Japanese often say that a good view makes a meal taste better, so it goes without saying that a cute-looking lunchbox would also enhance the contents inside. From meals served in Shinkansen-shaped containers or rabbit-faced boxes that can be reused as coin banks, to lunch boxes that play music or have collector’s items hidden inside, Japan’s ekiben take Japanese food to a whole new level.

Today we’d like to tell you about “Ekiben”, a little book by Aki Tomura which introduces the best and most unique train station lunch boxes in Japan. We’ve chosen just a few to highlight from this gorgeously photographed, pocket-size book. The word Ekiben is a combination of two Japanese words: eki (station) and bento (lunchbox), so make your next train trip a gourmet ride with these bento available at various JR stations—just waiting for you to buy, smile, and devour.

Let the fun begin!

We previously told you about self-heating beef tongue bento and the funeral bento that allows you to eat with the dead, but these train station bento are even more awesome. Each lunch features area-specific Japanese delicacies (meisho) housed in a unique container that is meant to be kept as a souvenir. If there was a “RocketNews24-Michelin Guide to Japanese Bento,” judging according to cuteness, originality and how souvenir-worthy they are, these would all get five stars.

Tomura-san’s book starts out with a map of Japan showing where all 56 bento she introduces in the book come from. Each number matches a two-page spread with photos and information about the packaging, the locally grown ingredients, the history behind bento and at which train station you can purchase each one from. Some are only available from mom & pops-type operations that make limited numbers every day, so you may have to put in your order the day before! But you’ll have to get the book to be privy to those. In this article, we’ll highlight 12 readily available lunches that you can pick up on your next train ride.


1. 500-kei Shinkansen Bento–Kobe Station

We start our list with, what else, but a bullet train bento! The 500 series Shinkansen was the first train to reach speeds of 300 kph (186 mph) and has been commemorated with this handsome porcelain dish. Upon opening a Shinkansen bento, you might expect tiny people to be inside but instead, it’s filled with high-speed chicken, free range eggs, vegetables and rice.


2. Gyukakuni Bento–Yonezawa Station

If you prefer beef, there’s nothing more “obviously cow” than this head of cattle bento box celebrating Yamagata Prefecture’s famous beef cows. As if the container isn’t awesome enough, they’ve gone a step further: when you open up the lid–a tune plays. Listening to “Hangasa Ondo,” a traditional Japanese song of the 60s, while eating lunch is the perfect combination of cows and moosic.


3. Awabi no Takikomimeshi–Kobuchizawa Station

Imagine yourself a fisherman back in the day. You live in Surugawa Bay on the Pacific coast in Shizuoka Prefecture. To sell your seafood, you have to trek into the Yamanshi mountains so you pickle the goods in soy sauce to preserve them, then  place them into this cute clam-shaped basket. You start the long trek and by the time you get to Yamanashi Prefecture, the food has fermented into the local specialty of this area. At least that’s the story behind the basket this bento is served in.


4. Mukashinagara no shiumai–Yokohama Station

Shumai (pork, seafood or vegetable-filled dumplings) are a favorite in Japan and are served with a dollop of hot mustard and a drop of soy sauce. This recipe–which hasn’t changed since 1928–includes pork and dried scallops and is based on dim sum in Yokohama’s Chinatown. The carton may not look like anything special on the outside, but like a Cracker Jack box, this bento hides a little prize inside: a ceramic soy sauce bottle painted with different designs and which is a collector’s item.


5. Takotsubo Bento “Hipparidako Meshi”–Nishi-Akashi Station

Ever wanted to eat your octopus straight out of a takotsubo? This vessel, as all good octopus hunters know, is like an octopus condominium, laid on the bottom of the sea to attract the eight-tentacled critters. After they snuggle up inside these dark and cozy homes for the night and fall fast asleep, the octopus hunter comes along, lifts the condo out of the water, and evicts the snoozing octopi straight into his net. Octopus pots are still used today and are icons of the Seto Inland Sea, so it should be no surprise that you can buy this bento in Hyogo Prefecture which is located on the inland sea.


6. Appare Tako–Fukuyama Station

If you prefer your octopus pink and wearing a hachimaki headband, then you’ll have to get this bento, which must be the cutest lunch to ever come out of the sea. And you can use the lid as a plate to serve the seafood and vegetables on. The beautiful ceramic pot can be taken home and used as an octopus cookie jar.


7. Fuku wa Fuku Yobu Fukumeshi–Mojiko Station

Go ahead, live on the edge and get a fugu-filled fish container to prove it! If you’re in Fukuoka Prefecture, said to be the birthplace of fugu, you can enjoy an assortment of fried blowfish (poisonous, life-threatening parts removed) over rice boiled in tea with ginger. Now that would be hard to pass up!


8. Kobefu Matsutakesukiyaki Gyumatsunabe–Kobe Station

Graze on Japan’s famous matsutake mushrooms with sukiyaki over rice in this nabe style meal served in a souvenir ceramic cow bowl. The Japanese kanji on the lid that says “Kobe style Gyumatsunabe” which makes it a perfect souvenir for back home. With the adorable Heiffer and calf on the side, it’s the perfect vessel to put your extra moolah into.


9. Yukidaruma Bento–Niigata Station

Ever had the urge to eat a snowman? You can come pretty close with this snowman bento that represents the deep snow indicative of Niigata Prefecture. The snowman comes in white, pink, blue or green. His mouth is open so you can use him as a coin bank when you’re finished with his insides. Choose your innards: beef & rice or sweets.


10. Gegege no Kitaro Furo Chazuke–Tottori Station

Our tenth bento today is a must-have for anime fans: this “Gegege no Kitaro” themed dish. Kitaro’s “Eyeball Dad” (Medama Oyaji) in the bottom of the bowl as you consume this rice soup. This is an on-going series with different patterns and offerings, so check them out the next time you pass through Tottori Prefecture.


11. Usagichan no Yume Sanshokuzushi–Tottori Station

Tottori is known for a folktale called “The Rabbit from Inaba” which is far too complicated to retell here but involves a Japanese Hare that is usually brown but turns white in the colder months. This cute receptacle of sushi and rice is based around three basic colors and is perfect for children (or adults, of course!). The container doesn’t change to brown in the summertime like a Japanese hare, but does change into dirt, eventually, since it’s biodegradable.

usagi12. Kurimeshi–Hitoyoshi Station

This mostly vegetables feast is served in a container that looks like a giant chestnut is available in Kumamoto Prefecture. This is a great opportunity to try cooked chestnuts with rice cooked in konbu dashi, and served with koya dofu, daikon radish, omelet and a meatball.

kurimeishiThis is just a smattering of the gastronomic escapades available at train stations in Japan. We know we’ve almost certainly missed some of your favorite Japanese foods, so be sure to pick up a copy of “Ekiben” to find even more exciting bento adventures in collectible containers. We dare you to collect all 56!

All photos © and published with the permission of Aki Tomura 戸村亜
“Ekiben” is published by IBC Publishing and is available at bookstores in Japan or via Amazon. ISBN 978-4-7946-0336-4