Japan Week: Buy A Bento Box At NYC's Grand Central Terminal And Pretend You're On A Bullet Train

This March, Grand Central will do its best impression of Tokyo Station, with demonstrations, performances and, most exciting, lots of Japanese food and drink.
02/12/2013 08:51 am ET Updated Apr 14, 2013

I live four blocks from New York's Grand Central Terminal (and regularly shop in its food market). As a local, I am often blind to events taking place there - that's the way of the world, isn't it? But having stumbled upon the reopening of the renovated Tokyo Station on a 2012 trip to Japan I somehow felt I had a personal stake in the matter when I received a press release announcing that the two rail hubs were to be declared "sister stations." I've always liked the idea of twinned cities and so forth, mainly because it makes me smile when Jackie and I drive around, say, Italy and see a sign proclaiming that Forlᅢᆲ (in Emilia Romagna) has a twin town in Poland: Plock. And if the municipal authorities take the relationship seriously there can actually be edifying cultural exchange between the siblings.

But "sister stations" was a new one on me, though this turns out not to be the world's first such pairing. Let's see what they make of it: Certainly, both century-old places are worth visiting even if you're not planning to board a train, and if this raises Tokyo Station's profile among visitors to Japan, so much the better for station and visitor alike.

Sister status will be officially announced in Grand Central's Vanderbilt Hall during a three-day Japan Week travel promotion sponsored by JNTO, the Japan National Tourism Organization. From March 19 to 21, 2013, there will be various demonstrations and performances - music, kimono, traditional makeup, puppetry, storytelling (you can look at a schedule of events on the Japan Week website). But most interesting to me are the food and drink features - and indeed it is these that relate most directly to the ways of rail travel in Japan.

Most people know that a bento box is essentially a packed lunch (or breakfast or supper), either assembled at home or bought anywhere in Japan from the corner 7-11 to the basement food department of a fancy department store. It is less well known that there's a sub-category known as ekiben ("eki" meaning railway station) sold at train stations and that some stations around the country have become famous for their ekiben featuring local and seasonal specialties and put together with considerable thought and care. Unlike travelers in the West, Japanese riders actually look forward to opening their plastic, foam or cardboard boxes and finding them filled with honest, tasty food. It's enviable, actually: Yes, you can eat reasonably well within some US stations (Grand Central, for one, has plenty of good food outlets), but for the journey itself, you're better off bringing something from home. During this promotion, ekiben devised by eight well-regarded New York Japanese restaurants and shops will be on sale.

There will also be a tachinomiya - a stand-up bar of the kind often found near Japanese stations - selling a variety of sake and shochu, with staff to explain the drinks and help you choose.

Even if you live nearby and have the habit of avoiding local events, you might want to stop by Grand Central and take the opportunity to get a sense of the kind of eating and drinking you'd be able to do if you were departing Tokyo Station on the bullet train to Osaka.

Japan Week At New York's Grand Central Terminal