When in Japan, you will most likely come across ekiben (train station bento boxes) shops housed within the train stations especially if there are long-distance train services passing through there. In order to ease your hunger pangs during the long journeys, there is a dizzying variety of prepacked bento meals sold at such shops to satisfy the passengers’ needs. Even for those who may not be traveling, you can still buy these beautifully-packed bentos and bring them home since some of the ekiben shops are located before the gantries. Depending on the train station where you are at, you may also find limited-period bentos which use in-season items or location-based bentos which feature signature items from a local area.
Do you find it difficult to make your choice at times when faced with such a huge variety? Fret not, there is an annual Grand Prix award for bentos and side dishes which awards the best ekibens in Japan so you can get some inspiration from the list of winners and seek out the best of the best during your next trip to the country!
FABEX stands for The World Food and Beverage Great Expo along with the Dessert Sweets & Drink Festival which are usually held in April of every year. It is one of the largest trade fairs in Japan covering commercial foods and food products, equipment and materials, as well as containers and packaging.
In the next edition that is happening on April 12 to 14, 2017, FABEX will be held at Tokyo Big Sight’s East Halls featuring about 1,500 booths from 1,000 companies. During FABEX, the winners of the FABEX Souzai Bentou Grand Prix are announced.
The FABEX Souzai Bento Grand Prix is organized by the Japan Food Journal (Japanese only) with the aims of rejuvenating the prepacked meals industry, to boost and support its product development and sales promotion efforts. In this annual competition, side dishes and bentos sold in Japan are awarded for their quality, taste, sales potential, and originality. As such, companies can register their products such as side dishes, bentos, sushi, donburi, onigiri, noodles (the to-be-cooked type), salads, bread, processed bread products e.g. sandwiches, and desserts in the competition’s eight categories as follows:
- side dishes
- chilled food
- healthy food
- food sold via delivery and courier services
- festival or special event food
- local food
- ekiben and soraben i.e. prepacked meals sold for consumption on trains and during flights
- premium or luxury food
One of the key conditions to qualify for this competition is that the product must have been sold for a certain period of time between December of the previous year and November of the current year. As such, items which are sold for a limited or temporary basis will not be eligible for entry.
Here is a feature of the 3 Gold Award winners in the ekiben and soraben category for the 2016 edition of the FABEX Souzai Bentou Grand Prix:
The Nami no Ihachi Bento (Japanese only) comes from Nansoken (南総軒), a longtime ekiben manufacturer based in Kamogawa City in Chiba Prefecture. Due to consumers’ perceptions that ekibens are more expensive than the bentos sold at convenience stores, this has resulted in tough business conditions for the ekiben makers. As a result, Nansoken branched out into other business areas such as the production of home delivery bentos, catered bentos used for corporate meetings, and hors d’oeuvre.
In a bid to turn the downward fortune of ekibens around, Nansoken came up with the Nami no Ihachi Bento in August 2014 which was developed by the Queen of Ekiben, Kobayashi Shinobu. To fully utilize the tourism resources in Kamogawa City and the nearby Isumi City, the newly developed bento was named after Takeshi Ihachirou Nobuyoshi (武志伊八郎信由), an Edo era sculptor born in Kamogawa City whose nickname was Nami no Ihachi.
The bento features an entire ise (Japanese spiny) lobster, boiled rice with octopus, sangayaki (a traditional fishermen’s dish from Chiba Prefecture where fish meat is mixed with miso, sake, and other condiments before being grilled or steamed in an abalone’s shell), and sweet vinegared seaweed from Kamogawa City. Although it is sold at the ekiben shop in Awa-Kamogawa Station (安房鴨川駅) which is the terminal station for the Uchibou Line (内房線) and Sotobou Line (外房線), you actually can’t buy this off the counter since you need to place reservations at least four days in advance! What’s more, the minimum order size is 5 units so this is a bento more suited for a group of people traveling together. Due to the fact that it requires reservations and is not readily available, the Nami no Ihachi bento was little-known outside of Kamogawa and Chiba despite being featured on TV several times until it won the 2016 Ekiben Gold Award which led to a boost in awareness and popularity. As for the price, each bento costs 1,800 yen which is inclusive of tax. Although it is slightly pricey compared to the many under-1000 yen bentos in the market, the price tag is probably justified by the use of high-quality seafood.
Tsukada Nojo’s Tsukadama Tartar no Tokusei Chicken Nanban Bento’s (Japanese only) highlight will definitely be its chicken nanban (fried chicken with vinegar and tartar sauce) which won the 6th Karaage (fried chicken) Grand Prix and said to taste good even when it has cooled. The tartar sauce is also well known for the effort put into producing it as the boiled egg whites and yolks are processed separately before being mixed together. Apparently, by mashing the egg yolks finely, it gives the tartar sauce a smooth taste while the egg whites are not as finely-mashed so as to add some texture.
This bento which costs 790 yen, features a variety of high-quality ingredients i.e. Hoenuki rice from Yamagata Prefecture which has won the Super A rank in the rice taste ranking for 21 consecutive years to date, the company’s award-winning chicken nanban, nikujaga from Hokkaido’s black cows which is stewed for up to 24 hours, Tsukada Nojo’s signature tamagoyaki, and marinated mustard leaves with mentaiko. On good days, as many as 300 units are sold with monthly sales reaching 10,000 at times! If you wish to buy this over the counter, you can head to ecute Shinagawa South. Otherwise, if you happen to be living in Tokyo, you can order this to be delivered to your home via this website (Japanese only).
The Odama Hotate to Dairyou Uni Bento (Japanese only) comes from Yoshidaya which was opened in 1892, the year when the Hachinohe train station was opened. This longtime bento manufacturer which is based in Hachinohe City, Aomori Prefecture, produces this signature bento that features the goodness of Hokkaido’s seafood and is exclusively sold at Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station on the Hokkaido Shinkansen line. Besides a generous portion of steamed uni (sea urchin), a large-sized hotate (scallop) is placed in the middle with perilla leaves and salmon roe to add extra flavors to the bento. Given the type of ingredients used and the amount in the bento, it is probably not surprising that this costs 1,780 yen each (inclusive of tax).
If you happen to be at the Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station, do swing by BENTO CAFÉ 41°GARDEN (Japanese only) which offers this specialty bento as well as other new creations which were developed in conjunction with the opening of the Hokkaido Shinkansen line. You may be surprised that the Odama Hotate to Dairyou no Uni Bento is actually the no. 1 bestseller at the cafe despite its price tag. Other than the usual ekiben, you can choose to mix and match your very own cafe-ben (cafe-style bento) where you can select two or three ingredients to form the toppings of your bento box or select the preset options designed by the cafe.
Actually, Yoshidaya had opened similar cafes at Hachinohe Station in 2002 and Shin-Aomori Station in 2010. This latest outlet was established with the help of the Seikan Kasseika Fund (青函活性化ファンド) which aims to rejuvenate the Aomori and Hakodate areas. Traditionally, people ate ekiben on moving trains but with the opening of cafes offering ekiben like this, it gives consumers a different dining experience and allows the ekiben to be readily available to the general public.
Having read about these delicious-looking bentos, how about giving them a try next time while in Japan to see if they are truly deserving of their Gold Awards?