My introduction to bento—Japanese lunch boxes—took place under less than ideal circumstances. It was 1986, and I’d been hired to teach English at a school in Tokyo—a job that began two days after my wedding. I reported to work jetlagged and discombobulated, only to find that the very next day there would be an overnight trip for new faculty to a spa hotel by the sea. The trip was mandatory. My wife was not invited.
The next morning, we new recruits lined up to board a hired bus outside the school building. Each of us was handed an envelope containing spending money (here you go kids, have a good time) and a carry-on lunch bag. I plopped down in my seat and opened the bag to discover a lidded box. What’s this? I thought. Had Mom packed our lunch? Indeed, she had. (Or rather, my employer had.) I opened the lid, and found an array of enticing, colorful bite-sized treats in a grid of compartments. I eagerly sampled the items. I would be stretching it if I told you I remember exactly what they were, but I do remember that they took the sting off of having to leave my wife behind.
This was the first of many, many bento I would eat during that year in Japan. Bento were sold at convenience stores, department stores, supermarkets, even at the Kabuki theater, where their contents could range from broiled beef to chirashi (raw fish), usually served over rice and with a side of vegetables simmered in stock and some slivered Japanese pickles. They were a delightful way to get to know Japanese cuisine.
I was particularly intrigued by ekiben, the bento sold at train stations. Ekiben are bento at their most exciting: they’re usually based on local specialties—up north, you might find a bento featuring snow crab; down near the city of Kobe, you’ll find ekiben featuring that region’s famously marbled beef. There are over 5000 train stations in Japan, and over 1,600 varieties of ekiben. These regional railway bentos are one of the pleasures of train travel in Japan.
This week, several New York Japanese restaurants are preparing regional variations of ekiben, drawing their inspiration from varieties served at stations all over Japan, from Hokkaido to Kyushu (see eight of the bento available for puchase in New York this week in our Beautiful Bento Slideshow). March 19—21, ekiben will also be featured at a three-day event at Grand Central Station. (For more information, visit japanweek.us)
Kenneth Wapner is a freelance book editor, packager, and agent, and an author and journalist who once apprenticed with a sushi chef and lived in Japan. He now lives in Woodstock, NY.