What makes ekiben so great? Probably the main attraction is that they allow travellers to sample local specialties. While many bento stores often sell more "standard" bento with popular foods, it's usually the regional specialties that are the most popular! As well, because these bentos focus on regional specialties, they can only be found at specific stations: so if you don't get it, you won't be able to eat it unless you come visit again! Japan's food culture varies widely from region to region, and so the sheer variety of ekiben available across the country is amazing.
With that, here's my list of the top 5 ekiben that I think are worth checking out! Of course there are many, many more that I would love to include, but this article would stretch on forever... so here are just 5 ekiben I want to try soon! In no particular order because really, I can't. I want to eat all of them.
1. Pittari Takomeshi
Loosely translated as "precisely octopus rice", this bento features cooked octopus and boiled seasoned vegetables with rice. One review states that octopus pieces are large, and the rice really absorbs the flavors of the toppings. Not to mention the adorable and unique container! I would definitely be the type to keep this container and bring it home to use for something: it's both a useful container and a souvenir! This bento is available at a number of stations all year around, including Shin-Kobe, Nishimaishi, Kobe, Osaka, Shin-Osaka, and Kyoto Station.
2. Matsusaka Maibutsu Mootaro Bento
Kobe beef is probably the most well-known form of Japanese beef overseas; but in Japan, Matsusaka beef is considered to be of the same quality as Kobe beef or even better. Of course, that also means Matsusaka beef generally comes at a premium cost. So if you're on a budget, this ekiben featuring Matsusaka beef cooked sukiyaki-style, will let you have a taste of the famous beef without breaking the bank. As you might expect, this bento is only available at Matsusaka Station (though it is available all year around), so if you're coming to Matsusaka for a day trip, you can pick this up to eat on the train ride back. (Matsusaka is about two hours from Osaka/Kyoto, or an hour to an hour and a half from Nagoya. Or if you're visiting Ise, it's just 15 minutes!)
3. Kohoku no Ohanashi
This ekiben features roast duck and chestnut rice, along with a few other side dishes. Roast duck generally doesn't come to mind when you first think of Japanese food, so if you're looking for something really different from the usual, this might be the ticket. Plus, the box and wrapping cloth make for a stunning presentation! While this looks like a fall bento, it's available all year round at Maibara and Nagahama stations. Both are accessible from Nagoya or Kyoto by shinkansen.
4. Kinka Sababou Sushi
I'm a big fan of this kind of sushi: an entire fillet of cured fish pressed against a bed of rice. It's an older form of sushi that isn't so common these days compared to the likes of nigiri sushi or maki rolls, but can still be found as a local specialty in some areas. Mackerel is commonly used for this kind of sushi, and that's the featured fish in this bento. It's simple but delicious and filling. If you like mackerel sushi, this is a great bento to go for! It's only available at Sendai Station, but is available all year.
5. Okayama Korakuen no Obento
And I know I said top 5, but quickly, some honorable mentions:
- Sanjyuu-hinmoku Baransu Bento. This ekiben is aimed at the health-conscious traveller: while its ingredients are healthy, the variety of ingredients help make it delicious instead of bland and boring. While its mostly plant-based, it's not vegetarian: just lower in calories than the typical ekiben. This ekiben is available at several stations in Tokyo all year round, including Tokyo, Ueno, Shinjuku, Omiya, and Shinagawa.
- Anagomeshi. Anago is the Japanese name for conger eel; while sushi fans may be more familiar with unagi, or freshwater eel, anago is also a delicacy in its own right with a different flavor and texture than unagi. This bento is simply named anago rice, and that's exactly what you get: generous amounts of cooked anago over rice. This bento is only available at Miyajimaguchi Station, near Hiroshima (though it is available all year): it's the station you head to when taking the ferry from Hiroshima to Miyajima Island. Incidentally, this is apparently the #1 most popular ekiben in Japan! It misses out on top 5 for me because while this is an ekiben, I'd probably only buy this to take to eat in my hotel room, since the train from Miyajimaguchi to Hiroshima is short and an ordinary train, not a limited express train where I can sit and eat.
- Sandai Kani Aji Kurabe Bento. Hokkaido is paradise for seafood lovers, and it shows in the ekiben they have available. This is just one of many types of ekiben that feature seafood: this one is cooked crab on a bed of rice. If you like crab, rest assured you can eat it even on a train ride. This ekiben is only available at Sapporo Station, all year round.