Railways developed as a major means of long-distance travel in Japan from the 1880s on, and along with this came demand for food to eat during the many hours on the train. From the start, rice balls called onigiri were sold on station platforms, but as time went on, there gradually emerged supplies of boxed meals, bento, featuring local food products or evoking local attractions. These came to be called ekiben , eki meaning train station and ben being short for bento , and they won recognition as local specialties. So well established is their position on the Japanese travel scene that some people actually take trips for the express purpose of eating them. The ekiben , which people can buy on a station platform and then eat on the train, making good use of their time in transit, has become an element of Japan’s food culture.
People line up to buy boxed meals at the “Ekiben” kiosk in Paris.
Two of the bento sold at Ekiben: Makunouchi (left) and Paris-Lyon, both for €15.
Customers can refer to the samples on display as they choose their bento.
Now a move is underway to share the railway bento familiar to Japanese with travelers elsewhere. An ekiben kiosk has been opened for a two-month period at Gare de Lyon, one of the main railway terminals in Paris. It is the first such international initiative. As the operator of the kiosk explains, France has a culture of long-distance rail travel similar to Japan’s, and recently French people have become more familiar with Japanese culture; this was the basis for the decision to undertake trial sales of ekiben in Paris with the objective of spreading this typically Japanese railway cuisine.
The kiosk at Gare de Lyon offers five types of boxed meals, including “Makunouchi,” a popular traditional type of bento with many ingredients, and “Paris-Lyon,” an original bento featuring French beef. The beautiful and easy-to- eat arrangement of the food has been impressing French travelers. The ingredients have been adjusted to enhance their appeal to France’s first-time ekiben diners, such as by adding flavoring to the white rice. These Japanese-style boxed meals are reportedly winning favor in France as well.
In Japan, ekiben fairs are held periodically at department stores and elsewhere, meeting the wishes of people who want to enjoy a travel experience but who cannot readily take a trip. At these events, which have proved quite popular, people can buy boxed meals from various locations prepared on the spot as they watch. And at Matsuri, an ekiben shop inside Tokyo Station, people can choose from a lineup of over 170 daily-made ekiben from around the country. This is a boon to those who do not have time to visit the local stations where they are ordinarily sold. Matsuri is planning to hold a G7 commemorative ekiben fair featuring the proud offerings of the cities where G7 Summit‒related meetings are being held this year.
Special fairs of this sort provide a convenient way of purchasing ekiben , but the best way of experiencing them is by eating them locally. We hope that when you visit Japan, you will travel to regional destinations and enjoy various box meals as you make the rounds of tourist attractions. A dazzling variety of ekiben await you ̶each one a package of local foods, local tradition, and above all, the thoughtful ingenuity of local people seeking to offer travelers delicious meals.