Eating in Transit

[In keeping with the current theme of transit and travel, I thought a post on Japan’s version of fast food meals would be appropriate. Alas, I don’t have any photos of the meals I’m about to discuss, so you’ll have to use your imagination.]

To me, food eaten “on the go” generally has a negative connotation, conjuring up images of wan French fries, prepackaged sandwiches composed of a slice of ham and an inordinate amount of mayonnaise, and mealy apples purchased in an attempt to be healthy. However, fast food here in Japan is quite a different story.

Early in my stay here, Steven and I were at Tokyo’s Haneda airport and needed to grab a bite of lunch before a flight. He suggested that we eat before going through security, because the food options would be better. I found myself wondering, “how much better could it really be?  It’s an airport, right?”  After browsing a number of takeaway shops, we settled in the food court, which was populated by about five restaurants, each serving a different specialty. None of the offerings were particularly fancy – there was katsudon (a bowl of rice topped with a fried pork cutlet and egg), karē raisu (curry rice), soba, and that famous Japanese fast food, ramen. When I peeked behind the counters of each shop to take a closer look at the food, I was amazed by what I saw.

There were no heat lamps or warming tables, no rolling carts filled with pre-made meals, no soda dispensers or ice cream machines, and no underpaid teenagers zapping packaged burgers in the microwave. Instead, I saw large stockpots bubbling away on burners, freshly cooked rice being scooped out of an industrial-sized rice cooker, and containers of garnishes like red pickled ginger, sliced leeks, and julienned shiso leaves. Yes, there were also deep-fryers, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with those, right?

As we didn’t want to eat anything heavy before our flight, we decided to share a simple bowl of steaming hot soba and a small mound of rice topped with ikura (salmon roe), shiso, and shredded omelette. This came to a whopping total of 800 yen. Needless to say, the food was not outstanding, but it far surpassed my expectations. Everything tasted fresh and had obviously been prepared with care, though it didn’t take more than five minutes for our food to arrive at the window. Even better, it was served in ceramic dishes to cut down on waste!

It’s a similar story with road food. A few weeks after the airport meal, we stopped at a roadside rest stop, or “parking,” for a quick bite of lunch on our way to Gunma prefecture north of Tokyo. I was sure the culinary offerings would be meager and unappetizing, but I was proved wrong yet again. In front of the main building were a number of small stands selling mostly sweets and fried foods, just as one might find at any American street fair. However, inside one could choose from a number of appealing plastic replicas and then purchase a meal ticket at a vending machine.

After agonizing over whether to get noodles or a karaage (fried chicken) rice bowl set (I chose the latter), I approached the counter to hand over my meal ticket. Once again, I saw a fully equipped kitchen, full of middle-aged Japanese women bustling about preparing food. Toward the front of the kitchen, one woman manned a noodle-cooking station, where she deftly dipped baskets of soba, udon, and ramen into boiling water, checking each one periodically with chopsticks to test the noodles’ doneness. The food served was good, if a bit heavy, and certainly far tastier than anything one would find along an American highway. As I ate, I thought about how the food had been cooked by real hands and not merely manufactured and warmed by a machine. This was immensely comforting, and I’m sure many of those around me felt similarly, even if they were far from home, too.

My final example of Japanese fast food is something that people actually do eat while in transit – the ekiben/駅弁 (literally, “train station bento”). Unlike rest stop food, which is eaten to break up the monotony of travel, ekiben are almost always eaten on the train itself. Preferably, this train should be a spacious and speedy shinkansen, though a less glamorous limited express train (such as the Azusa I ride to Matsumoto) will also do. Although one could eat an ekiben while not on the train, it would almost defeat the purpose of the meal. As the name implies, ekiben are as much about food as about traveling itself. The anticipation of seeing a new place, the thrill of the journey, the promise of escape and adventure – the ekiben experience is inseparable from all these feelings.

While it’s possible to buy ekiben on the train, it is far more fun to buy one at the station. When I traveled to Nara last month (see video in the previous post), I passed through Tokyo Station, which has at least five ekiben vendors. Somewhat haphazardly, I chose a place that seemed to have the most variety and shortest lines (though there were still lines, because they are ubiquitous in Japan). As soon as the train had left the station and began to pick up speed, I eagerly unwrapped the box, which, unbeknownst to me, turned out to have two layers of food(!)

The package’s wrapping, which was minimal yet complex in a very Japanese way, had been designed to increase the customer’s anticipation of the meal to come. After carefully loosening the patterned paper wrapper holding the two halves together, I lifted the lid to find a pair of disposable chopsticks, placed at such an angle that they fit perfectly inside the container. Beneath the chopsticks lay eight small (2 x 2 inch) boxes, each of which contained a different kind of food. There were tiny pickled eggplant, a single sweet shrimp with chili-garlic sauce, root vegetables and konnyaku simmered in dashi, slightly spicy lotus root kinpira, a few tasty slices of an unidentifiable chicken part (gizzards?), and half a hardboiled miso egg. Fittingly, the bottom layer consisted of rice (in four little triangles) and pickles, which are the foundations of any Japanese meal.

Everything was so impeccably prepared and beautifully presented that eating them almost seemed a shame (almost). Of course it was delicious, but that wasn’t surprising. Instead, I found myself marveling at how such a simple concept – a pre-prepared box of food – could be so refined. In this sense, ekiben capture a uniquely Japanese sensibility – the elevation of the everyday to something more pleasurable, made possible by an almost obsessive attention to detail. This is difficult to describe in words but easy to understand once you’ve been here.

I’m not quite sure how to end this post, so I think I’ll finish with a couple questions. What is your ultimate “road food”?  (Trail mix?  A hamburger and fries from the drive-through window?  A homemade sandwich smuggled onto the plane?)  Or, better yet, what is your best memory of a meal eaten while in transit?  I’d love to hear your answers in the comments!

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4 thoughts on “Eating in Transit

  1. A hamburger, french fries and either cholotate malt or root beer, depending on whether the venue is an A & W or another place in northern Minnesota. During family vacations when I was a child we always ate this lunch on our drive “up North”. To me it marked the real beginning of our holiday.

    • Ah, classic American road food. My version of that would probably be lunch at Dairy Queen on the way to/from summer camp. Also, I still have a soft spot for airplane breakfasts, though they’re not what they used to be! (Or maybe they never were that good to begin with?)

  2. hi Emma! You write so beautifully!
    My favorite road food is a toasted Hot Bagels everything bagel with scallion cream cheese 🙂 Really perfect for those early morning departures!

    • Thank you, thank you! It is next to impossible to find bagels here, so they’re always at the top of my list of “foods to eat” when I return to NYC. However, Steven says he’s located a spot in Matsumoto that makes bagels with 100% domestic, organic flour. I’ll give them a shot, but nothing can really match Hot Bagels…

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