By Michael Frank / Photography by Andréa Fazzari
There are more than 7,100 ramen shops in Tokyo. Many only have counters – no chairs or stools and little ambience. But in Japan, even the humblest meal revered. Overlooking the country’s modest bowls of soup would be a mistake.
While ramen joints are becoming more popular in the U.S., with some beloved Japanese chains opening outposts, there is nothing like your first bowl in Tokyo. “Everyone has their go-to spot that they swear by,” says Manhattan-based Virtuoso travel advisor Aaron Nir. “The only way to fully appreciate the almost spiritual allure of ramen for the Japanese is to stand in line and wait with anticipation at the latest, greatest, ‘secret’ ramen shop.”
In a way, the noodle soup is the essence of modern Japan – a relatively new cuisine, only becoming popular post-WWII – and it has undergone tremendous experimentation and creative reinvention in the last decade. That’s one reason young Japanese love ramen: It’s playful, approachable, and brimming with flavor. For travelers, it’s a great introduction to local life and reveals a side of Japan that’s ritualized, but without formalities. Here are five essential ramen-ya (ramen shops) in a variety of styles and locations around the city.
World’s Best $10 Meal: Kagari Ramen
Don’t sweat the menu (which is available in English) – just order the tori-paitan soba, with roasted chicken breast and a soft-boiled egg. This may be the richest, most delicious bowl of “chicken soup” you’ll ever encounter, with a dense broth, perfectly al dente noodles, and an egg so silken you’ll swear it’s actually some kind of custard. Pro tip: Arrive at 11 AM or after 3 PM to avoid lines. Ginza Station near the entrance to the Marunouchi subway line.
For Night Owls: Nantsuttei
Visit Nantsuttei in the Shinagawa district between 9 and 11 PM, when locals linger in the cozy space and socialize over bowls of ramen. If Shinagawa isn’t convenient, Nantsuttei has multiple locations around Tokyo. Its signature is southern Japanese Kyushu-style ramen with mayu oil made from lard and roasted garlic. The pork-based broth is cloudy rather than clear, but it’s not thick and comes with smoky, Chinese-style char siu (barbecued pork) that gives Texas pit masters a run for their money. Outside the Shinagawa Shinkansen station.
Young Gun: Nanashi Ramen
Nanashi has a ten-store presence in and around Tokyo, but its slightly upscale location in Shibuya – a Tokyo neighborhood famed for nightlife, shopping, and youth culture – provides great people-watching in the evening. Read over the English-language menu until you spot baisen, redolent of roasted garlic and sesame oil, with traditional thinner, Hokkaido wheat noodles. This is a bowl that’s filling, but not over-the-top rich. Dogenzaka-dori Avenue, four blocks west of Shibuya Station, across the street from Uniqlo.
“Ramen is considered fast food in Japan – albeit gourmet fast food. When your bowl arrives, it’s customary to take a few sips using the spoon before you dig in, to show deference to the chef, kind of like tasting fine wine for a sommelier before you drink it down.”
– Aaron Nir, Virtuoso travel advisor, New York City
Cult Following: Ramen Jiro
With 30-plus stores in the Tokyo area, Ramen Jiro has garnered generations of devoted aficionados since opening its original Mita shop in 1968. The chain uses bread flour for its noodles, which makes them chewy and extra filling – and also addictive, since their sturdy consistency holds up better as you slurp. The shoyu pork broth is to-the-last-drop delicious, with slabs of sliced pork that taste almost bacon-y. Bowls come topped with a healthy dose of chopped garlic, bean sprouts, and grated cabbage. The large portions are huge; select the smallest servings or risk being overwhelmed. The Shinjuku Kabukicho location is one block west of Seibu-Shinjuku Station.
Sea Change: Tsukiji Yajima
Tokyo’s densely packed fish market, Tsukiji, has many ramen-ya serving seafood-based soups. On the market’s edge, ten-seat Yajima offers wonderfully briny oyster (kaki), clam (hamaguri), and wonton options. The soups taste more Chinese, with thinner noodles and seafood broths that are lighter and less caloric than pork-soy concoctions, and most come topped with garlic scapes or leeks and other greens. Like many of Tsukiji’s food vendors, this one runs on a fishmonger’s schedule and is open from 4:30 AM to 1 PM. Southeast corner of Tsukiji Market.
Ramen 101: Need-to-know info for your first bowl in Tokyo.
Take your ticket: Almost all ramen-ya have a ticket vending machine at the entrance; this is where you order. The machines usually display photos of each dish, but if not, look to see what others are having, find an attendant, point to indicate what you want, and have the attendant push the right button. Pay in cash – they rarely accept cards – and hand the ticket to the waitperson or chef.
Chashu ramen – essentially, barbecued or braised pork served atop noodles in a soy-based broth – is a good standby at most ramen-ya. And don’t forget an order of gyoza (fried dumplings) to start things off.
Japanese diners slurp their ramen. This helps dissipate the heat of the broth clinging to the noodles and lets you eat quickly, before the noodles lose their texture. It’s a bit of an art to slurp neatly – many shops have disposable bibs (ask for a yodare kake).
Bring your best chopstick skills, as you likely won’t find a place that offers forks. (By the way, it’s considered poor form to stab your food.)
Supleks.jp ranks a massive directory of ramen-ya nationwide and plots them on Google Maps. It’s in Japanese, but Chrome and similar browsers can auto-translate entries.