Friday, August 14, 2009

Serious Ramen!

For many Americans accustomed to packages of instant ramen being sold at a dollar a dozen, it's hard to see the dish as anything more than a college student staple. And before I came to Japan I felt pretty much the same way, wondering how Japanese people could be so willing to fork over the usual $6-10 sticker price for a bowl of noodles.

Mind you that was before I came to Japan.


Now that I've had the real thing, ramen has actually grown on me to such an extent that I've probably eaten more of those curly yellow noodles than any other dish available in this country.

Relatively cheap, incredibly tasty and filling, but far from healthy, ramen is to Japan what hamburgers are to the US. Ramen shops are ubiquitous not just near train stations but everywhere, both in the city and out in the boonies. Ramen shops line the intersections by the dozen at highway exits and rest stops. Babies are weaned onto the noodles. University cafeterias would face sit-ins should ramen fail to appear on the menu. And drunken businessmen, swaying, zigzagging arms-over-shoulders down the sidewalk in twos and fours, are driven by forces beyond their control towards steaming bowls of ramen before catching that last train home.

What I love the most about ramen is how it varies by region. Different areas have their own unique mixture of toppings and soup flavors, and every shop that makes its own noodles will have a unique taste, appearance and texture to its noodles. Expect many posts on ramen in this blog, as I hope to show you some of my favorite places for each variety.

For today, I just wanted to make the point that ramen can and should be taken seriously.

It can even be taken too seriously, as evidenced by the first ramen restaurant to grace this blog: Ichiran.

Ichiran is a chain from Fukuoka, the biggest city on the island of Kyushu that's about 500km south-west from where I live. I mentioned earlier about ramen having many different flavors. Well, one of them is tonkotsu, which has a thick broth made by boiling pork bones for hours. Fukuoka is the capital of tonkotsu ramen in Japan, and all of the best tonkotsu ramen restaurants either started there or can only be found there. Ichiran is one of these.

There's only one Ichiran in Osaka, along the Dotombori River near Shinsaibashi station:

Ichiran ramen

View Larger Map

Ichiran Ramen, Dotombori
Inakasoba Building
Souemoncho 7-18, Chuo-ku
Phone: 06-6212-1805
一蘭 道頓堀店
大阪府大阪市中央区宗右衛門町7−18 田舎そばビル

Now, why is Ichiran too serious, you ask?

It begins unostentatiously enough, with this simple machine to buy tickets for the ramen and whatever extra toppings/side dishes you might want (this type of system is common in Japan, not just at ramen restaurants):

The happiness machine

So far, so good. Just put in your 1000 yen note, push on this button, and you're ready to roll.

This is the button you want

But wait a second.

Step closer inside and you'll find not a open space full of tables where groups of friends, families and couples enjoy their noodles together. Oh no siree.

Instead, you find yourself in a narrow, dimly-lit hallway, with a solitary row of silent figures stooped over bowls of noodles, grim as professors, deciphering ancient texts by candle-light in a medieval library.

Serious ramen

This unique eating style actually isn't by choice. It's part of the rules. As stated on the restaurant's English-version website, the "Taste Counter," complete with a bamboo curtain between you and the kitchen and a dividing board between you and the next customer, allows you to "focus on the flavors of your ramen without having to worry about anything that's happening around you." Talking is strongly discouraged.

Once you're assigned to your own "taste counter," you find yourself in a small cubicle looking something like this:

Taste counter

What's that piece of paper and pen for, you ask. Well, you didn't think serious ramen came in one-size-fits-all did you? Using the order sheet, you can choose the strength of the flavor, the thickness of the broth, how much garlic is added, the type of green onion, whether you want Chashu pork or not, how much of the "secret" spicy red sauce you want added on top, and how soft/hard you want the noodles to be.

Order form

As you can see I tend to go all out with mine, making it as thick, spicy, and garlicky as possible. Now you know my secret to staying healthy. And single.

Once the ordering process is done, you need only wait a couple of minutes before a piping hot bowl like this is politely offered via the bamboo screen, which is closed again once you accept the bowl.

The main event

Now it's time to get serious and dig into this bowl of noodles!

The first bite

Well, what do you think? Do I look like I have the appropriate level of solemnity for the occasion?

Trying to eat them seriously

Ichiran noodles are great and the experience of eating "serious ramen" should not to be missed. However, there are plenty of better noodle shops out there, so I hope you're looking forward to seeing more of them in upcoming posts!


  1. You haven't had Ichiran until you've had it in Fukuoka!
    And you know the real reason for the blinds, don't you? It's so that chicks won't be too embarrassed to eat there--true story.
    Craig C.

  2. Oh man, I'm going to need to visit YOU next time I'm in Japan. My dad has been making me real ramen since I was a kid, so I know the real from the fake (though I have a special place in my heart for the instant—especially the Nissin チーキン ramen with the little chicken and egg on the package!).

    For the longest time, I preferred udon, but I've been a ramen convert for a couple years now. Sadly, though, I've never had tonkotsu ramen, and I feel like dying a little because of that. Thanks for making me hungry before going to bed. You should have called this blog, "Damn You, Joe, Now I'm Starving".

  3. Damn you're makin' me hungry Joe.

  4. Craig, I've heard that and read it on the website but I've never met a woman here that was too embarrassed to eat ramen, so it doesn't really make sense to me.

    Scoutie, I live about a 10 minute bike ride away from the Nisshin Ramen Museum:

    I actually live in the same part of Osaka where Instant Ramen was first invented ^^

    Funny you mention udon.... It took me the longest to get into udon of any of the Japanese noodles, but now I totally love it! And there's an amazing udon shop downtown that will more than likely be my next blog entry ^^

  5. Women were a lot more embarrassed back then, so it makes sense as for 1960--what with the not having to be seen horking down noodles or heard ordering extra garlic.

  6. Ramen museum?