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

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!

"Ekiben-ya Matsuri":
Experience the Fun of an Ekiben Convention, 365 Days a Year

In Vol. 1, we covered an ekiben convention, a white-hot event where varieties of ekiben were gathered from around the country. This time, we will introduce "Ekiben-ya Matsuri" (Ekiben Shop Festival), a shop inside the Tokyo Station building where you can experience the fun of an ekiben convention 365 days a year. It has the largest scale of any ekiben specialty shop in Japan, with a collection of over 170 varieties of ekiben from around the country. Inside the shop, there are two demonstration kitchens set up, similar to an ekiben convention.

"Ekiben-ya Matsuri," where ekiben of over 170 varieties are gathered from around Japan. From when you enter, the booths on the right are the demonstration kitchens.

Inside the Tokyo Station building is a commercial facility called an "ekinaka" that is filled with shops, containing a wealth of bento selections aside from ekiben. But even so, "Ekiben-ya Matsuri" sees great success each day--we hear that there are even some days in which roughly 17,500 ekiben are sold! They are popular as an item to bring along for trips, such as when riding the Shinkansen (bullet train), and they are also in demand as an item to take home, similar to an ekiben convention at a department store.

"Bento were which enjoyed on trips were a very special kind of bento. Being able to easily obtain local specialties at Tokyo Station is definitely a merit as well, but I believe that ekiben's feelings of travel and being out of the ordinary are also connected to their success," remarks Mr. Izumi, a public relations member of Nippon Restaurant Enterprise Co., Ltd., which operates "Ekiben-ya Matsuri," analyzing the reasons for its success.

Here are some popular and specialty ekiben, which people crowd into lines for. There are ekiben with seafood, with meat, or makunouchi style--with rice and many side dishes packed into the box--grouped into separate corners by category.

There are many ekiben in which the contents can't be seen, but here, the contents are displayed in a picture for each ekiben, making it easier to choose.

Experience Japanese Ekiben Culture:
Interwoven with Local Colors and History

"Ekiben-ya Matsuri" has gathered over 170 varieties of ekiben. Certainly customers from overseas could also enjoy this shop as a location to experience Japanese ekiben culture. First, go around the store and take a good look at the types of ekiben. It is a virtual jungle of different types, featuring makunouchi-style varieties with multicolored side dishes, seafood varieties, meat varieties, and even more, including varieties such as kamameshi (rice, meat, and vegetables boiled together in a pot), as well as sushi and rice balls. Even within just the seafood varieties, as the fish that can be caught, the cooking methods, and the ways of flavoring the rice vary by region, the original local colors come out with each item.

This is the 3rd-best seller, "Chargrilled Yonezawa Beef - Superfine Spare Rib Bento" (Yamagata Prefecture, Ou Main Line/Yonezawa Station) (1,500 yen). Ekiben featuring brand ingredients from their local regions, such as Yonezawa beef, are especially popular.

This is the 5th-best seller, "Miyagi Sparkling Sea - Sockeye Salmon Roe with Rice" (Miyagi Prefecture, Tohoku Main Line/Sendai Station) (1,000 yen). Fish roe with rice is a type of local cuisine found in Miyagi Prefecture. This ekiben uses large ikura (salted salmon roe) produced in Sanriku.

Japanese ekiben have a history stretching back over 130 years, with different varieties of bento having been created in different periods. This diversity that results from this juxtaposition of local colors and history is the charm of Japanese ekiben, and an element that calls to mind "that place" or "that time," endowing customers with a sense of travel or nostalgia. At "Ekiben-ya Matsuri," which has a wide selection of ekiben from various time periods, from long sellers unchanged for over 100 years to items that use thermal containers, you are sure to truly feel that diversity.

The "Mountain Pass Kamameshi" (Gunma Prefecture, Shin'Etsu Main Line/Yokokawa Station) (1,000 yen), which was created in 1958, is a specialty ekiben that represents Japan. The items inside, including meticulously flavored mountain foods such as chicken and mushrooms, as well as flavored, cooked rice, are contained in Mashiko-yaki pottery, unchanged from when the ekiben was first sold. It is the 8th-best seller.

The "Top Selection Chargrilled Beef Tongue Bento" (Miyagi Prefecture, Tohoku Main Line/Sendai Station) (1,300 yen) uses a thermal container in which you simply pull the drawstring and the bento heats up. The heating also has the effect of making the beef tongue softer. It is the 2nd-best seller.

Feeling the History of the Makers though the Demonstrations

Ekiben vendors from around Japan show their skills at the 2 demonstration kitchens. There are many established stores comprising ekiben vendors. Why not buy a freshly made ekiben while thinking about the history of the makers, who have wielded their inherited craftsmanship while battling against train arrival times? Japanese ekiben are distinctive for being delicious even when cold, as they are normally eaten at room temperature; however, the flavor of the freshly made bento from the demonstrations is truly exceptional. The ekiben vendors change roughly every 2 weeks, so you can enjoy a different demonstration each time you visit.

This demonstration is being conducted by "Maneki," a vendor established in 1888. Ekiben inside JR buildings have a system of permission from the time of the former Japan National Railways, so of the ekiben vendors, there are lots of established shops continuing through generations.

"With the acceleration of trains, the style of traveling has changed. The spots where ekiben really flourish is shifting from stations to events at department stores and other locations. As a specialty shop, 'Ekiben-ya Matsuri' also intends to fulfill the duty of passing ekiben culture onto the next generation," says Mr. Izumi. If you touch upon the culture, surely you'll be able to experience the taste of the ekiben that much more deeply.

*The sales rankings reflect the total sales at "Ekiben-ya Matsuri" from August 9, 2012 to August 8, 2013

Ekiben-ya Matsuri
1-9-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo JR Tokyo Station (inside ticket gates) Central Street 1F Phone: 03-3213-4352 Store Hours: 5:30AM - 11PM Open Year-Round  http://www.nre.co.jp/shop/db/detail_00609/