whether speeding along on a Shinkansen or waiting for your next connection at a rural station, Ekiben transforms train travel into a memorable gastronomic journey. So next time you find yourself at a Japanese train station, be sure to pick up an ekiben and embark on a culinary adventure that’s as enriching as it is delicious. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is an ekiben?

Ekiben is a bento box, a Japanese lunch box specifically made for train travel.

What types of ekiben are available?

There are various types of ekiben available, including shinkansen bento, daruma bento, moo taro bento, and regional ekiben from all across Japan.

Where can you find ekiben?

Ekiben can be found at train stations, particularly those along the Shinkansen routes and at major stations like Utsunomiya Station. You can also find plenty of ekiben shops and regional ekiben sellers in department stores as well as festivals.

What are some popular ekiben ingredients?

Popular ekiben ingredients include salmon, wagyu beef, white rice, and traditional side dishes like masu no sushi.

Why are ekiben popular among Japanese people?

Ekiben are popular among Japanese people as they offer a convenient and delicious meal option for travelers while showcasing regional specialties from across Japan.

How many different ekiben are there?

There are over 200 different ekiben available, each representing a unique culinary experience from a specific region in Japan.

What makes ekiben unique?

Ekiben are unique as they are typically sold at train stations and are designed for easy consumption on trains, with some featuring self-heating capabilities for a warm meal on the go.

Are Ekiben self-heating?

Some Ekiben come with self-heating capabilities, allowing travelers to enjoy a warm meal even when there are no microwave facilities available.

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