On the Ramen Trail in Tokyo
Ramen is the fuel that powers the 34 million people of Tokyo. During the day, it keeps the salary-men busily typing away at their desks. At night, it provides sustenance to party-goers as they cross the sprawling metropolis. And on weekends, it offers the severely hungover savory respite from their suffering. Probably outranked only by sushi in terms of popularity, it’s hard to imagine a mealtime in Tokyo without it. But most importantly, I find that the crowded and steamy restaurants are representative of life in the city and can offer visitors a truly immersive ‘native’ experience.
Ramen has always been a favorite food of mine. However, I find that in Europe, variety is lacking — even in the bigger cities where you would expect a sizeable market to exist. For example, most places serve only tonkotsu ramen — the traditional pork broth version. Although this type is arguably the most common (and the original), there is, in fact, a lot more out there. A recent trip to Japan opened my eyes to that.
While in Toyko, I made it my mission to explore the ramen landscape as thoroughly as I could — a seemingly straightforward task in a city with over 150,000 registered restaurants. However, in such a vast and labyrinthine metropolis, it turns out that having a guide (or at least a general direction to follow) is vital to making the most out of your experience. Some of the best bowls I sampled were in restaurants that could only be described as ‘out of the way’; others were downright hidden. Either way, I would have never found most of them without the help of these two websites:
Ramen Adventures’ best of the best list is particularly useful. It offers a comprehensive cross-sectional overview of some of Tokyo’s most famous ramen establishments, all conveniently categorized, ranked and mapped out. In fact, when I spoke with my local friends about some of these places, they were invariably impressed and often remarked something along the lines of “Wow, that place is pretty well known around here. How did you even find out about it?”
As this article is intended for amateurs and first-timers, I’ll begin with a few basics before relaying my experiences in Tokyo.
Ramen is soup which contains noodles, meat and often also vegetables. In practice, there are innumerable varieties because every restaurant has a unique recipe. However, ramen can be loosely categorized by the type of broth used for the base:
- Shio (salt)
- Shoyu (soy sauce)
- Miso (fermented soy beans)
- Tonkotsu (pork)
However, as pointed out in this article by SeriousEats, the logic behind this categorization scheme is somewhat askew:
Instead, it makes much more sense to categorize ramen broth first by its heaviness, then by the soup base ingredients, and finally by the seasoning source. This classification system, used by some Japanese sources, can be combined to cover pretty much every bowl of soup-based ramen in existence.
In practice, many of the restaurants which I visited did classify their ramen based on the broth type, so I feel that the concept still deserves some merit. Furthermore, many of the Japanese you meet will likely not have a broad enough vocabulary to tell you whether a soup base is heavy or light nor will they be able to explain how it’s seasoned. But often, they will be able to tell you if the base is shoyu, miso or tonkotsu. In this situation, knowing the basics can come in handy. Lastly, keep in mind that the broth base is just that: the most basic unit of flavor. It will seldom dominate the entire bowl.
It starts with the ordering process. Most ramen restaurants will have a vending machine at the entrance where you need to buy tickets which correspond to your order — including drinks and extras. At first, I thought this was just another instance of funny but useless Japanese kink — a novelty employed by restaurants to attract customers. Later, I found out that it allows the staff to avoid handling cash. As most places do not have waiters — you order is taken by the cooks directly — this turns out to be a useful measure to protect hygiene.
Needless to say, if you don’t know the language, getting your order right can be tricky. But if you are adventurous, open-minded and can tolerate a few mistakes, figuring out the machines is actually a lot of fun. The labels on the buttons are usually in Japanese, with just a handful of places making exceptions for English translations or sometimes pictures. I noticed that the buttons are often grouped by color, usually signifying the broth type or whether it’s tsukemen (dipping noodles) or ramen. If you are having difficulties deciphering the labels, the best way to navigate these machines is by price. A bowl of ramen will usually cost between ¥ 550–850. Often it will also be possible to order a large or deluxe version for ¥ 200–300 more.
Now, where it gets fun, is with the extras. For ¥ 100–200 you will be able to select side dishes or additional ingredients for your ramen. Nori, rice (usually combined with the leftover broth) and boiled egg (this comes standard with most bowls) are among the most popular. Ordering extras adds to the experience, so I highly recommend you try it!
Often, after a few minutes of observing me plainly struggling with the ticket machine, one of my fellow diners would usually come to my aid. Occasionally, when they were too shy to offer themselves, I’d just go up to the nearest person and ask. While pointing timidly to one of the buttons, I’d nervously inquire “Ramen?”, to which they would nod enthusiastically or respond with a definitive hai.
During the week, most ramen shops fill up during lunch break — between 11:30 to 13:00. It’s common to wait in line at this time, but it will rarely take longer than 10 or 15 minutes to get a seat. Also, be aware that many ramen restaurants close when the soup runs out. This can happen surprisingly early at some of the better-known establishments. So, if you are going well out of your way to track down a particular bowl (as I often did), get there early to avoid disappointment and long queues.
Kikanbo (Kanda) [Google Maps, TripAdvisor]
With its distinct brand of spicy ramen, Kikanbo, in Tokyo’s Kanda area, was my most memorable experience. Apparently named after the giant iron rod which Japanese demons carry around (see the illustration below), it serves a bowl that is truly fiery and hellish. In addition to the great food, the place itself also has a lot of character. I particularly like the soundtrack: an infinite loop of Japanese drum music which simultaneously intimidates and encourages you. It fits perfectly with the restaurant’s underworld theme.
Located 10 minutes by foot from Kanda Station (JR line), Kikanbo actually has two separate restaurants. Somehow, this fact didn’t come across during my research — surprising, considering how thorough I thought I was. My guess is that the expansion is relatively new and probably the result of the recent surge in popularity.
The location on the corner (which you will see first as you walk from the station) only does tsukemen. Not knowing this, I casually wandered in and began my usual routine of inspecting the ticket machine — with labels entirely in Japanese of course. Apparently accustomed to confused foreigners, the staff eventually managed to get through to me that the Kikanbo ramen shop is actually next door — a few meters further down the street.
Kikanbo is famous among both locals and tourists alike. In fact, I saw more foreigners here than at any other place on my tour — which is not to say that Kikanbo was teeming with Westerners. But it was apparent that, like me, many of them had gone out of their way to come here. As one would expect of a ramen place at midday, the majority of the guests were salary-men dropping in for a quick bite.
Study the ticket machine carefully before settling on your order. You will see some unusual options such as extra coriander (which I opted for) or additional vegetables. Regardless of what you buy from the ticket machine, it won’t impact the spice level of your ramen. You arrange that directly with the cooks when you hand your tickets over.
Above the ticket vending machine, you will find a poster explaining how the spice system works. Essentially, there are two types of spice — each with four different levels of ‘hotness’. The first type is ordinary chili spice. The second is a numbing spice which comes from Sichuan pepper. I took levels three and two respectively.
As someone who eats spicy food regularly and very spicy food at least once a week, I can say that by my standards, the heat was impressive. In fact, I was sweating profusely by the time I had finished. The numbing effect of the Sichuan pepper means that you feel the full force of the spice only after you are done eating — an odd sensation at first.
The rest of the bowl is also praiseworthy. Tender meat, perfectly cooked noodles and an atypical assortment of vegetables round it off. Overall, I’d say Kikanbo is a must try for its unique ramen and due to the style and personality of the shop. Spice fiends will feel right at home here.
Konjiki Hototogisu (Hatagaya) [Google Maps, TripAdvisor]
Tucked away in Rokugo Dori, an out-of-the-way shopping mile near Hatagaya Station, the atmosphere in Konjiki Hototogisu is hush, select, almost classy. While this is unusual for most ramen restaurants, I found the break with tradition in this case to be both welcome and refreshing. It’s also a renown stop on the ramen trail, having earned several awards in its ten years of operation. The lengthy wait, even in off-peak hours, attests to this. Despite its location in a neighborhood notable for the conspicuous absence of office tower commerce, the place was still packed with the usual business types grabbing lunch. And among them, the odd ramen aficionado such as myself.
The shop itself is very nondescript and easy to pass by. Despite my phone’s GPS telling me I was basically on top of it, I still managed to run past the door several times. There aren’t many clues to go by from the outside: no obvious shop front, no readily visible signs, no windows. Look instead for a rectangular 70-centimeter tall signpost on the asphalt out front, which marks the entrance.
The ramen here is on the expensive side, (perhaps a contributing factor to the apparent air of sophistication?) but it tastes exceptional. Konjiki specializes in a light ramen called assari, which is apparently native to Tokyo. This alone is reason enough to pay it a visit in my view. I prefer lighter ramen, especially in the heat of summer, and this variant is also local to boot. The meat was exceptionally tasty — well-seasoned and with a texture akin to pulled pork. As a garnish, the thinly sliced fresh red onion combined perfectly with the meat and the broth.
I took the standard bowl but going for the ‘large’ size (just a few hundred yen extra) is not a bad idea. The ramen is light enough that the small version might leave you craving more if you are very hungry.
Tonchin (Shinjuku Kabukicho) [Google Maps, TripAdvisor]
Tonchin is one of my finds, which I came across spontaneously while making my way through Shinjuku. It serves standard tonkotsu ramen topped with thick pork slices and a generous helping of boiled mushrooms. The shop’s ample seating means that waiting probably won’t be an issue regardless of when you arrive. I was there at lunchtime on a weekday and didn’t encounter any queue to speak of. Another selling point is that the place is open until 4 AM and therefore suitable for a late night visit if you are so inclined.
Beyond that, there isn’t much to report. Decent tonkotsu ramen. Big portions. Convenient location. Open late. Worth popping into but not going out of your way for.
Sengoku Jiman (Ikebukuro) [Google Maps, TripAdvisor]
Sengoku Jiman, part of a small chain of ramen restaurants, is located between Sugamo and Sengoku stations. This is the only place where I didn’t manage to get any help with the machine, so ordering was a bit of a lottery. What I ended up with was good though — very filling, perhaps even a little too much so.
As you can see, they don’t skimp on the pork. A unique feature of this bowl were the white floating bits suspended in the broth. This is abura-age — deep fried tofu. It increases the consistency of the soup and is probably the reason why I felt so full after just a medium-sized portion. My mystery side dish were the two rice pyramids (I was hoping for an egg, but that’s the lottery system for you) which I sadly couldn’t bring myself to finish. It was simply too much food in the end.
Sengoku Jiman serves ramen that is good if not outstanding. I went out of my way to try it as I had read a number of glowing recommendations. However, the shop is located in an area that doesn’t offer much in the way of tourist attractions, meaning it will likely be a detour for most visitors. Considering this, I wouldn’t rate this place as a must. I’m sure you could find something equally appealing in a more convenient location.