The Ramen Chronicles

A LAYER OF FOG LINGERED ABOVE THE NEIGHBORHOOD of Suganami as if on the brink of a soft rain. It was a quiet midweek morning. Locals rode bikes past us on their way to work or were hurrying to catch the next train into Tokyo’s city center.

The air was cold and made us pick up our pace, it was perfect ramen weather. I was in Suganami City, a neighborhood about thirty minutes from Tokyo Station with a fellow self-proclaimed student of ramen, my best friend Morgan. Our plan was to get to Uchoku Ramen about thirty minutes before it opened to claim a spot in line.

In Japan, when the owner of a store or restaurant hangs up the noren, that beautiful fabric which hangs in front of the door, it signifies the store is open for the day. The ramen faithful will be waiting in line when the noren is hung. This is known as “opening up the shop,” and at one of the best ramen shops in Tokyo, we knew we had to get there early.

We got there around 10:30am and were greeted by a handful of people waiting for the doors to open. This is typical in Japan, as the best ramen shops usually have dedicated patrons waiting to be the first customers of the day.

Uchoku Ramen, Suganami City
Uchoku Ramen, Suganami City

Some did a double take as we approached the store, as if somewhat surprised to see us non-Japanese up early and outside of the city center. But with about half a month already in Japan, we weren’t novices anymore. We knew we had to travel to find the ramen that makes Tokyo the food capital of the world. Hopping on a crowded train from Shibuya seeking out exceptional ramen amongst the jungle of skyscrapers and ancient shrines seemed like the greatest scavenger hunt in the world.

As we went to claim a couple of waiting seats, a woman emphatically directed us to continue down the road. Mo and I looked at each other, as if the other might understand what she was saying, however we both shook our heads unsure. Where was she sending us?

We cautiously walked around the block, not knowing what exactly we were looking for. We craned our necks from side to side looking for anything abnormal. I expected a secret window into a dimly lit kitchen, a glimpse of the chef throwing animal parts in a massive vat of broth to stir like a medieval witch. Nothing. We returned to the front of the store defeated, as if we’d missed the point. The scene reset.

The woman urged us around the corner, her hand signals getting more animated. “Wakaramasen!” we nervously muttered, I don’t understand! In typical Japanese courtesy, she stood up and walked us a quarter mile down the road, where in front of a chain link fence and a couple parking spots stood six people standing in another line, waiting to be called to the seating area at the store front. Of course. We got in line and patiently waited, smirking at each other. This is what we came for.

Many cultures have their go to working class food, a staple dish that makes lunch in the middle of the day a worthwhile respite from the daily grind. Ramen is different. There’s no bad time for Ramen, as it’s just as acceptable in the morning to warm up the soul after a big night as it is for lunch. Ramen after a night out is essential, when a hot bowl of soup with handmade noodles is akin to a gift from the heavens. In Japan there’s a profound ramen culture, and with so many styles and variations, there’s a perfect bowl out there for everybody.

We’re lucky to live in Los Angeles which is known to have some of the most authentic ramen outside of Japan. Regardless of the worldwide ramen trend, Tokyo is undoubtably the ramen capital of the world. Every neighborhood has a decent ramen shop, and in Tokyo’s core it seems like there are hundreds to choose from.

However, much of the best ramen lies outside of the city center, where rent is cheaper and the owner can focus on buying the best ingredients. There’s an enriching culture to explore far beyond the chain restaurants that are found all over town. We wanted to blow the lid off of this city and uncover it all.

The ingredients are relatively simple. There are the essentials — broth, noodles, a soft boiled egg, pork or chicken, vegetables and other miscellaneous toppings. However, the way these ingredients are prepared, their origins, the consistency and depth of the broth, the hardness and type of noodle, these can vary so widely that you can truly eat ramen every day for a month (as we did), although probably for a year, and never have the same experience.

Wontonmen in Shimokitazawa
Wontonmen in Shimokitazawa

There’s wontonmen (ramen with dumplings) and tsukemen, a traditional style of dipping chilled noodles into hot soup.

There is salt based broth, soy broth and miso broth. There’s brothless ramen, there are variations of stock, either seafood, chicken or pork.

Of course, many regions of Japan have their own styles and traditions. We were in Suganami City to try Uchoku’s famed tsukemen.

At 11am, a cook came lightly jogging down the alley from the shop wearing all white with a white bandana wrapped tightly around his head. He wasn’t frantic, he gave a slight bow and waved us to follow him. It felt like we were guests at some billionaire’s mansion, and his faithful butler had just invited us to the first grand dinner.

The ten or so of us formed a single file line and followed him down the street to the shop like a row of school kids. Everyone seemed to be taking the moment seriously, as if the fact that we were in a line following this cook to the restaurant wasn’t absurd, because here, it wasn’t.

Eventually I couldn’t help but grin from ear to ear, in reality this moment was surreal. As we arrived at the seating area in front of the shop the first customers of the day were ushered through the flowing white noren. We realized they must have been there over an hour early, including the wonderful woman who helped us.

As you enter most ramen shops, you’ll find a vending machine to place your order while you wait. It’s the most efficient way to order as it keeps customers moving in and out of the shop without wasting time.

Columns of buttons with a few Japanese symbols make up the menu, however there are rarely pictures. The top left option is usually the classic dish the shop is known for. When in doubt, as we often were, punch that top left button and expect a tried and true glorious bowl. A small ticket with your order will pop out of the machine to give to the chef when seated.

We had prepared for this. We found a picture of the vending machine online and used Google Translate to decipher the enigmatic menu. We both made our decision on what to order so when the time came, we’d be ready. There wasn’t any room for error. The door slid open and the cook called us in. We ducked through the veil and looked at the menu. Oh no…It was different. What do we do? Careful not to lose our cool we knew at this point it was every man for himself. Top left it is.

The shop was quiet, save the sound of clanking chopsticks, slurping noodles and the symphony of the chef behind the bar working his craft. The shop was small as they often are, with about 10 to 12 seats surrounding the open kitchen, the domain of the chef. Ramen is a rather solitary experience. Maybe it’s because your sitting looking at the chef, or because the food is often too good to stop and talk. Either way, you sit, you ponder the meaning of life and you enjoy.

At the bar where the customers sit there are traditionally a set of spices, some chili oil, possibly some garlic. But to put these on before tasting the bowl as the chef intended would be a disservice.

When the ramen is excellent, the connection between the chef, his passion for the food they’ve made and the customer is practically spiritual. Like in any good restaurant, the experience comes down to more than just the food, and ramen is no different. You can tell when the ingredients are balanced and satisfying, when the shop feels tranquil and the chef cares about what he’s doing.

What makes ramen so universally appealing is the unpretentiousness of it. A ten course meal of bite sized creatively made food may be considered a real culinary expeience, but what’s the point if it isn’t accessible to everyone? Ramen on the other hand is made for everyone, the Prime Minister as well as the working class.

Black broth tsukemen near Ueno Park
Black broth tsukemen near Ueno Park

Whether at a five star restaurant or a neighborhood ramen shop, both chefs may approach the food in the same way, with an acute attention to detail and timeless technique. Each creates an experience to be savored and remembered.

We sat down at the bar and were greeted by the smiling chef. He took our tickets, and when he finished cooking, he delicately placed the simmering bowls in front of us. A head of steam rose off of the ramen as the chef subtly watched the look on our faces. Our eyes widened in anticipation, we gave a slight bow of the head, then reached out and grabbed our bowls.

This experience was one of many during our travels through Japan, but it captures the essence of the culture as good as any. We traveled around Tokyo, exploring different regions of the city all known for different shops and different styles. We waited in Ginza as rain fell on our heads, before sitting down to a bowl that would warm our spirits. Customers offered to move down a seat so our group could sit together, raising a beer in a welcoming gesture.

As tourists, we may be intimidated to try local spots in fear of embarrassing ourselves. However I believe we not only should, but must tap into the local hangouts and neighborhood stores, because a good meal alongside locals is what connects us in this world. Sometimes they may appear unfriendly, but who cares? We must at least try to break through that cultural barrier, I’ve found people often suprise us when we make the effort to connect.

In the pursuit of quality ramen, one thing remains consistent. The poise of the chef who always keeps his cool, who is in command of their store. Whether there’s a line out the door and around the block, or just a few lingering customers slurping down a bowl at an off hour, a good chef is in control, as if what they live for is the look of satisfaction and contentment on their customer’s face which says their day has been made by a quality meal.

It was a crisp sunny day in Koenji, a neighborhood in Tokyo’s urban outskirts. Yama to Ki is known for its chef who runs the shop entirely on his own, doing everything from cooking, to managing customers and cleaning.

A shokunin is an artisan highly skilled and dedicated to a single craft. Unlike a pion in a massive distinguished kitchen, a ramen master’s business may be small, but it is fully theirs.

Yama to Ki in Koenji
Yama to Ki in Koenji

This chef embodied the Japanese shokunin spirit, the passion and love of one’s craft that seems omnipresent in Japan. All over Tokyo in every distinct neighborhood, one can find an artisan up early, preparing their shop as if it was opening day, and everything must be perfect. He ran his shop unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I watched with admiration as he payed attention to the line forming outside the shop, yet he would remain focused on those that were seated, making sure their needs were met.

As we walked into the store, we noticed a few magazines turned to an article about the store, the chef’s photo on a centerfold naming his restaurant one of the best in Tokyo. He glanced at us and gave a low-key smile. It wasn’t pompous whatsoever, but it was clear he was proud of his restaurant.

In the kitchen, a good chef doesn’t waste any movement. It was as if this man had eight arms moving in fluid motion like an octopus. One shook out the water from the noodles, one cut the pork, one was throwing soap in a dish and one presented a finished bowl. Nothing was rushed, as if he never wondered what he should be doing, his body was on autopilot and never stopped moving.

I was seated between a construction worker and a businessman in a full suit. The chef placed a bowl of rice with cheese melted on top in front of the construction worker, which I’d just watched was scorched over the bowl with a blowtorch. The smell was unbelievable and filled the room. On my other side, the businessman slurped down his tsukemen with complete focus.

I didn’t know what I ordered, as the vending machine menu was in the typical full Japanese. I was praying it was tsukemen, dipping noodles. The restaurant was silent except for the comforting sounds from behind the counter of the chef bunching the handmade noodles into a ball as tight as possible, pounding them into the chopping block, then delicately dusting them out in flour like confetti. The noodles were then thrown into a simmering vat, quickly pulled out and then came the sound of a satisfying crack, the chef shaking out the noodles.

At the end of the bar, a woman was standing with a baby on her back. She hopped up and down as the child cried, but she was unfazed. This seemed normal, and nobody in the store was bothered by the crying. She stood there, slurping down her ramen and continuing to jump up and down. I, along with the chef, and probably everyone in the shop was amazed. The chef flashed her a smile and subtly said something, as if she was the real master.

This was known as one of the best ramen shops in Tokyo because of the chef, yet it was just daily life to the other customers we shared lunch with. That’s the wonder of Japan, you never know how profound an experience may be just by stumbling into a ramen shop for lunch. It gives reason to explore the unknown, to seek beauty and study the ordinary, to consider every day with a curious perspective.

The chef placed a bowl of tsukemen in front of me. Yes…

Tsukemen at Yama to ki
Tsukemen at Yama to ki
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