Over the weekend I went down to Tokyo to meet with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while. My wife asked me if I wanted to eat lunch before I went to catch the train, but I told her no, I’d be eating ekiben, or “train station bento,” instead. Ever since Japan began industrializing during the Meiji Period (1868-1925), trains have been a big part of life here, and millions use them daily. While there’s a strange social taboo against eating on trains that are only going a short distance, which gaijin naturally don’t pick up on right away, it’s perfectly okay to eat on a long-distance train like Shinkansen bullet trains or limited express trains, and train stations in each region of Japan sell delicious boxed lunches you can only buy there. Some of the most famous ekiben are Masu no Sushi (sushi on rice served in a round wooden frame) from Toyama, Ikameshi (flavored rice cooked inside the cleaned body of a squid) from Hokkaido, and Daruma bento (a bento lunch inside a round red doll) from J-List’s home prefecture of Gunma. J-List carries hundreds of bento products from Japan, including a nice ekiben book that gives information on the most famous train station bentos from all corners of the country.
There are, of course, some major differences between the sprawling metropolis that is Tokyo and our semi-rural prefecture of Gunma 100 km to the north, which I’m always reminded of when I go there. In Tokyo no one rushes for trains since the next one will be along in a minute or two, but in Gunma there are only a few trains per hour, so when the train is leaving you move your oshiri. Despite there being hundreds of people around you at any given moment in Tokyo, it’s amazing how lonely a person can feel, an impression I don’t get in my home prefecture. And in Tokyo, girls are extremely fashionable, so much that I often find myself doing double-takes at how stylish the females around me are and making me think I’ve accidentally walked into a photography shoot for one of those awesome Japanese fashion magazines.
I’m a fan of ekiben, train station bento, and eat it whenever I go into Tokyo.