Japan Railway & Transport Review No. 59 (Front Cover)


Dining Cars and Boxed Lunches

I recently visited the SCMAGLEV and Railway Park in Nagoya. The dining car of the Tokaido Shinkansen on display made me feel nostalgic about past railway trips, bringing back old memories, such as the delicious beef stew, which I ate frequently for 10 years or so in those dining cars after starting work in 1970. However, Japan also has a long tradition of bento boxed lunches used on occasions such as trips, flower-viewing parties, and visits to the theatre or sumo tournaments. Consequently, the Japanese bento has developed almost into an art form unparalleled in most of the world. When railways spread their reach, dining cars helped make the long train rides more enjoyable, as did ekiben (boxed lunches sold at stations) that were easier and cheaper than menus in dining cars. Ekiben are still very popular and always sell out at ekiben festivals in department stores featuring the various styles of boxed lunches sold at stations across Japan. Originally, ekiben were sold on platforms to passengers leaning out the windows while the train was stopped for a passing express, etc.,
but the appearance of limited expresses with permanently closed windows forced the boxed lunch onboard, bringing it into direct competition with the dining car. Eventually, the boxed lunch won out—in some ways the boxed lunch killed the dining car and now only a few remain in service on top-class, long-distance night trains in Japan where many passengers are seeking pleasure in the journey itself—rather like passengers on a cruise liner. However, since even these top-class dining cars have too few seats for all the passengers at one time, many people still bring a prepared luxury bento. Unfortunately, despite my nostalgic fondness for beef stew in the dining cars of old, being realistic about the maintenance and running costs, it would be difficult to bring them back.

K. Aoki