It’s been cold enough recently in Tokyo, and on this particular Friday night there is a brutal, healthy cold blowing through the streets of Shibuya.
I knew I was going to try a new ramen place tonight, so I ate a small breakfast and made sure to work up a hunger walking around the city. I inhaled the brisk Tokyo air, chilled my bones in order to prime myself for the steaming reward at the end of the day.
Ichiran is famous among Tokyo-ites. I first heard about it a few months ago, from a Tokyo-native friend of mine, and ever since then I had become obsessed with trying the ramen at Ichiran. Ichiran is no ordinary ramen shop, you see -it is a custom, made-to-order restaurant where they take their food seriously. Remember the Soup Nazi on Sienfield? This place is just that kind of thing, minus the temperamental head chef.
Down the steps emblazoned with yellow footprint markings to keep the cue in order, we enter the B1 floor and look over the meal ticket machine.
Surprisingly few options are available here – no choice of miso, shio or shoyu here you get the house specialty soup, which I found later to be a tonkotsu soup.
I hit the button for “Ramen”, about ¥725, and one for a slice of slow-roasted pork (Chashyu) on top, another ¥100, and head inside.
Tonight the line is surprisingly short – compared to the stories I had heard about this place being cued out the door and up the steps – tonight there’s only about seven people ahead of us. It’s fairly quiet inside, people seem pensive, as if awaiting a film premiere. Everyone’s eyes are trained on two columns of red lights, each one representing an occupied seat.
Behind two curtained doors is a long row of stalls, each one separated on each side, like tiny library booths. One of the lights turns blue, signifying an opened spot, and the next guy in cue steps into the corridor to sit down. Outside the entrance a sign estimates the wait time at about one minute per person.
I wonder why it’s so quiet.
“Apparently you’re not supposed to chat, or bring in children and you have to turn off your cell phone,” my friend tells me, noting the regime of Ichiran ettiquette.
We reach the end of the cue, and at once two blue lights come up. I see a couple get up and walk out. Who in the hell would take a date here? My friend and I get two spots right next to each other, not like it really matters. We didn’t come here to chat. This is purely about enjoying a cuisine some three hundred years in the making.
As soon as I take off my coat a slip of paper slides out from beneath the curtain in front of me, giving me a list of options in kanji, many of which I don’t recognize. After deciphering a few of the characters, a translated english form is passed underneath the curtain. Wow, how accommodating.
Noodle hardness, noodle width, soup flavor strength, oiliness, spiciness and amount of green onions desired are the basic options to choose from, and these are designated between one and five, hardest to softest, no spice to spiciest, etc.
Since this is my first time at Ichiran, I shoot straight down the middle. I want to try the futsu ramen, the standard bowl without any extremities. This way everything is balanced, and I can figure out to what extremes I want to take it to next time. Most ramen shops just have their special qualities that never change – one shop always has skinny, hard noodles, another has really garlicy soup, etc.
I tap the red square which lights up next to my own personal water tap, and the sheet gets swept away. Maybe three minutes pass before I hear “Shitsureishimasu” and a steaming bowl of the standard ramen is brought before my eyes by disembodied hands, the curtain is shut all the way, and now it’s just me and my ramen. Japanese koto music adds the soundtrack as I soak in the sight and smell of the ramen, the green onions, the chashyu floating on top. I ceremoniously part my chopsticks and take a few slurps of the soup to get my taste buds ready. The soup is good – a poweful tonkotsu flavor with enough garlic and spice.
This is always the best thing to do before digging in – sampling the soup is a good way to measure the quality of a ramen shop, and may be enough to make your taste buds take precedence over everything, so the rest of you essentially disappears and you are just a mouth sucking in air and noodles and soup. I believe this is what the ramen experience is all about, and why it is such a ritual obsession here in Japan. Without getting overly sentimental about it, it is an experience that borders on food ecstasy, if there is such a thing. And the Japanese know all about this, just watch the 1985 Juzo Itami film “Tampopo,” and you will understand just how passionate people are about food in this country.
Although the main reason for people to come here may be the flavor of the soup, it is just as likely that they come here for seclusion and a place to sit and let the whirl from the outside world settle down inside of them, and enjoy fully the undisturbed pleasure of their tailor-fit ramen, the one they have been imagining all day.
However, if you are looking for Shio (salty seafood) Shoyu (Soy Sauce) or Miso flavored soup, you will be disappointed. You had better keep looking until you find a shop you like, that has your favorite bowl and stick to that. For those of us who will continue adventuring until we’ve tried everything, then this is a good first stop to aquaint the unseasoned ramen eater with what’s available.
And in keeping with my adventurous style, I fill out a box on the wrapper of my chopsticks and get an extra order of noodles, which come out quickly – this time I try a degree harder noodle – and slip them into what’s left of my soup. At the end of this I am way too full, a feeling I have not had since living in America, and I still cannot part with the soup. This place is good, but may be dangerous. Overall, a place where it only takes one helping of noodles to be satisfied is what I am looking for.