During our trip in Japan, we travelled across the country by trains and Shinkansen. The Shinkansen, a high speed “bullet train”, was fantastic. The Nozomi service is the fastest, with the trains reaching speeds of up to 300 km/h (!). You can’t travel on Nozomi on a Japan Rail pass, so we were on the Hikari trains, which stop more often and reach speeds of 220km/hr – 280km/hr.
The Shinkansen is seriously fantastic! The trains pull into the station within a minute of their scheduled arrival (just like all trains in Japan, actually) and depart almost to the second of their scheduled departure. Inside the trains, the seats are wide, spacious, clean and very comfortable. There’s no fuss of needing to check baggage or clear security, you just walk on to the train, take a seat and in a couple of hours you’re in a different part of the country. It’s a shame that Australia doesn’t have the population to support high speed rail between cities because taking the train was a hundred times better than flying.
You can’t eat on normal trains in Japan, but the Shinkansen is an exception. Someone with a snack cart comes down the aisle every now and again, and you can purchase drinks, snacks and bento boxes. There are also stalls in all the stations that sell bento boxes to take on the train. Here are some pictures of the assorted bento boxes we ate.
This one was an octopus themed bento box - rice, a sausage cut to look like an octopus (cute!), takoyaki balls, baby octopus, half an egg, and pickles. I was pretty much expecting that the baby octopus would be tough and fairly inedible, but it was surprisingly tender. The takoyaki was not great though, but I suppose that is to be expected!
This one was Alastair’s and it was appropriately man sized - it was massive! There were two layers of thin steak, rice, pickles, tamago, potato salad and crumbed pork. There was something underneath the steak but I can’t remember what it was now – possibly salad or vegetables, judging by the cherry tomato you can see peeking out.
This one was purchased on the Shinkansen - look how cutely it was packaged. It's a giant peach!
Unfortunately, taste wise it was not great. At the bottom was a layer of vinegared rice, covered by flavourless egg, and then on top was various seafood. It was all kind of bland and unexciting. Some of the fish was really vinegary as well, and it just didn't do it for us. Oh well.
Aside from buying bento on the Shinkansen and at the train station, every convenience shop and supermarket that we went also sold bento. Microwaves were available to heat them up if they were meant to be eaten warm. They were generally quite cheap so were good for an inexpensive lunch. At the beginning of our trip, I was a bit worried about our budget and tried to eat more cheaply. Lots of people gave me the impression that Japan was really expensive, but after a couple of days I figured out that food wasn't particularly expensive (Japanese food that is, I think Western food is a different story. But why would you visit Japan and eat Western food anyway?). I mean, food might be expensive compared to the rest of Asia, but not if you compare it to a Western country. So I relaxed after a couple of days and after that there were no more convenience shop bentos! Here are some from early in our trip:
This one had rice, nuggets of fried pork (I think! either pork or chicken) and potato salad.
This one had crumbed pork, half a boiled egg, rice, noodles and that brown thing was a fishy/seafoody ball. It was better than it looks and sounds.
This one was pretty simple, just soba noodles with dipping sauce.
And this one had fried pork, rice, and a bit of spaghetti. The spaghetti bit was a bit strange, but the pork was nice.
I should mention the negatives though, I felt bad about all the packaging associated with the bentos. And while we tried very hard not to use disposable chopsticks in Japan, the bentos that we purchased to eat on the Shinkansen came with disposable chopsticks inside the packaging, so we couldn't refuse them. Gah. And I've read that the convenience shops throw out a lot of their perishable food at the end of the day, which contributes to the rather staggering amount of food waste in Japan.
Even with the negatives, it's a shame that convenience shops in Australia don't sell food like this - it's better than a dodgy sandwich or meat pie any day!