The best thing about railway travel in Japan is ekiben, artfully composed bento lunch boxes sold at eki, or train stations, that allow you to sample each region's specialties. Travelers from Hokkaido in the north tuck into ekiben of sweet steamed snow crab legs, plump beads of salmon roe, and crispy pickled lotus root arrayed on beds of shredded egg omelette; ekiben from Hamamatsu Station on the south central coast feature grilled eel sprinkled with sesame seeds, flanked by Japanese pickles and served over sweet soy-sauce-simmered rice. But my favorite may be from Yokokawa Station up in the mountains: Steaming braised chicken, chestnuts, burdock, bamboo shoots, and dried apricots are served atop rice in a takeaway clay pot, unique even in the days before plastic when ekiben were still packaged in wooden boxes.
With more than 500 train stations and over 1,600 styles of ekiben on offer, the choices are dizzying, but the ritual stays the same: As the train leaves the station, the coach fills with the sounds of beer tabs snapping back, ekiben lids popping open, and the rustling of dozens of disposable chopsticks being freed from their wrappers as everyone prepares to dig in.
Scott Hass is author of Back of the House (Berkley Trade, 2013).