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Ekiben: An epicure’s delight for Japanese rail travelers

Posted by ampontan on Friday, February 22, 2008

EVERYONE WHO’S EVER FLOWN COACH has had the experience of eating an in-flight meal so bland it’s hard to tell the potatoes from the plastic tray. They say the food in first class is a lot better, and I promise to let you know for sure if I ever fly anywhere first class. Maybe in my next life.

Those who’ve never traveled by train in Japan might be forgiven for expecting train station food to be as unappealing as airplane food, but they’d be in for a pleasant surprise. There’s a tradition in this country of serving fine carry-on meals made with local ingredients of exceptional quality. These meals are called ekiben. That’s a portmanteau word coined by combining the word eki, which is a train station, and the first syllable of bento, which is a pre-prepared meal served in a flat box.

Bento themselves are takeout meals sold for a variety of purposes and occasions. The quality can vary depending on the intended use, ranging from meals that are inexpensive and less appetizing than airplane food, to those made with the finest ingredients and costing rather more.

Ekiben are a topic of such interest that JR Kyushu has been holding contests every year since 2005 to improve their quality and to promote travel by train. In fact, the final judging and tasting in the Fourth Kyushu Ekiben Ranking for the ekiben sold at JR Kyushu stations was held on the 14th at JR Kyushu headquarters in Fukuoka City, and the results were announced yesterday. A total of 4,900 votes were cast by JR Kyushu passengers in a preliminary ballot from October to January to select the top 15 bento from among 50 candidates. Those 15 were further evaluated by a panel of judges, who were allowed to vote only for the one they liked the best.

The judges included essayist (and former magazine editor and newspaperman) Tsutsui Gankodo (on the right in the first photo), travel journalist Kobayashi Shinobu, local television personality Muranaka Minami, and JR Kyushu President Ishihara Susumu. The standards included flavor, the incorporation of local characteristics, the size of the servings, and price.

The judges said the decision was difficult because they were all delicious, but of course judges always say that. Ms. Kobayashi added, “The Kyushu ekiben servings are generous, and they are very flavorful. The opening of the Kagoshima leg of the Kyushu Shinkansen has resulted in the creation of more modern ekiben.”

The winner this year was a bento called Hyakunen Monogatari Kareikawa (The Hundred-Year Tale Kareikawa) from the Kareikawa Station in Kirishima, Kagoshima. It was the first time this 1,050 yen ($US 9.75) bento took top honors. It is made with bamboo shoots and shiitake mushrooms cooked with rice, and also includes a tempura dish made with satsumaimo (sweet potatoes) and other local vegetables called gane. Another feature that appealed to the judges was the bento box made with bamboo bark. This ekiben finished in second place last year and in third place in 2006, so perhaps this perennial favorite has gotten even better. Here’s what it looks like.

Meanwhile, second prize went to the Ayu-ya Sandai bento from the Shin-Yatsushiro station, which costs 1,050 yen. The ayu is known as the sweetfish in English, and the Shin-Yatsushiro station in Kumamoto is the northernmost station in the partially open Kyushu Shinkansen line. The Ayu-ya Sandai bento had been the winner each of the previous three years of the competition, so it must be delectable.

Third prize went to the Saga Mitsusedori Toro Bento from Saga Station, which costs 730 yen.

Other favorites that regularly win the acclaim of riders and judges alike since the competition began include the chirashizushi bento sold in bento boxes that are actually Arita ceramics at Saga Station in Saga, and the ebimeshi bento made with local shrimp sold at Izumi Station in Kagoshima.

For those people who don’t or can’t travel to these stations to buy the ekiben (and there are people in Japan who would), JR Kyushu is clever enough to promote their sale by opening a special shop in Hakata Station in Fukuoka City (the largest train station in Kyushu) called Ekiben Stadium. Travelers passing through the station can buy these ekiben from among a rotating selection until March 31. About 11 or 12 different ekiben are sold every day, and the selections change every week.

Unfortunately, I seldom take train rides long enough to warrant the purchase of an ekiben, but Saga Station is only a 10-minute drive away. If that prize-winning Saga ekiben includes both local chicken and toro (high-quality tuna) as I suspect, I’m going to have to buy a couple and try them out for lunch at home!

And get ready for it—there is a website devoted to ekiben nationwide! (Alas, in Japanese only.) It includes a list of the boxed meals available at train stations throughout the country, recipes, and links to ekiben sold by mail (the Ayu-ya Sendai ekiben is one of those available).

Here’s the Ekiben Room, an English site for the ekiben sold in East Japan. This is the link to the convenient website for the Ekiben Stadium shop in Hakata Station (also Japanese only), with a map showing the shop’s location in the station and the schedule with the dates of sale for all the ekiben.

And here’s a photo of one more I’d love to try—an ekiben from Oita consisting entirely of mackerel sushi, for 1,300 yen.

Postscript: Mr. Tsutsui also writes a feature on a Kyushu restaurant in the free monthly magazine available on the JR Kyushu trains.

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Way down yonder at the tail of Japan

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, April 5, 2007

Pick up any book about Japan and you’ll read that the country consists primarily of the four main islands of Honshu, Kyushu, Shikoku, and Hokkaido. But even the Japanese sometimes forget about the part of the country that fans out over a large area southwest of Kyushu. This is the Ryukyu archipelago, of which the primary island is Okinawa. The islands in this archipelago comprise Okinawa Prefecture, which is remote enough from the rest of the country to have developed its own traditions and a dialect that other Japanese can’t understand.

The Ryukyus were nominally independent until 1879, when they were made an administrative unit of the Japanese government. Despite becoming a prefecture, Okinawa did not become part of the Japanese political mainstream until after the United States returned it Japan in 1972. The islands retain a strong sense of regional identity: they were independent for so long, given short shrift by the national government, burdened by heavy taxes, suffered terribly during the war, and were occupied the longest by the United States. American installations still occupy almost a fifth of Okinawa Island, and roughly three-fourths of US bases and more than half of the American troops stationed in Japan are on Okinawa, which accounts for 0.6 percent of Japanese territory. It’s no surprise that some Okinawans quietly nurse the dream of independence, but that’s unlikely to happen.

These feelings are heightened by the archipelago’s distance from the rest of Japan. The flight to Naha Airport from Tokyo is 2 1/2 hours, and about an hour from Fukuoka City in Kyushu. They are tropical islands, making them a perfect spot for a vacation in the fall, winter, and spring. (People who’ve lived there have told me it’s so hot in summer only the natives can handle it.)

But as Dr. Seuss found more letters in the alphabet in On Beyond Zebra, there is more to Japan and Okinawa Prefecture on beyond Okinawa Island. At the extreme southwest of the Okinawan chain lie the Yaeyama Islands (more here). This is the spot in Japan where people really go to get away from it all without having to use a passport.

One of these islands is Taketomi, six kilometers square, where 90% of the island’s income is derived from tourism. How far is it from the rest of Japan? Taiwan is closer than Okinawa Island and The Philippines are closer than Kyushu. Getting there requires another hour-long flight from Naha and a 10-minute ferry ride. An excellent article about Taketomi in the Japan Times explains just how remote it is:

Of all the places in this country, the Yaeyamas are the one where you feel least like you are in Japan. And this perception of otherness is certainly felt by the Taketomi islanders themselves: On the huge map in the visitor center “Japan” is written over distant Honshu in the same script and style as “China” is inscribed below Beijing, as though signifying some foreign land.

I’ve wanted to visit these islands ever since I first heard about them more than 20 years ago, and after reading this article I was ready to pack my swimming trunks and buy a plane ticket. There’s one serious obstacle, however—our household has the classic seashore/mountains split when it comes to vacation spot preferences. I could move to a beach community tomorrow and stay there forever, but my wife, who grew up on a riverbank, yearns only for the cooler mountains.

I’ll get there eventually, but there’s nothing stopping you from getting there first!

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