In the early morning of Dec. 1, the first "Hayate" shinkansen left Hachinohe Station in Aomori Prefecture. Its departure for Tokyo in a blaze of publicity signaled that Japan's fastest express trains had a new northernmost limit -- some 96.6 km further on the Tohoku Shinkansen Line from Morioka in Iwate Prefecture toward Hachinohe.

Along with railway freaks who had long waited to see the first run of "Hayate," Shinobu Kobayashi was also filled with excitement that Sunday morning. In her case, though, it was because of the brand-new ekiben (station box meals) that also debuted that day.

In fact, a range of 11 new ekiben was created to commemorate the opening of the new shinkansen line -- adding to the nation's existing menu of some 3,000 kinds of ekiben, a coined word that combines eki (railway station) and ben (short for bento, which means "box meal.")