Whenever I spot a bento box while watching a TV show or movie, I have an urge to make a screencap and write about it. The images above are from “A Cook’s Tour” and feature Anthony Bourdain eating a grilled eel bento he had purchased during his journey on a bullet train in Japan.
Albeit its revered status as a unifying cultural symbol in Japan, the bento contains an element of localism and adaptability. In his article “Savour Slowly: Ekiben: The Fast Food of High-Speed Japan,” Paul Noguchi points out the degree of integration of regional and seasonal cuisine in the ekiben (駅弁), a form of bento that is specifically intended for travellers and sold in train stations (1). This variability distinguishes it from Western (namely, American) fast food. While we can walk into a MacDonald’s anywhere with the confidence that we will find a fillet-o-fish as we always have known it, the same cannot be said for the ekiben.
Although it is true that certain fast food chains do try to incorporate local tastes into their menus (i.e. KFC’s chicken rice plates in Hong Kong), there is a much greater effort to achieve this for the ekiben. Variance is present in space as well as in time. As certain ingredients go in and out of season, the ekiben offerings also change accordingly. One example that Noguchi cites is the tako-meshi that was only sold at the Mihara Station from summer to early autumn, when octopus was in season. The design of the box can also vary between different ekibens. Needless to say, there are those who actively collect these unique containers as souvenirs (and I can imagine myself being one of them).
With this, we can see how the ekiben can form an intimate connection with its place of production. Sometimes, even if it does not feature much local foods, an ekiben can become so closely associated with a train station that it transforms into a symbolic feature of that particular place.
Going on a train-trip across Japan is something that I keenly look forward to doing in the future. As someone who detests the standard guided tours and wants to explore places beyond the major urban settings, I think that travelling on the railway would provide one with more opportunities and freedom to visit places that would otherwise be overlooked. Moreover, the chance to sample bentos from different regions is itself a sufficient reason for having such a trip. The ekiben presents us a neat window onto the local lifestyles, and it is easy to understand why the ekiben has enjoyed such a large following and had so many publications devoted to it.
For the time being, I can only gaze at pictures of ekiben and lament the absence of beautiful food on-the-go in North America. “We should have this in America,” said Bourdain as he gobbled up another mouthful of rice. Yes sire, we should.
1. Actually, if one is fastidious, what Bourdain had was a kishaben: kishaben is sold on train whereas ekiben is sold in train stations. Bourdain mentioned that he had gotten the lunch box from a vendor on the train, so I assume that this was probably a kishaben.
Websites on ekiben (in Japanese):
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Noguchi, Paul. “Savor Slowly: Ekiben: The Fast Food of High-Speed Japan.” Ethnology 33, no. 4 (Autumn 1994): 317-330.