Ekiben (駅弁)

Ekiben is a box lunch mainly sold at a railway station. Specifically, Ekiben means a box lunch sold exclusively in specific stations, railways or regions. The word 'Ekiben' is an abbreviation of 'Eki-bento' or 'Eki-uri-bento' (both means a box lunch sold at a railway station).

Although the scene selling a light meal within station precincts is not limited to Japan, 'a box lunch'-styled light meal, which is made by stuffing one meal into a box and so on, is rare in the western countries. The image of the word "Ekiben" has changed with times.
Refer to the section of "Definition of Ekiben" for the meaning of the word 'Ekiben.'

Origin

A long-distance movement forced people to stay on a train for a long time. People needed meals when they were on the train at mealtimes. Therefore, it was invented to sell box lunches at stations.

There are various theories as to which station sold the first Ekiben in Japan. There is no fixed theory. The theory is widely believed that 'Shirokiya Inn' sold the first Ekiben--two rice balls and a few slices of pickled daikon radish wrapped by a sheet of bamboo bark-- at the newly opened Utsunomiya Station of Nippon Railway on July 16, 1885 (refer to the section of "The memorial day of Ekiben" and "The day of Ekiben"). However, through the investigation and study conducted later, some people indicated the existence of other stations which had sold Ekiben earlier than the Utsunomiya Station. Therefore, "the Utsunomiya theory" (theory that the first Ekiben was sold at the Utsunomiya Station) is effectively denied these days. For instance, Takasaki Bento Co.,Ltd. insists that it sold "Onigiri Bento" (lunch box with rice ball) at Takasaki Station in 1884. There are also other theories on where and when the first Ekiben was sold, such as that it was sold at Osaka Station in around 1877, at Kobe Station in Hyogo Prefecture in the same year, at Tsuruga Station in 1882, at Ueno Station in 1883, and so on.

It is believed that Maneki Shokuhin Co.,Ltd. first sold the current style of Ekiben using a small lunch box at Himeji Station in 1890.

Using a dining car is another method to take a meal on the train. Dining cars were first introduced in Japan by Sanyo Railway Company in 1899, which was later than the birth of Ekiben.

"The memorial day of Ekiben" and "The day of Ekiben"

The day July 16, which is believed that the first Ekiben was sold under "the Utsunomiya theory," is designated as 'The memorial day of Ekiben.'
Large numbers of literature and web sites referred to "the Utsunomiya theory" when they introduced this memorial day. As mentioned above, however, designating July 16 as 'the day when the Ekiben was first sold' is based on a document compiled after more than 70 years had passed. Practically, it is not too much to say that it has almost become an urban legend.

Then, April 10 was newly designated as 'The day of Ekiben' in 1993, replacing 'The memorial day of Ekiben.'
April is written as "4月"(the fourth month) and the figure 10 is written as "十" in Japanese. When these two figures "4" and "十" are arranged and combined lengthways, the newly created figure looks like '弁,' which is a Chinese character applied to "Ekiben"(駅弁).
This is the reason why the day April 10 was chosen as 'The day of Ekiben.'

How is the Ekiben sold?

Ekiben is most commonly sold over the counter at shops managed by Ekiben delicatessens which were established outside the ticket barrier or on the platform. In addition to the shops managed by Ekiben delicatessens, shops managed by standing-up-eating soba/udon noodle shops, kiosk, etc. sometimes sell Ekiben in stations.

Furthermore, there are other ways to sell Ekiben within station precincts at around the mealtimes when lots of Ekiben are sold. One way is that salesclerks sell Ekiben and tea displayed on a wagon or stand which is temporarily set on a platform. Another way is that salesclerks carry Ekiben and tea using a rectangular, tray or low box shaped container, which is suspended from their necks by a belt attached to the container and kept in front of them. They walk the platform calling a sales message and sell the Ekiben. This is called a peddling style. However, each of these selling methods is declining.

Besides within station precincts, on the train (mainly on the higher category train), Ekiben limited to the stations along the railroad has been available through a service of sales in the train since long ago.

As described later, with neglecting the definition of Ekiben, some Ekiben delicatessens abolished the service of Ekiben sales within station precincts, instead selling Ekiben at shops like its own shop near stations.

Some Ekiben delicatessens deliver Ekiben to the platform when a passenger makes a reservation by a phone or other methods and notifies the Ekiben delicatessen of the train and the car number. Expensive Ekiben packed in a Jubako (tiered food boxes), whose contents are similar to the dishes served in the Kaiseki ryori (an elegant Japanese meal served in delicate courses), are also sold only on such a subscription basis at Kanazawa Station and others.

These days, some Ekiben delicatessens offer the mail order services of Ekiben through the Internet and other methods.
(These services were realized by the introduction of refrigerated delivery service, under which goods can be delivered at a low temperature.)

Current situation

Summary
As the number of trains whose windows are unable to be freely opened or closed has increased these days, it has become impossible to deliver Ekiben through a window. Furthermore, the introduction of high speed cars curtails the stopping time as well as reduces the traveling time. Ekiben must also compete with lunch box sold at a convenience store or kiosk and with satisfactory foods served by the restaurants established within station precincts (what is called "Eki-naka" (shops inside the station building) in Japan). The service of sales in the train has been scaled down in higher category trains managed by JR or others, or abolished in some trains. These factors provide negative effect on Ekiben sales within station precincts or on the train, forcing not a few Ekiben delicatessens to withdraw from Ekiben business.

As of June, 2005, Sendai Station sells the most various kinds of Ekiben at a single station.

An attempt to make Ekiben local specialties and to expand Ekiben sales as an event goods
Ekiben business has changed its strategy aimed at the development as a box lunch enriched with the local color by adding local specialties, with eliminating the concept that Ekiben is a practical meal sold within station precincts. Ekiben business has found new markets, such as roadside restaurants, rest areas, department stores and mail-order system through the Internet and other methods. Moreover, some Ekiben delicatessens sell the same commodity as Ekiben at a neighboring airport as Soraben (box lunch sold at airports).

Toge no Kamameshi' (the kamameshi (rice boiled with various ingredients in a small pot) served at a mountain pass), which is sold at East Japan Railway Company (JR East), Shin'etsu (Main) Line, Yokokawa Station in Gunma Prefecture, typifies the new strategy of shifting the sales focus to roadside restaurants and rest areas. Similarly, 'Ikameshi ' (boiled squid stuffed with steamed glutinous rice) sold at Hokkaido Railway Company (JR-Hokkaido), Hakodate Main Line, Mori Station in Hokkaido typifies the new strategy of shifting its sales focus to department stores and others. An event-- famous Ekiben nationwide are gathered and sold at department stores and supermarkets-- what is called 'an "Ekiben" fair,' is so popular that many Ekiben are sold out soon after their arrival.

Ekiben is sometimes used for attracting customers to the event held by a railway company. In Hakata Station and others, there are shops selling popular Ekiben of adjacent areas (shops in Hakata Station sell popular Ekiben of the whole area of the Kyushu) by having those Ekiben sent from each area. Furthermore, when an event is held at a station in neighborhood, some Ekiben delicatessens visit the event to sell Ekiben.

Introduction of new technology
Ekiben sold by 'Awajiya (Kobe Station)' in Kobe City in 1988 was a good illustration of a box lunch with a special device. With the installation of a heating device in the lunch box, which utilizes the heat generated by a chemical reaction between calcined lime and water, customers could eat hot Ekiben only by pulling a string coming out of the box. Six kinds of Ekiben with this heating device installed are sold by Awajiya alone at present. Some companies sell similar Ekiben following Awajiya's model.

An attempt to reduce costs
O-bento' sold by Nippon Restaurant Enterprise Co., Ltd. (NRE)
In an attempt to compete with the convenience store box lunches (box lunches sold at convenience stores), a new type of Ekiben was developed that were cooked and packed in foreign countries where the manufacturing costs were low, shipped to Japan after being frozen, and then sold after being defrosted. This Ekiben was 'O-bento' sold by NRE, an associated corporation of JR East, which enjoyed a large sale at the beginning. However, the sales slumped after the company was forced to give up producing and importing box lunch containing beef products due to the BSE affair, with the result that the company ended the sale after having sold out all stocked 'O-bento' by October, 2007. This 'O-bento' had a quite different style from the existing Ekiben. Therefore, this commodity did not match the image of ordinary Ekiben.

Current situation of Ekiben delicatessen
Ekiben delicatessens are mainly divided into two groups.

One group consists of Full-time Ekiben manufacturing companies, Japanese-style hotels producing Ekiben as a side job and others. As most of these producers are operated on a small scale, this group is declining gradually. Ekiben whose manufacturing had been suspended in recent years were mostly made by the producers belonging to this group, as well as most of the producers that had closed their businesses recently also belonged to this group.

Another group consists of producers that started and developed their businesses as a Ekiben delicatessen, and then have become one of the largest food companies in their own region. For instance, Manyo-ken Co., Ltd. in Chiba Station, Takasaki Bento Co., Ltd. in Takasaki Station, Kiyoken Co., Ltd. in Yokohama Station, Tokaiken Co., Ltd. in Shizuoka Station, Shioso Co., Ltd. in Tsuruga Station and Hiroshima-Eki-Bento Co., Ltd. in Hiroshima Station are included in the group. Although these producers are retaining the producing lines for their original Ekiben, they are not in fact "Ekiben delicatessens" any more. They should be rather called "a core food company." For instance, Shioso Co., Ltd. has the capability of supplying up to 25,000 box lunches a day. Hiroshima-Eki-Bento Co., Ltd. has a business record that it supplied 48,000 box lunches in a past event. These companies are producing not only Ekiben but also convenience store box lunches or supermarket box lunches (box lunches sold at supermarkets) sold in their regions.

Definition of Ekiben

Ekiben means "a box lunch sold within station precincts" in the broad sense.
However, some convenience stores open stores within station precincts these days, selling 'convenience store box lunches.'
Whether this type of box lunch can be counted among Ekiben is controversial. It is difficult to draw a clear line between Ekiben and 'convenience store box lunches,' because some Ekiben delicatessens with long history sell comparatively cheap box lunches similar to 'convenience store box lunches' besides their traditional Ekiben.
(Not a few companies that have developed into large-scaled food companies, even if their origin was in the Ekiben delicatessen, undertake the cooking of the convenience store box lunches or side dishes sold in the areas.)

In the narrow sense, 'Ekiben' only indicates a box lunch satisfying the following conditions: "it contains cooked rice," "it was produced by a company joining the Central Committee of the Japanese Association of Railroad Station Concessionaires (hereafter, 'Center Committee'), " and "it is sold within station precincts."

When Japan's railway system was managed by Japan National Railways (JNR), 'Ekiben' containing typical side dishes such as cooked rice, a broiled fish, meat dishes, deep-fried foods, a Japanese style omelet and kamaboko (steamed fish paste), namely a box lunch similar to Makunouchi-bento (box lunch including cooked rice and side dishes), was called "a normal box lunch," while other types of 'Ekiben' was called "a special box lunch." Thus, Ekiben was classified institutionally.
A box lunch without taking a typical style of the set of rice and side dishes, such as 'Oshi-zushi' (lightly-pressed piece of sushi topped with cooked ingredients), was classified into 'a special box lunch.'
Furthermore, as JNR defined that a box lunch without 'cooked rice' is not counted among Ekiben, 'Soba bento' (box lunch containing buckwheat noodle) sold at Oshamambe Station, 'Sandwiches' sold at Ofuna Station and others were not recognized as Ekiben until the last days of JNR's management.

A box lunch satisfying the conditions that 'a member company of the Center Committee produced it' and 'it contains rice' is allowed to put a common trademark called 'Ekiben mark' on the wrapping paper. Moreover, such a box lunch is introduced in the margin of a JR schedule (only for large-sized schedule) published by Kotu-shinnbun-sha (literally, traffic news company).

The definition that only a box lunch with this 'Ekiben mark' is recognized as 'Ekiben' is supported among members of the Center Committee and some people. Considering the following situation, however, it is hard to say that the definition is realistic.

Under the JNR management, only member companies of the Center Committee were permitted to sell box lunches within station precincts. However, since JR started after the division and privatization of JNR, nonmember companies of the Center Committee were also allowed to sell box lunch within station precincts.
Therefore, it became difficult to connect 'a box lunch sold within station precincts' with the 'Center Committee.'
In addition to the newcomers, some former member companies continued to sell Ekiben within station precincts after leaving the Center Committee.
Accordingly, it became difficult to keep imposing the conditions that 'Ekiben is a box lunch produced by member companies of the Center Committee' and 'Ekiben is a box lunch with the Ekiben mark.'
This situation also resulted from various and strict requests made on the production process, etc. with the aim of preventing food poisoning, because the time lag from production to purchase and consumption is an inevitable aspect of Ekiben. The restriction that Ekiben must be sold out within four hours from the time of production remains even now. The Center Committee has not been concerned with the sales of box lunches sold within the station precincts managed by private railway companies since the beginning. Ekiben exclusively sold at the stations of private railway also exists.

Some of the member companies of the Center Committee stop selling Ekiben within station precincts. They continue to sell Ekiben while using the "Ekiben mark" at only their own stores in front of stations.
On the other hand, nonmember companies that established their stores in front of stations often produce their own box lunch, calling it 'Ekiben.'
This is a common measure taken in the provinces to attract tourists.

Although sold by member companies of the Central Committee within station precincts, some box lunches were not allowed to attach the 'Ekiben mark' because it lacks rice, which include "Chinese steamed meat dumpling" sold at Yokohama Station and Tosu Station and "Sandwich" (sandwich box lunch) sold at Ofuna Station. However, they are commonly regarded as Ekiben now. For example, there is no Ekiben mark on 'Sandwich' sold at Ofuna Station, but the sentence 'SINCE 1898/ 日本デ最初ノ駅弁サンドウィッチ' (Our company produced the sandwich box lunch in 1898 for the first time in Japanese history) is printed on its wrapping paper.
(However, it is difficult to assert that sandwich box lunch had never been produced before 1898.)
For instance, Tokaiken Co., Ltd. insists that it had already sold the sandwich box lunch in 1889.)

Considering these situations, box lunch sold within station precincts or stores established by box lunch companies in front of stations are comprehensively called 'Ekiben' in most cases. Ekiben' exhibited in an "Ekiben fair" held at a department store, as well as 'Ekiben' mentioned in TV programs relating to travel, are box lunches that satisfy a broad range of conditions. Ekiben' does not always mean the box lunch produced by the member companies of the Central Committee.

Some trains offering the service of sales in the train sell not only Ekiben but also box lunches limited to the train. In an event train, box lunches limited to the event are sometimes sold.
In general, these box lunch are believed to be included in 'Ekiben.'

Ekiben and tea

Sencha (green tea of middle grade) sold along with Ekiben was sold by using a small ceramic bottle called "kisha dobin" (the earthen teapot used on the train) before. It is believed that the first tea was sold at Shizuoka Station in 1889, which was poured into an earthen teapot of Shigaraki-yaki Ware. However, as earthenware was heavy and fragile, a small bottle with a translucent, thick vinyl made body and a yellowish green-colored plastic made cap (a screw type lid) were introduced instead of a ceramic bottle in the late 1950s to the early 1960s. A tea bag was first put, and then hot water was poured into the bottle on the spot. As the tea sold in this new type of bottle became popular, the tea sold in an earthenware teapot rapidly disappeared. A tea bag was put in a bottle made of elastic vinyl, therefore purchaser could adjust the strength of the tea by pressing the bottle.

However, sencha in the vinyl made container has also declined due to the spread of oolong tea and green tea sold in a can or a plastic bottle since the end of the 1980s. As a result, one can hardly see the vinyl made container as of the 2000s. At present, tea sold in a vinyl made container with Ekiben was mostly replaced by that sold in a can or a plastic bottle produced by major manufacturers.

However, some stations sold sencha poured into a small earthenware teapot with Ekiben in the form of reproduced version in recent years.

Meal similar to Ekiben provided in countries and regions other than Japan

In Taiwan, there is a box lunch called '鐡路飯盒' which is sold at railway stations in various areas, as well as sold on the train. As shown in 排骨飯 (dish cooked with boned rib of pork is put on rice) with egg dish, box lunch sold in Taiwan generally consists of rice, meat dish and egg dish. The box lunch containing sushi like Inari-zushi (stuffed sushi) and Nori-maki (vinegary rice rolled in dried laver seaweed) is also sold, because Taiwanese food culture is influenced by the Japanese food culture. Purchasers enjoy comparatively standardized box lunches, without finding big differences among stations. Therefore, it can be said those lunch box have less variety than Ekiben in Japan.

In Republic of Korea, box lunches similar to Makunouchi-bento containing rice, the main dish Bulgogi (Korean style grilled beef) and other side dishes, Makunouchi-bento-like box lunches containing rice and some side dishes, as well as box lunches of Nori-maki, are sold within station precincts or on the train. These box lunches are enjoying more variety than those sold in Taiwan, but less than Ekiben in Japan.

In the People's Republic of China, passengers can buy a box lunch of rice topped with side dishes like meat dish, which are cooked in the kitchen of dining cars and served hot through the service of sales in the train.

As for Southeast Asia and South Asia, a box lunch of rice topped with meat dish and a sunny-side up, a box lunch of cooked rice with added ingredients and other types of box lunch are sold with a chirirenge (ceramic spoon) within station precincts or on the train in Kingdom of Thailand. In Vietnam, chimaki (a rice dumpling wrapped in bamboo leaves) are sold, and in India, a set of meal consists of curry and rice or bread like nan bread are sold at railway stations. However, unlike 'Ekiben' in Japan, none of them have a culture or sense to pay special attention to these box lunch.

In Europe, some railway stations in northern and middle Italy sell a set of meal consists of meat dish, vegetable, pasta, bread or sandwich, and a small bottle of wine. There are little difference in quality and quantity of the meal among stations. However, the number of stations selling such a meal is less than that selling Ekiben in Japan.

In railway routes connecting European cities, many passengers needed a meal twice or more, because they used to stay on a train for a long time. Therefore, even if they carried cooked meals with them on the train, those meals could not be eaten for the second meal. Moreover, a buffet car was usually attached to such a train traveling long distance, boasting various menus and delicious dishes. Passengers had time to buy or eat snacks at a station during a stop. Therefore, unlike in Japan, it is believed that the concept of Ekiben was not fostered in Europe.

The culture and sense defining the box lunch sold within station precincts, etc. and limited to the station as 'Ekiben' is peculiar to Japan. Although there are cultures and senses similar to Japan in Taiwan and South Korea, they have not taken root as much as those in Japan.