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.”)

Kobayashi, a travel journalist, has yet to sample “Hayate bento,” one of Hachinohe Station’s new ekiben, for herself — but she’s sure to do so soon. Often called an “ekiben critic” — perhaps it’s no wonder there is such a specialist with so many varieties nationwide — Kobayashi has traveled the length and breadth of these islands for the past 20 years pursuing her mission. She often buys two or three different bento at the same time at a station, then photographs them before tucking in.

“I feel excited all the time when I unwrap and open ekiben because every one is different and particular to the area,” Kobayashi says. “I like them because they are tasty and beautiful. They are definitely a part of Japan’s food culture.”

The number of ekiben varieties is now put at around 3,000, though it is difficult for industry sources to be precise, as new ones appear every year and others disappear. What is certain, though, is that if you traveled to all of the more than 200 train stations where they’re sold, it would take about eight years eating one different ekiben every day to get through the lot. “But in fact,” as Kobayashi says, “trying out ekiben is endless because every year, about 200 new kinds come out.”‘

The new ekiben awaiting her in Hachinohe included sushi bento featuring salmon and mackerel freshly caught in the ocean nearby, and beef bento offering the famed Kuraishi beef from neighboring Kuraishi. Such use of local ingredients is a key part of the appeal of ekiben, allowing train travelers to take a gastronomic tour as well.

The bento from which ekiben evolved have a history long predating rail travel. In fact box lunches date back to the Edo Period (1603-1867), when meals were prepared and carried in tiered lacquer boxes on outings. Then, bento sold at theaters to be eaten during intermissions were called makunouchi-bento (“between-acts box lunches”), and it was this kabuki fare that become the forerunner of today’s bento with rice and various side dishes.

Magnets for visitors

It is believed that one of the first ekiben were onigiri (rice balls) wrapped with sheets of young bamboo leaves that were sold at Utsunomiya Station in 1885 when the Nihon Tetsudo Line opened between there and Ueno Station in Tokyo. The idea spread fast from its Tochigi Prefecture source, and for well over a century ekiben have been integral to rail travel in Japan — with some famous kinds having played a significant role as magnets for visitors to their area of origin.

In her years of ekibenning, Kobayashi has also come across some interesting facts and figures, including that JR Tokyo Station sells the most varieties — topping 90 on most days, including some popular varieties from other stations it serves. Meanwhile, the second biggest selection is found at JR Sendai Station, which typically offers around 60 varieties.

As regards price, the average bento is around 700-800 yen, though perhaps one of the most expensive is the 10,000 yen ekiben sold at JR Kanazawa Station. This double-decker box meal includes an assortment of dishes that looks like New Year’s osechi-ryori, which is cooked only to advance order by a local top-notch Japanese restaurant.

With so many popular varieties featuring local ingredients and often exotic flavors, the ekiben business may sound a promising one to enter. However, although accurate data is unavailable, Kobayashi has seen ekiben sales decline steadily in recent years as the number of convenience stores selling cheaper bento round the clock has grown.

“In this situation, the role of ekiben has changed,” she says. “They used to be a necessity for travelers, but now they seem to have become more akin to a special souvenir of a particular locality.”

The popularity of ekiben fairs at major big-city department stores lends support to Kobayashi’s view. Known as the biggest such exhibition, the annual fair in Keio Department Store in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district last year sold 283,726 ekiben of 160 kinds in 13 days. There, the most popular was a 470 yen ikameshi (bento of squid stuffed with sticky rice) from Mori Station on the Hakodate Honsen in Hokkaido, of which 56,102 were sold during the fair.

In the current severe economic climate, though such fairs may be a godsend for makers, Kobayashi believes they may miss the key point — travel. “I want more people to go traveling and enjoy ekiben at the places where they are made,” she says.

Pointing out that crab and oysters are now in season, Kobayashi recommends Sendai Station’s oyster bento and the crab sushi at Tsuruga Station in Fukui Prefecture. These, she says, are “well worth the trip just to try them out.”

Keio Department Store in Shinjuku will hold its annual ekiben fair from Jan. 9 through Jan. 22.

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