Ekiben Hitoritabi, Vol. 1

By Kan Sakurai and Jun Hayase. Released in Japan by Futabasha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Manga Action. Released in the United States by Futabasha on the JManga website.

Given that JManga is trying to release various types of manga that would not normally be licensed in North America, it was inevitable that we would get a manga devoted to food. Yes, we’ve seen over the top titles such as Yakitate!! Japan and Iron Wok Jan, and Viz even managed to punch out a few volumes of Oishinbo, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Japan loves its food, and loves to read manga about people talking about it. And with Ekiben Hitoritabi, we get cross-pollination with another Japanese obsession… trains.

Our hero, Daisuke, has just celebrated his 10th anniversary, and is quite happy running a bento shop with his wife Yuko. She has noticed, however, that he gets a wanderlust in his eyes when he reads train magazines. And so for an anniversary present, she buys him a railway journey – a trip around Japan, on various slow trains (many of which don’t exist anymore, which shows how fast Japan is modernizing, as this manga began in 2006) which will allow him to see the countryside, obsess about trains, and eat various specialty bentos made by the locals.

Train bentos are genuinely famous in Japan, and each station stop tries to make theirs unique and appealing for the weary traveler. Of course, Yuko is not going with him on this trip – someone has to stay behind and run the business. So we see Daisuke set off alone to marvel at scenery, engines and food. About three chapters in, the author recalls what magazine this runs in, and adds a cute girl reporter, Nana, who is tracking down a story and runs into Daisuke on the train. Coincidentally, she also runs into him later in the volume, and serves the purpose of being the designated female in this manga – as well as being equally obsessed with food. She’s not as obsessed with trains, which allows Daisuke to spout the odd bit of history throughout.

Most manga like this run the risk of being dry, and indeed there were several times in this volume that I wanted something to happen other than talking about trains and food. There’s not really a plot here beyond seeing Daisuke going from station to station. And though he occasionally eyes Nana while sweating slightly, or begs forgiveness of his wife in his head for doing so, there’s honestly no indication that he and Nana are destined to have an affair – a good thing given he’s on an anniversary trip given to him by his wife! No, we aren’t heading forward, we’re meandering.

On the other hand, if you are interested in trains or Japanese train bentos, this is a treasure trove. The food is lovingly depicted and described, and you can tell that the authors had a ball researching this. Enthusiasm for the food is tempered by a melancholy nostalgia when discussing the trains, as invariably they start talking about various trains and lines which are defunct, or have been replaced solely by high speed rail. When we do see a unique train car, it’s drawn with the same attention to detail as the food – there’s honestly quite a good balance between the two obsessions here.

Artwise, aside from the food and the trains, things are fairly stiff. The faces aren’t quite as hard to get used to as Oishinbo, to be fair. Daisuke is a stocky, bearded guy, very appropriate for his profession and love of food. (Another manga by the author in the 1990s, about fishing, also featured a stocky bearded guy with a hot wife – methinks I can guess what the author looks like.) Nana is cute rather than sultry, and I’m hoping in future volumes the two develop a brother-sister type bond – though this does run in Manga Action, which features at least three series I know of with lovingly depicted adultery in them, so who knows?

I enjoyed this manga, but let’s be honest – unless you’re really interested in bentos or trains, you won’t find much here. It’s a narrow market, but plays to that market with all the strength it’s got. And yes, after reading it, you WILL be hungry.