Japan Week On the Go: Stations Forge Sisterhood, Promote Food and Traditional Culture

In Japan hundreds of thousands of railway passengers are excited to purchase ekiben, or “station bento box,” because the meals feature regional specialties and local cuisine. No trip to Sendai would be complete without a gyu tan ekiben (cow’s tongue); people go to Gunma just to sample the toge no kamameshi (rice with chicken and vegetables served in a ceramic pot); and you simply must have the masu no sushi (trout wrapped in bamboo leaves) in Toyama Prefecture in the Northern Japan Alps. Ekiben is an essential part of train travel in Japan, as it takes passengers on a culinary tour of the country.

For the next couple of days, New Yorkers can also experience the culinary curiosities of ekiben without leaving Grand Central. It’s all part of Japan Week – which is really Japan Three Days: March 19, 20, and 21 – at Grand Central Terminal’s Vanderbilt Hall.

Nine area restaurants created original ekiben for Japan Week, primarily so commuters can experience the fascinating concept of Japan’s iconic boxed lunches. The ekiben have proven popular, as several restaurants sold out of their specialties during the first two hours of Japan Week’s first day.

Restaurants and Regional Ekiben for Japan Week

Soba Koh – Hokkaido
Aburiya Kinnosuke – Yamagata
Hi-Collar – Nagoya
Sunrise Mart – Kyoto
Kyotofu – Kyoto
MEGU Midtown – Kobe
Hakata Tonton – Fukuoka
Ronin – Hiroshima
Restaurant Nippon

“This is the first time to use ekiben as a tool to promote Japanese culture” in New York, says Yuki Tanaka, Executive Director of Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO).

At a special seminar organized by JNTO in conjunction with the Consulate General of Japan in New York and held at Ambassador Shigeyuki Hiroki’s residence last evening, Tanaka focused on the connection between ekiben and how Japanese food culture is such an integral part of travel and tourism throughout Japan.

Dubbed Japan’s Unique Food Culture and Traditional Artisans, the seminar highlighted Japan’s characteristic on-the-go travel. This year’s emphasis on railways and train stations during Japan Week is to highlight Grand Central’s 100th anniversary as well as the upcoming centennial of Tokyo Station in December 2004.

“Part of the reason for Japan Week is to give the American public very good reasons why they should to travel to Japan,” says Fumio Deputy-Consul General of Japan in New York.  “Tourism from America has recovered to pre-March 11 numbers.”

Japan boasts an array of trains that elevates the travel experience for locals and visitors alike. In the fall of this year, JR Kyushu in Western Japan will roll out its Seven Stars luxury train. Nicknamed “Cruise Train,” Seven Stars will be a blend of the Orient Express and a cruise ship, where passengers can enjoy multi-day journeys with high-end amenities, luxurious suites, and upscale dinners. The larger railway stations in Japan are also fabulous shopping centers with brand-name stores. And of course, the prospect of a good ekiben is a huge draw.

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Ekiben from Sunrise Mart

Another important element of Japan Week is the sister station agreement between Grand Central and Tokyo Station, according to Masaki Ogata, Vice Chairman of East Japan Railway Company.

“This first sister station agreement between the United States and Japan can affirm the friendly relationship between both stations, symbolizing the industry of their respective countries,” says Ogata, “and also can further the bilateral flow of railroad knowledge and tourism between your country and Japan.”

Ogata went on describe Japan’s extensive railway system, which eclipses the US in number of passengers (17 million a day in the eastern part of Honshu alone), integration with various private railroad companies (204 railroads and 7 railroad groups), and efficiency (one train every four minutes).

Japan’s railway system is constantly improving, trying to make travel within the country as smooth as possible. This system, says Ogata, “Links cities with cities, people with nature and scenery . . . links people with people, and hearts with hearts.”

It wasn’t a train that linked Michael Romano’s heart to Japan; it was virtually everything about the country. The Director of Culinary Development for Union Square Hospitality Group, Romano is an award-winning chef whose Union Square Tokyo in the tony Tokyo Midtown complex opened in 2007. His love affair with Japan began much earlier, as he recounted in an often rambling, but passionate, speech during the seminar.

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Michael Romano and his custom Japanese knife

His appreciation for not only Japan’s culinary culture but for the nuances of hospitality and customer service, respect for seasonality, and attention to detail was evident in each sentence. He sees Japan as a place of traditional beauty that lives simultaneously with modern technology.

Part of that traditional beauty was demonstrated during the seminar with special guests Fumio Suzuki and Nobuaki Tomita. Suzuki is a Shimada-style hairstylist. Shimada City in Shizuoka Prefecture near Mt. Fuji was a stopping point for shogunate traveling from Edo (now Tokyo) to Kyoto on the Tokaido during the Edo Era. (The Tokaido route is now a major line for the Shinkansen bullet train.)

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Fumio Suzuki demonstrates Shimada-style Hairstyle

Suzuki specializes in the hairstyle for women and teenage girls of that era, including the wives of the shogunate. The “Shimada Mage” hairstyle is a chignon that separates a section of hair from the bun and puts it in a big roll on the center of the head. These days, this hairstyle is mainly reserved for geisha, maiko (apprentice geisha), and brides on their wedding day. Suzuki will demonstrate the style, which can take 90 minutes to create, on the Japan Week stage today and tomorrow.

Kimono designer Nobuaki Tomita will hold a kimono show today and tomorrow. The dynamic stylist explained that he uses unconventional ingredients such as miso, green tea, and champagne to create the dyes for his kimono fabric. He is part of a dying breed, as fewer people wear kimono these days, but when he dressed a model in two different styles of kimono, one can definitely see how these garments are considered art forms.

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Kimono designer Nobuaki Tomita (right)

You can see Suzuki and Tomita demonstrate their specialties while enjoying ekiben, sampling sake at the Tachinomiya (stand-up bar), and learning about Japanese culture at Japan Week. Stop by Grand Central today and tomorrow to discover Japan in New York.

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Models showing off their kimono and Shimada Mage