If you aren’t a train enthusiast you might not have heard of the shinkansen. If you want to get almost anywhere in Japan in the least amount of time without flying, the shinkansen Japanese bullet train is the way to go. The first shinkansen debuted on the Tokaido line, running from Tokyo to Osaka. This debut intentionally coincided with the Japan Olympics in 1964. Back then it was the fastest train the world had ever seen. Even today, Japan’s shinkansen bullet trains are among the fastest high-speed trains in the world with current trains having the capacity to reach up to 320km per hour. For people over in the U.S. that’s a little under 200 miles per hour.
There are nine shinkansen lines that cover areas like Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Fukuoka, Kanazawa, Nagano, Niigata, Aomori, Akita, Yamagata, and islands of Kyushu and Hokkaido. Each train line has fast trains, semi-fast trains, and local trains, which stop at every station. Like most trains, there are different classes you can book tickets for and train carriages that require you to reserve seats in advance and others that don’t.
Japanese train lines pride themselves on sticking to a strict schedule, so much so that a shinkansen departing the platform 24 seconds earlier than scheduled can make national headlines. On the rare occasion that a shinkansen is delayed the average passenger likely wouldn’t even notice the difference. According to a 2020 report issued by Japan Railways, the average delay time for the Tokaido shinkansen line was just 12 seconds in 2019. Talk about punctuality!
Many people enjoy riding the shinkansen, not only as a convenient and comfortable means of transportation but also because of ekiben. The term ekiben literally translates to “station bento” and is a bento box sold at train stations intended to be eaten on long train rides like shinkansen. Ekiben are even sold from carts on the shinkansen. The majority of ekiben cost around ¥700 and ¥1200 (around $7-12). Premium ekiben go for as much as ¥3200 ($30).
Make no mistake, however, ekiben are not just slap dash affairs. Vendors and makers take pride in using quality ingredients to prepare bento boxes that showcase regional specialty dishes or ingredients. The kind of ekiben available also change with the seasons, a symptom of Japan’s deep appreciation for seasonal and local produce.
The most common type of ekiben is makunouchi, which is a bento box that includes rice, pickled vegetables, meat, and fish. While most ekiben feature rice, ekiben come in many shapes and sizes with any Japanese food you can think of including favorites like sushi, yakisoba, tamagoyaki (rolled omelette), and wagyu. Some even include dessert too. Ekiben are usually served cold or room temperature, but some varieties come with self-heating packages so you can eat the dish hot.
Ekiben are a huge part of Japanese culture with many people taking on a sort of collector’s mindset with aspirations of trying as many different kinds of ekiben that they can. There are numerous blogs, articles, and even YouTube videos dedicated to chronicling people’s experiences trying various ekiben and ranking which is the tastiest. But it doesn’t stop there, there is even a manga series about ekiben called Ekiben Hitoritaba, which tells the story of an ekiben enthusiast as he travels around Japan and tastes various region’s seasonal specialty dishes.
Eating on local trains is considered impolite. If you were to do so you’d probably get a couple of dirty looks, especially if you were to spill or drop crumbs. However, shinkansen bullet trains feature tray tables which make eating a meal a more comfortable affair. Sitting in a comfortable train watching the beautiful serene Japanese countryside go by as you eat a carefully prepared array of local delicacies is nothing short of ideal. It’s no surprise that ekiben are so popular. So next time you’re visiting Japan, don’t skip a trip on the shinkansen and make sure to try ekiben.