the ekiben

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If only all fast food was packaged like this.

Train travel is quite inevitable in Japan – it’s fast (in the case of the bullet train SUPER fast), easy to comprehend, clean and efficient – and for travel between cities, a no brainer. For the longer journeys, ekiben are not to be missed. Essentially prepacked bento boxes, they are freshly prepared every morning for thousands of commuters. There’s an ekiben for everyone. Calorie controlled, vegetarian, sushi based, budget to luxury and even ones with 40 types of different foods. But the ones to look out for are the regional ekiben which are exclusive to some train lines or even only available on the train journeys themselves.

Meticulously wrapped and quarantined in fine layers of plastic, decorative paper and segregated so each portion remains unspoiled by its companions, this is fast food that actually looks like the picture.

 

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Shinkansen time! Shinkansen is pretty much the only word I know in Japanese, so shinkansen, shinkansen, shinkansen.

 

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There were twenty five foods in this ekiben alone, including nimono (simmered vegetables), tempura pumpkin, tofu and prawns. And two different types of rice.

This ekiben came from a tiny beacon of a kiosk right at the end of a lonely platform at Shinjuku. I was so surprised by the appearance of a kiosk, I bought this ekiben out of pity for the kiosk guy. Okay, I bought it out of greed too because it looked awesome.

We were on our way to Nikko, a small town about 2 hours train ride from Tokyo. Nikko is best reached by Tobu Railways and this usually this means a trip across the city to the Tobu Asakusa station to catch the train. However there’s a once weekly train from Shinjuku that goes directly to Nikko (which even Hyperdia – the amazing database of Japanese trains – did not list), so it was one super convenient daytrip.

(It still amazes me how easy everything is in Japan.)

Apart from waterfalls, lakes and onsens, Nikko is famous for the Toshogu shrine and the mausoleum of shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. The shrines are lavish to say the least and set in the midst of age old pine trees with crisp mountain air, it was a stunning setting.

Here’s a glimpse of what we saw in Nikko.

 

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Nikko’s Shinkyo Bridge.

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Purification fountain at Futarasan Jinja’s haiden/oratory.

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The Korou drum tower.

A week later and we were on the move, leaving Tokyo for two nights in the mountain town of Takayama. The shinkansen to Nagoya departs from Tokyo station, which is also one of the most amazing places to buy food. Japanese love domestic travel and when they do travel they love to haul back local food and snacks as souvenirs. An abundance of individually packed delicacies, from candies, cakes (we got some Tokyo Bananas – little banana shaped sponges filled with banana custard – yum!) to frozen takoyaki and gyoza are available to take home. The ekiben were particularly weird and wonderful and even contained exotic seafood like snails and vacuum packed saba (salted mackerel).

After a transfer in Nagoya, we’re on the wide view train to Takayama. As the train slowly snakes its way up to Takayama, suburbia drops away to alpine forests and ice blue rivers. With this view I bust out the ekiben, which at this size, is both breakfast and lunch. I’m thrilled to find fried chicken within, let alone a sea snail still to be wrenched out of its shell (when in Rome!). The rest of the box is filled with tasty, healthy vegetables and seaweed rice which I gobble up. No wonder Japanese people are so slim.

 

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Excuse me waiter, there’s a snail in my ekiben. And fried chicken!

Takayama due to its pristine river, has a rich history of sake brewing. Most of the breweries have now moved to more industrial settings but the historical streets remain. The historical laneways are incredibly touristy but as the sun sets and people empty out, the shop houses transform into a  hauntingly beautiful scene.

 

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View from the train.

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Left: Not a bad view for lunch. Right:Takayama’s old town district.
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This shop is selling (you guessed it) beef, but just not any kind of beef! Marbled and delicious, Hida beef is a must eat and it’s sold in all possible incarnations in Takayama. All of them just as tasty as the next.

From Takayama, we hopped on a bus to Shirakawa-go, a little alpine town. Here are a few snaps.

 

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Many of Shirakawa-go’s gassho-zukuri farmhouses are still functioning. However thatching the roofs cost a small fortune and ’Shirakawa-go is one of the few lucky towns that can preserve them.

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For the bullet train to Hiroshima I went all out, getting a calorie conscious ekiben that promised something like forty different foods in the box. There was even a fried pepper, bamboo shoot and konnyaku in this one. The three types of rice – omelette topped brown, white with umeboshi sour plum and glutinous with azuki beans – kept me energized for the long walks ahead.

However, before touring Hirsohima proper, we took the short ferry to Miyajima Island to see the famous torii gate and the free roaming deer. (The deer are so darn cute!) After snacking our way around the island, we took a tram into the city, stopping at the Hiroshima Peace Park, a place that cannot be missed on any trip to Japan.

 

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Forty, yes FORTY different foods in this one. Loved the gingko nut and azuki bean rice. And the meatballs. And the konyakku. And the fried pepper. And the omelette. And the – okay, everything.

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One of many deer on Miyajima. So cute but they’ll raid you for food.

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Left: Miyajima’s floating torii gate. Right: The ferry.

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The Genbaku (A-bomb) Dome at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. On August 6, 1945, the bomb Little Boy exploded almost directly above the former exhibition hall and over seventy thousand people were killed instantly.

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Not far from the dome, picnickers enjoying the cherry blossoms.

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  1. Snorky

    Great photos and post.

    Not sure if you have the BreadTop franchise in Perth but in we do in Melbourne and they have a version of the “Tokyo Banana” with slices of banana inside with the creamy filling, it’s so yum.


 
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