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Revitalizing Japan's Regions

Young people creatively promote local cuisine

Matsumoto City


Eki-ben, literally "train stations' bento boxed meals," are sold at railway stations across Japan. Travelers pick them up en route as a portable meal. The compact boxed meals are cleverly designed to make eating on the go easy, and they are chock-full of local flavors and ingredients. Small wonder, then, that they are so beloved by Japanese people.

On sale at Nagano's Matsumoto Station since 2013, the "Jokamachi no Ogottso" (Castle Town Feast—in Matsumoto's regional dialect, ogottso means "feast") bentos are unique eki-ben born of a collaboration between the local agricultural cooperative, students and a Matsumoto bento maker. Taro Ohara of the JA (Japan Agricultural Cooperatives) Matsumoto Highland cooperative sat down with us to talk about how young people came on board for this project to help revitalize and promote Matsumoto's cuisine.

"Both the farmers and we at the cooperative had long wanted to bring local products to a wider audience. This was nothing but a vague concept until we got the help and suggestions of Matsumoto City and Nagano Prefecture, which led to the concrete idea of using bentos to bring our food to diners everywhere."

The eki-ben project was launched as an outgrowth of the Matsumoto Region Committee's larger "Oishii Shinshu Food" initiative. The project group consisted of the JA cooperative, Iidaya-Ken—a veteran bento shop with over one hundred years of history; Midori—the station building which sells eki-ben; as well as the packaging material vendor Orikyo-ichiba-ten, and a team of twelve Matsumoto University students selected from an open call for participants. Together they sought the best products, flavors and packaging that would promote Matsumoto and its food to maximum effect.

"Young people are very flexible in their mindset and fear nothing. For those of us working in an organization, or for long-time bento vendors, bold ideas prove difficult, because we already start calculating the risks. We had had lots of ideas that were nothing but pipe dreams when we actually considered budgetary and technical constraints. But the ideas for eki-ben the students from Matsumoto University proposed were unique and overflowing with local love for our town."

Through workshops, surveys of Matsumoto Station patrons and a series of product samples, the boxed meals finally took form. The "Castle Town Feast" is a two-tiered octagonal box containing fourteen varieties of delicious local items arranged in an eye-catching fashion. Though the price of 1200 yen puts it a bit higher than other bentos, it has proven a wild success, selling out within a few hours of being stocked each day.

"The students themselves worked at the shop selling eki-ben, calling out to travelers and giving their all to get the product recognized. When we see youngsters working hard, we empathize and want to support them. Even the bento makers listened intently and went along with the ingredients and layout of the boxes, challenging though they seemed, because they could see how earnestly the students backed the idea. We're really grateful to the shop for having faith in them."

The bentos were originally slated for sale until the end of 2013, but they proved so popular that the date continued to be pushed back. They are now a year-round item for sale at Matsumoto Station.

According to Ohara, minor changes will have to be made to keep the bentos perennially on sale. "Because we've designed them around the idea of using the most seasonal ingredients, which is a bit out of the ordinary for train station bentos, we'll have to put our heads together to decide what will appear in the boxes at each seasonal juncture," he says. "If that means people learn more about our local produce, though, I think that's a good thing."

Japanese have long been fond of eki-ben, and this successful project out of Matsumoto incorporating student ideas has shown how collaboration between industry, government and consumers can produce hit products. As they pursue local efforts of their own, other provinces around Japan will surely want to stand up and take notice.

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