Japan Food Report 1 – Amazing Food Choices at the Train Station

Food is everywhere in Japan.

A lot more than I thought, or specifically, a lot more than I remembered.

Even at the train station. I mean inside of the actual station, after you pay, and go though the ticket booth.

When we went to Kyoto, we got some bento — pre-made boxed lunches before we went through the actual ticket gate at the station. Since we started our day a bit late, I thought we should eat lunch in the train and save time in Kyoto for sight-seeing. I knew that in Japan, all these long-distance trains have vendor girls who go through the entire train to sell bento, snacks, and drinks. There are also some bento sold at platforms of the major stations of long distance lines. But in my memory, the choices were pretty limited. We had time there till our train would arrive, so I thought we should buy our bento where there was the most selection.

There were quite a bit of choices at Kamata, which is medium sized train station near my mom’s house, even without going into the adjacent department stores’ food floor. Most of the Japanese department stores have at least one, sometimes two floors dedicated to everything food for home-consumption, in addition to one or two more "restaurant floors".

We took the JR (Japan Rail) Keihin Tohoku Line to Shinagawa, to get on to the bullet train.

I was in awe when we got there!

This medium sized station changed so much! I used to get off at this station, every single day from spring of 1967 till spring of ‘77 for my elementary and junior high school. Even later, I either passed through or changed trains at that station practically every day until I left Japan in early September, 1988. Now not only Shinkansen, but Narita Express stops there. The biggest surprise was that they have something called Ecute, which is the concourse food mall, much more elaborate (when it comes to food) than those in the major airports in the world. On one floor that opens right up to the major station corridor, they have 13 food shops called "Traveler’s Kitchen", 13 sweet shops, and 7 other food related stores.

The first thing that caught my eyes…

Only in Japan, you see individually wrapped sushi. The choices are pretty impressive, far better than the typical sushi joint (at least to those who just arrived from the US!) This is a branch of a Numazu Uogashi Sushi, in English, Numazu Fish Market sushi. Numazu is a well-known fish port in a few hour South of Tokyo. No wonder they have amazing choices even for "wrapped sushi".

Another pretty and appetizing choice from Numazu Uogashi Sushi. These look prettier than desserts! I love the color contrasts, not only from the top, but from the side too. When I make chirashi zushi like this next time, I might put it in a glass container.

Traditional Japanese traveler’s lunch, onigiri. A seasonal item, the pink one on the left feature salted cherry blossoms. Looking at these choices inspires me to incorporate more colors and varieties in my cooking.

Not only Japanese, but they also have Chinese dim sum. We Japanese LOVE these, and often make them at home as well. these are giant "log gyoza", probably about 3-4 times bigger than regular gyoza.

Shrimp Chive Dumplings. They are my favorite! I bet they are pretty warm, or they will heat it up for you. We had our 3rd breakfast one hour before (we were jetlagged!), and it was only at 10 am, meaning they wouldn’t be eaten for another 2 hours, so we had to pass on them.

Japanese love foreign names, and often it sounds funny to those who speak English. (Same can be said about American stores and products with Japanese names.) Buzz Search for a fancy bakery. I wonder where the name came from???

You can buy this beautiful fruit tart at the train station, while connecting to another train. Especially because it was a station I used every day since I was 6 years old, it felt very strange. I wish train stations in the Bay Area were like this….

Japanese love seasonal items. These are Sakura (cherry blossom) Roll Cakes. I didn’t eat any, but they probably have cherry petals ground into the cake outside, and the leaf on top is cherry. We also enjoy cherry blossom tea & cherry blossom mochi (Sakura mochi) in spring as well. One time, I even bought cherry blossom udon. Pretty pink udon with a subtle scent of cherry blossoms.

Japanese often buy food or cakes for others, or when they travel somewhere, they buy something to share (and eat) for work. So they are probably for that purpose, not to eat the whole thing in the Shinkansen train. The entire show case was filled with these cakes. Who buys all these cakes? The Japanese are getting even more picky about freshness, I bet they will throw them out if they don’t sell in one day.

There was only one non-food store on the first floor…

It’s pretty amazing they have such a fancy florist inside of a train station. These tall branches are cherry blossoms.

Noticing us taking photos, this guy at the florist gave us a peace sign. : )

A traveler or a commuter can buy these foods (and flowers) with a Suica Card, a chargeable card for any train or bus line tickets in Greater Tokyo and Kanto area, which can be also used at vending machines, Kiosks, and other stores inside of the train stations in the Suica covered area. The Wikipedia says that you can use this in Kansai Area, but when we were in Kyoto and Kobe, I didn’t see any Suica readers. The greatest thing about this card is that you don’t even need to take it out of your wallet or even a purse. You just need to strategically place your suica card facing outside of the bag or wallet, and tap that area with the reader when you are going through the booth. A perfect solution for ever crowded stations in Japan!

So, of course, there were Suica readers at these food shops within ECute.

Suica is a charge card mainly for all public transportation within Kanto area, but also for other purchases at the vendors inside of train stations as well as other stores outside of the train station. I loved that card — I can get on to all the trains, subway, bus, and buy things like bento box, sushi and flowers.

Given that in the Bay Area (and many other US cities), we need different cards for different things, or have to buy a ticket each time you use public transportation, I really want Suica to be introduced to the US!!!

You could pass HOURS at ECute, but (un)fortunately, these bullet train comes every 5 minutes or so. Even Hikari, which is free for JR Pass holders comes every 30 minutes, so we couldn’t piddle there too long. The good thing is, is just right down the hallway! How convenient!

Our train is coming into Shinagawa station. I’m surprised that the gate is left open before the train comes to stop.

You can buy things like several choices of bento boxes, canned beer, soft drinks, green tea and sake in most long-distance train in Japan. Next time we go somewhere, I’ll definitely buy my bento at ECute at Shinagawa Station!

I wish there were these stores when I was at school. Then I would be buying these tasty snacks and more every day after school, since I was always hungry.

The thing is, it was good that there weren’t. I would have gone broke easily, and if there were Suica at that time, I would have been in trouble with my parents why my card needs to be charged more often than needed for commuting.

So do you think it’s good to have fancy food stores like these inside the train station? Would you like to have a few at your station? Or for drivers, would you like fancier choices than McDs and other typical first food drive-throughs?

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