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'Ekiben' from around Japan Gather in Tokyo! (1/2)

Japanese box lunches, called "bento," are sweeping across the world. Of all the kinds of bento, "ekiben" (special box lunches sold at train stations) receive particularly avid support. In Tokyo, spots that have popular or specialty ekiben from around Japan are enjoying massive success. First we'll introduce what is hailed as the greatest ekiben event in Japan!

"Keio Department Store Ekiben Convention,"
Japan's Flagship Ekiben Event

"Ganso Yumei Ekiben to Zenkoku Umai Mono Taikai " (The Original Famous Ekiben and Delicious Things from around Japan Convention) (referred to below as the "Keio Department Store Ekiben Convention"), held every January at the Shinjuku branch of the Keio Department Store, is a famous event overflowing with people who love ekiben.

Ekiben were originally eaten inside trains, so why is this event at a department store, you ask? "A lot of it is that people have memories of trips from long ago. They also recall the taste of their hometowns and feel a sense of nostalgia," says Mr. Nagai, the manager in charge of the Keio Department Store Ekiben Convention. Traditionally, ekiben are sold at specific stations, so they are strongly associated with the area and feature local seafood or mountain vegetables, for example. It seems that many people find in them the added value of feeling a sense of traveling or nostalgia.

The Keio Department Store Ekiben Convention, boasting a scale and degree of recognition that make it a leading department store event in Japan. There are even some days when the number of visitors at the Shinjuku branch tops 110,000 people!

At the Keio Department Store Ekiben Convention, there are roughly 250 varieties of these ekiben gathered from around the country (results from the 48th convention in 2013). You can obtain these popular or specialty ekiben, which you would normally need to travel in order to eat, while remaining in Tokyo. These types of ekiben events are also held at other department stores and supermarkets, but the Keio Department Store Ekiben Convention has a long history, with a scale and degree of recognition that make it one of Japan's leading events. A distinctive characteristic is that new highlights appear every year, of course including the standard selections, but also featuring such items as extremely rare ekiben and newly created ekiben. Once you get into the event, you'll be hooked!

For the roughly two weeks of the convention, the large event hall on the 7th floor, which serves as the venue, is wrapped in unbelievable enthusiasm--there are event times when the line for popular ekiben passes all the way through the 8th floor and onto the roof! "It is truly a huge event that involves the entire company! During the convention, employees run in to help with sales, regardless of their department," says Mr. Nagai.

This is "Bokoi Rice" (Hokkaido, Muroran Main Line/Bokoi Station), with cooked rice containing hokki shellfish, shaped into rice balls (980 yen). It is handmade by a husband and wife, so production is limited. This extremely rare ekiben, previously only found locally, will appear in 2013.

This is "Beef Domannaka" (Yamagata Prefecture, Ou Main Line/Yonezawa Station) (1,100 yen). It's a popular ekiben that ranks near the top in sales every year. The Yamagata-brand rice "Domannaka" and the sweet/spicy beef are a great match!

Items to Enjoy for One Year Only:
Ekiben Projects with Unavoidable Lines

The Keio Department Store Ekiben Convention's strengths include not only a rich selection of varieties, but also projects that promote the charm of ekiben. In the past, "Overseas Ekiben" and "Reproduced Ekiben" have gotten great responses. We hear that for the "Abandoned Railway Line Ekiben" project, which faithfully reproduced specialty ekiben from entire train lines that have vanished, there were even some customers who found themselves crying, as if from nostalgia for a faraway hometown.

The "Ekiben Showdown Series," which uses ingredients as themes, is a specialty project that has continued for many years. In the 2013 "Shrimp and Crab Showdown," the flyers were adorned with extravagant ekiben such as "Eat and Compare: Four Great Crab Varieties and Rice" from Hokkaido and "Spiny Lobster Bento" from Chiba Prefecture, boasting the top catches for crab and spiny lobster respectively, leading to lines for days on end. It is said that the sales figures added up to over 30,000 for both varieties combined.

Eat and compare four luxurious types of crab: red king crab, snow crab, horsehair crab, and spiny king crab! It's "Eat and Compare: Four Great Crab Varieties and Rice" (Hokkaido, Soya Main Line/Wakkanai Station) (1,260 yen).

This is the "Spiny Lobster Bento" (Chiba Prefecture, Isumi Railway/Ohara Station), packed with Chiba flavors such as half of a superb spiny lobster, along with marlin, hijiki (a kind of seaweed), and tenderstem broccoli (1,500 yen).

Demonstration Sales, the Highlights of the Convention

Next, the Keio Department Store Ekiben Convention is especially known for its demonstration sales. Of the roughly 250 varieties of ekiben, there are demonstration sales booths for about 30 types each year, covering a large area of the venue. The specialty ekiben made by these ekiben vendors, who bear the pride of their local areas, are the highlights of the convention. The live energy of the demonstrations really brings the excitement of the venue to a whole new level.

The demonstration sales receive participation from ekiben vendors who bear the pride of their local areas. As this convention is often covered by the media, there are even some vendors who aim to contribute to revitalizing their local towns.

This is "Squid with Rice" (Hokkaido, Hakodate Main Line/Mori Station) (580 yen). It is truly the face of the Keio Department Store Ekiben Convention, having been the top seller 45 times in the convention's 48-year history.

At the Keio Department Store Ekiben Convention, everyone--including the ekiben vendors, the organizers, and the customers--gets excited. There is no question: if you are interested in bento, you will love this event. At the time of writing this article, the details such as the event dates for the 2014 convention have not yet been decided, but in the average year, it starts around January 10 and runs for about 2 weeks. If you have the chance, by all means drop by!

*The ekiben and prices that appear in this text reflect details from the 48th convention, in 2013 (with the exception of "Squid and Rice").

Keio Department Store
1-1-4 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo Phone: 03-3342-2111 Store Hours: 10AM - 8PM (entire building) (varies by period) Restaurant Area: 11AM - 10PM No regular holidays  http://info.keionet.com/shinjuku/