How to eat Japanese Bento | Tips on how to eat Hipparidako-Meshi？
Have you been to Kobe City in Hyogo Prefecture? Kobe City is surrounded by the sea and mountains, blessed with both of their delicacies. Local bento boxes are filled with the charm of the area. The most famous bento is “Hipparidako-Meshi”. Chang Weizhong, a Taiwanese writer, and Japan’s latest news source, interviewed the shop about ” Hipparidako-Meshi”.
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What is Kobe’s specialty, Hipparidako-Meshi?
“Hipparidako-Meshi” is said to me the specialty bento of Kobe. Open the lid, and you will be greeted by boiled octopus, conger eel, bamboo shoots, rape blossoms, carrots, broiled eggs, and shiitake mushrooms neatly arranged on a bed of soy sauce rice.
Another fun aspect of the bento is the container is ceramic and can be used for a variety of other purposes, such as a pen stand of flowerpot after eating. Primarily sold in Osaka and Kobe, with 14 million units sold. It is said that one in every 10 people in Japan eat it.
For this issue, we interviewed Yuki Yanagimoto, vice president of Awajiya, along with goodie foodie’s partner, Chang Weizhong, about his thoughts on Hipparidako-Meshi.
What triggered the birth of Hipparidako-Meshi?
Chang: How did you develop the Hipparidako-Meshi?
Yanagimoto: The initial idea was a memorial to commemorate the opening of Akashi Kaikyo bridge. It was finished in 1998, after the city of Kobe was severely damaged by the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake of 1995. 3 years later, the city had not yet recovered, so the opening of the bridge was a bright story for the people, and the Hipparaidako-Meshi was created to encourage people to walk around with dreams and hopes.
Chang: A closer look at the cabinet reveals that the lid paper also says it commemorates the opening of the Akashi Strait Bridge.
Yanagimoto: That’s right. Actually, it says so on the jar.
Chang: Has the shape of the jar remained the same throughout?
Yanagimoto: It has changed slightly, but basically it is the same. In Akashi, a traditional fishing method to catch octopus was to submerge a pot in the sea. This container is made in the shape of that fishing method.
Stir while eating.
Having touched on the birth of the bento, it was now time to eat. The first dish that Mr. Chang chose was the boiled octopus, the highlight of the meal.
Chang: chewing……, it’s soft. And sweet.”
Yanagimoto: That’s right, October tends to be hard, but we cook out octopus just right while retaining its elasticity. It is finished in a Kansai flavor, the perfect amount of sweetness.
Chang: The side dish is on top of the rice, so if I’m not careful, I might just eat up the side dish first. ……
Yanagimoto: Oh, I have a way of eating that I recommend to prevent that from happening.
Yanagimoto: Hipparidako-Meshi has a narrow top, and a wide bottom. Therefore, if you eat the side dish first, only rice will be left. When eating on the train, it is recommended to mix the rice in as you eat it.
Yanagimoto: I’d rather have people enjoy the fact that it is somewhat difficult to eat. There are some interesting tricks as you eat your way through the rice. Please eat it as it is.
Chang: Oh, what is this?
Yanagimoto: You finally found it! It is octopus tempura. There is always one hidden at the bottom of the jar so that even if you finish the side dishes first, you can still enjoy your meal. We try to make it so that you can enjoy eating it until the very end.
Chang: I see. It sure makes me happy when I find it.
By the way, if you eat Hipparidako-Meshi at home, it is recommended to pour hot water over it. The broth will seep out from the side dishes and soy sauce rice, and you can taste it as ochazuke. Pour hot water to the bottom of the pot.
There is more than one style of Hipparidako-Meshi!
Hipparidako-Meshi, which began selling in 1998, has been collaborating with various companies and characters since 2017. What is Awajiya’s goal in doing collaborations?
Chang: What kinds of brands have you collaborated with before?
Yanagimoto: We have collaborated in several genres, including Hello Kitty, and the Japan Coast Guard. We even had a collaboration with Godzilla, which included a grilled octopus.
Chang: Each one has its own story. It is interesting. How did you come to develop a collaborative effort for Hipparidako-Meshi?
Yanagimoto: I simply got tired of making too many of the same things. I wanted to make a new way of enjoying food that would excite both the creator and the eater.
I think it was a good way to overcome the Corona Pandemic. When the number of people traveling dropped drastically, the ekiben industry was hit very hard. By collaborating with various companies and characters with our signature bento, we were able to show the world we were doing our best even in difficult times. This effort caught the attention of customers, and were always excited for the next collaboration. We also were approached by more brands to join together. We gained new fans, and I am very happy we made this effort.
Ekiben should be enjoyed as a part of Japanese culture.
The “Railway Bento Festival” held in Taiwan is a station lunch box convention that attracts many visitors every year. Awajiya has participated in this event twice in the past with its signature product, Hipparidako-Meshi. We asked them why they decided to open a booth and how they feel about continuing to make bentos in the future.
Chang: You had a stall at the 8th Railway Bento Festival held in June this year. I heard it sold out quickly.
Yanagimoto: Yes, when we opened a stall once in 2018, it was limited to 150 pieces and sold out quickly, so this year we doubled the number of pieces and brought 300. Even so, we didn’t have enough at all.
The one in the foreground is the Taiwanese version of Hipparidako-Meshi.
Chang: I see. Are you thinking of expanding overseas?
Yanagimoto: We are not actively looking to increase our overseas expansion. Ekiben are a uniquely Japanese product, so we want people to enjoy them as a part of Japanese culture. That’s why we opened a store at Railway Bento Festival. If I have the opportunity to visit various countries in the future, I would like to create opportunities for people to learn about the culture of ekiben. I would be happy if local people could enjoy ekiben even more when they come to Japan.
Author and columnist. Born in Taipei, Taiwan. Made his writing debut as a novelist in 1997.
【Riichi Chang’s post-interview comments】
At the Railway Bento Festival in Taiwan, Awajiya’s Hipparidako-Meshi were always popular, and sold out all 300 bentos in short time. If you love train travel, this distinctive railroad bento is a must try for your trips in Japan. I recently had the opportunity to get in touch with Awajiya’s headquarters to finally taste the special bento. I finally understand the background, the tips on how to eat it best, and fondly remember the beauty of Kobe.
* The published information is current as of July 2023. Prices and other details are subject to change.
A long-established ekiben store established in 1903. Using ingredients from Kobe, which is surrounded by the sea and mountains, the shop sells numerous bento boxes that are well-known as Kobe specialties. The unique lineup includes the famous Hipparidako-Meshi, the "Atchichi Steam Bento" that incorporates a heating system, and the "Wine Bento" that contains a small bottle of wine.