The passengers begin lining up at the doors before the sleek train pulls into the village of Yokokawa to brace itself for the switchback climb through the pine-clad foothills of the Japan Alps. The second it stops, there is a stampede to a row of stands on the platform, piled with steaming pottery pudding basins – the famous toge-no-kamameshi.
In the five minutes it takes to couple up another locomotive to haul the train up the mountain, nearly everyone on board – they have been honing their appetites on the two-hour trip from Tokyo – will have staggered back to their seats carrying one, two, or half-a-dozen of these delectable little pots.
As the train draws slowly away, the salesmen line up and bow deeply to their departing customers and chorus “arigato”, thank you, come again. Settled in their seats with fold-down tables (and with beer, sake or a cup of green tea from a passing trolley), the passengers are already tucking into their rice pilaf simmered in dashi with chicken and chestnuts, topped with a shiitake mushroom, a quail egg, bamboo, burdock, fiddlehead ferns, daikon and green peas, and with some salty aubergine pickles on the side. “Oishii”, they sigh. Delicious.
Welcome to the world of eki-ben, the ultimate meals on wheels.
If you thought Japan’s only contributions to cuisine were sushi and sukiyaki, take a trip on a Japan Rail train. Fast food (literally, the shinkansen bullet train tops 340 km/h) will never be the same again.
There are 369 stations connected to Japan’s railway network, which is as punctual as a Swiss watch and (providing you reserve your seats) as comfortable as business class on a good airline.
No matter how remote the station, you can count on the train arriving, not only on time to the second, but with the correct door of the correct carriage aligned to the centimetre with the corresponding numbered boarding point painted on the platform.
Thanks to some extraordinary bridge and tunnel feats, you can now travel the entire archipelago, from the snowy wastes of Hokkaido (where a special train with open carriages allows passengers to smell, as well as view, the flow-ice paving the Sea of Okhotsk) to the roaring multitudes of Tokyo, and the warm and steamy bamboo jungles of Kyushu.
And to travel without eating is, to the Japanese, like Egypt without the pyramids. Every tiny whistle-stop has its own culinary speciality. If you want a gastronomic tour of the country without having to sell the family heirlooms, eki-ben is the way to go.
Generically, it is a type of take-out called bento, which has been around since the time of the shoguns. Its simplest form is the hinomaru, the schoolchild’s lunchbox, named after the Japanese flag because in days gone by it consisted of a single red pickled apricot on a field of cold rice.
The Japanese have been working on perfecting it since the first railways were built more than a century ago – the Yokokawa crockpot, for instance, was first served to missionaries travelling to the resort of Karuizawa in 1893.
Today’s eki-ben (literally “station bento”) takes the genre to its peak. There are now more than 2,900 different kinds. Just think – you can travel around Japan by train, eating three meals a day, for nearly three years without coming across the same thing twice.
At a little station near Kyoto, the eki-ben consists of fingers of sushi topped with salted trout and wrapped in persimmon leaves; in the mountains north of Kobe travellers are offered a dish of marinated broiled boar; if you visit the famous red torii arches of Miyajima, don’t forget to try the equally famous grilled anago, local sea-eel; Osaka is worth visiting, if only to taste its celebrated takoyaki, octopus fritters.
The other day, less-travelled Tokyoites had an opportunity to try 130 different eki-ben collected under one roof in the Keio department store, which sits on top of the world’s busiest railway station in the Tokyo suburb of Shinjuku.
There, amid mountains of crabs, casks of pickled mackerel, haystacks of seaweed, and logs of fishcake stacked like kindling, hundreds of workers slaved from morning to night to prepare an eki-ben expo. Over the 12 frantic days of the celebration, more than a quarter of a million little boxes, bags, baskets, crockery pots, plastic snowmen, bamboo leaves and every other container you can imagine were to be sold.
Top-seller for most of the 29 years Keio has been holding this feast is one of the simplest and cheapest. The little village of Mori in Hokkaido is famous throughout Japan for one thing only, its ikameshi – small squid stuffed with sticky rice and poached in dashi (seaweed and bonito stock) seasoned with soy sauce.
This eki-ben costs $A6 (others range up to about $20), a remarkable bargain in a country where the cheapest bowl of noodles can set you back $15.
And, incidentally, there is no problem with the freshness of eki-ben. The packs do not carry a use-by date, they are stamped with an official use-by hour – every four hours, unsold eki-ben are dumped and a new batch is brought in, to the great comfort of Tokyo’s homeless, for whom the throw-outs are a staple diet.
New dishes are continually evolving. If you tire of the delicate pastels of Japanese seafood, try a fat-cobwebbed Kobe steak on a bed of curried rice, with pickled onions. If you feel in need of a boost as you pass through the town of Matsue, what about a “joyful eki-ben” which contains two small bottles of local sake (one dry, one sweet), with nibblies such as periwinkles and pickled wasabi leaf?
Worthy of a detour, as Michelin would say. In fact, the detour is the whole point of the exercise, and a Japan Rail pass is the way to go – prices range from $A280 for a week, to $755 for 21 days.
Air Lines flies from Sydney to Tokyo daily. The cheapest return economy air fare is a Pex fare which costs from $1,563 in the low season. You must stay a minimum of seven days, maximum of four months. Conditions apply.
The airline offers special deals throughout the year: contact your travel agent or a flights specialist, or call Japan Air Lines, (02) 283 1111.
Jaltour also offers rail passes, allowing you the flexibility to travel at your own pace and taste the delights of eki-ben. Details and bookings, (02) 285 6600.
The Japan National Tourist Office can advise on all aspects of travel to Japan. Details, (02) 232 4522.
Pub date: Thursday 3 March 1994
Section: Travel and Leisure
Word count: 1194
Photographs: Mayu Kanamori, Australian Picture Library
1. Eki-ben expo: delicious food at a reasonable price
2. The fast-track way to satisfy hunger pains throughout Japan.