One thing that always amazes me about Japanese manga and anime culture is how they can take a hobby and build a story around it, getting really deep into details about that specific field of interest. One such example is Hikaru no Go which focuses on the complex board game Go, and another is basketball-themed manga Slam Dunk. There are also others which focus on a certain profession, like Yakitate Japan that involve a chef trying to make great-tasting bread. While it’s true that western works of entertainment also have many theme-based stories, I feel the Japanese ones generally have more diverse topics, and get more into the subject matter (to the extent that I would call ‘hardcore’).
This manga is a great example of such specialist works, and revolves around Daisuke, a middle-aged man, and his travels around Japan via various trains. At each mealtime, he indulges in a ‘ekiben’ (a word that derives from ‘station lunch box’) packed with delicacies of that region. As you can guess from the title, these ekibens are really the true main characters of this story. Much of this first installment involves these lunch boxes being appreciated and described in detail by Daisuke, who happens to be the owner of a Ekiben shop himself. The other focus of this story is the landscape of each region he passes through – mountains, lakes, bridges, along with sprinkling of local history for each area. There’s also a good serving of ‘train history’, where you get to learn about different train models including details of when they were introduced, decommissioned, and the type of engine they utilize.
The downside of this emphasis on food, geography, and history is that there is little plot and very simple, one-dimensional characters. Daisuke himself is not just a simple man who seems to love ekiben above all else (and has a million phrases to express how tasty they are), he is also a married man who happens to spend a great deal of time on this journey with a younger reporter girl. Lack of respect for the main character is always a big drawback for me in enjoying a story.
Linguistically, the Japanese used is a mix of everyday conversation, detailed food descriptions, and historical footnotes. The latter two can be somewhat difficult because of the number of unfamiliar names of food and places. But if you are planning to live in Japan someday it would probably benefit you to learn these sorts of things.
In sum, if you are yearning for a deep (or even average) story, look elsewhere, but if you’re looking to learn a bit about Japanese culture, especially food and geography, then this series might be perfect for you. You also get a good feeling for great diversity of each Japanese region. Train otakus (fanatics) will surely love the detailed train trivia (which an average person would skim through if not skip completely). Finally, those into well-drawn comic art might also want to peruse Ekiben Hitori Tabi, since the countryside vistas are rendered in great detail, far above the quality of an average manga book.