As always, I look towards Japan (my favourite country), to bring you examples of what we don’t do (or miss out on) in India and the Japanese do so well. I have been to Japan well over a hundred times, and have travelled fairly extensively on the trains there: witnessing personally how every train station literally ‘markets’ its local delicacies with much fervour and zeal. Really vocal for local. Much as has been suggested in this week’s Solologue.
I will use this column today to share with you some incredible stories of ‘train food’ from Japan.
Eki-ben, literally “train stations’ bento boxed meals,” are sold at railway stations across Japan. Travelers pick them up en route as a portable meal. The compact boxed meals are cleverly designed to make eating on the go easy, and they are chock-full of local flavors and ingredients. Small wonder, then, that they are so beloved by Japanese people.
Let us begin this narrative at Nagano’s Matsumoto Station where since 2013, the “Jokamachi no Ogottso” (Castle Town Feast—in Matsumoto’s regional dialect, ogottso means “feast”) bentos are unique eki-ben born of a unique collaboration between the local agricultural cooperative, students and a Matsumoto bento maker.
The eki-ben project was launched as an outgrowth of the Matsumoto Region Committee’s larger “Oishii Shinshu Food” initiative (oishii means tasty). The project group consisted of the Japan Agricultural cooperative, Iidaya-Ken—a veteran bento shop with over one hundred years of history; Midori—the station building which sells eki-ben; as well as the packaging material vendor Orikyo-ichiba-ten, and a team of twelve Matsumoto University students selected from an open call for participants.
Together they sought the best products, flavors and packaging that would promote Matsumoto and its food to maximum effect. Through workshops, surveys of Matsumoto Station patrons and a series of product samples, the boxed meals finally took form. The “Castle Town Feast” is a two-tiered octagonal box containing fourteen varieties of delicious local items arranged in an eye-catching fashion. Though the price of 1200 yen puts it a bit higher than other bentos, it has proven a wild success, selling out within a few hours of being stocked each day.
Let me share with you a personal experience of ‘Rice with Various Side Dishes, Autumn Style’ ( Aki no Makunouchi) purchased and partaken by me at Kyoto Station in the 1990s. Major Japanese train stations always sell special “limited period only” ekiben to complement ongoing festivities or travel seasons. It was the autumn foliage viewing time in Kyoto and I bought one such seasonal offer at Kyoto Station after a long day of sightseeing on my way back to Tokyo. In Japan, rice with mushroom, or Kinoko Gohan, is traditionally associated with autumn. Indeed, one sniff of the earthly aroma immediately conjures impressions of bountiful harvests. With a little imagination, I could even visualize myself amid exuberant countryside celebrations. Needless to say, the ‘orange’ theme further completed the sensation of golden fall time. Interestingly, there was a little slice of carrot in a corner that was delicately trimmed into the shape of a maple leaf. What could be more representative of the Japanese autumn than that?
Next I will introduce you to “Makumouchi” frequently used to name all types of Japanese boxed meals, but specifically referring to rice accompanied by a variety of colourful side dishes. I once purchased a Sixteen Colors food pack (Juu Roku Aya Bento) at Hakata Station. Because of its proximity to the Asiatic mainland, and with Nagasaki being Japan’s oldest trading port, Kyushu cuisine has long enjoyed a distinctive international flavor. This ekiben, so aptly named, offered a taste of that flavor, including within it a Chinese-style Siew Mai, Western-style fried chicken, and even a mini croquette. In addition, famous Kyushu delicacies like Fukuoka Mentaiko (seasoned roe) were also used as condiments, making it a truly dazzling food journey within a box. As is obvious, everything being bite-size makes this boxed lunch was perfect for long, panoramic train journeys, or even just a leisurely meal by oneself. I took one hour to finish this bento box before exploring the sights of Fukuoka!
I could recount more gastronomic escapades but let us leave that for another day.
Eating at Japan’s Train Stations is not just about full meals – the on-the-go snacks too are just divine. You find a range of tasty treats including country-exclusive KitKat flavours and picture-perfect cookies and cakes in the basement depachika of any department store, in train stations. Perhaps one of the most popular edible souvenirs from Japan, Tokyo Banana is always a winner. The treat is simply a banana-shaped sponge cake filled with various types of custard. The original is banana flavoured, but these days you’ll find special editions like caramel, honey or even coffee milk. When in Japan you need to keep an eye out for Tokyo Banana collaborations featuring favourite characters like Pikachu, Eevee and Doraemon. Not a cake fan? Tokyo Banana has even expanded to include other small confectionery such as cookies. I have often bought Tokyo Banana at Tokyo Banana World at Tokyo Station. At ¥540 for a box of four, it is a treat.
Cheese is typically a savoury treat, but Tokyo Milk Cheese Factory has made a name for itself offering an assortment of cheese-filled sweets and desserts including cookies and cheesecakes. One of the brand’s most popular items is its cheese cookies, which come in different salty-sweet flavours including salt camembert and honey gorgonzola. There are also seasonal combos such as truffle cheddar, lemon cream cheese and chocolate mascarpone on offer. Tokyo Milk Cheese Factory can be found at most depachikas. Last time in Japan, just before the Covid outbreak, I paid ¥972 for a box of ten at Tsuruoka Station. Yummy!
Add Jagga Pokkuru potato chips, Yoku Moku dainty cookies (my daughter Carol’s favourites always), Shiroi Koibito special sweets, Hiyoko baby bird shaped sweets, the half mooned Kamakura Hangetsu snacks, the Goma Tamago sesame eggs to the list of Train Station favourites. Unbelievable treats all.
I hope someone of consequence, and reasonably higher-up, in Indian Railways and IRCTC reads this piece. There is so much inspiration to be drawn from the Land of the Rising Sun, especially their train station food. If we can emulate even a little bit of what the Japanese do, our train journeys too could become so much more of gastronomic trips to remember.
-The author is managing director of Rediffusion and a self-confessed Nipponophile. His books Konjo –The Fighting Spirit and Japan Made Easy (both Harper Collins) have been bestsellers on Japan. Views expressed are personal.