The hunt for ramen in Tokyo
A few restaurants I like, personally tested: eating ramen in Tokyo
The door is closed. Inexplicably, but undeniably closed. After dreaming for hours of tasting a new bowl of ramen, now I find myself in a little street in Kita-Senju, in front of a closed restaurant with my belly rumbling. The opening times I had read were obviously wrong and Matador Ramen, one of the few restaurants in Tokyo (if not the only one) serving noodles in a beef-based broth, won’t open for a few hours: it means that I have to leave with an utter disappointment.
In Tokyo I will find for sure another way to fill my belly, and well, there isn’t a better city in which to be hungry. But this is yet another proof that the hunt for the best ramen requires commitment: train trips around the city, long queues, and some failures have to be taken into account.
If you love ramen, Tokyo can be your heaven, with a huge number of restaurants, all of them with their original recipe. As an example, the author of the Ramen adventures blog has tried and reviewed 900 restaurants, and they are just a fraction. The competition is tough and tastes are subjective, so you can never really trust any chart or list. Try to compare the lists of Time Out Tokyo, Tsunagu Japan, Lucky Peach, Ramen Adventures, or the one based on Tabelog reviews. Very few restaurants are named more than once.
A short guide to ramen
The name Ramen (ラ ー メ ン) indicates a dish of humble origins, basically noodles served in a soup. Imported from China, it became one of the most popular dishes in Japan. Recently the first ever Michelin star was awarded to a ramen restaurant called Tsuta, in Tokyo. What makes every bowl different is the soup: every restaurant has its own recipe for the broth. The soup can contain different proportions of meat (chicken or pork, typically) fish, vegetables, soy sauce and miso.
The main styles are misoramen (miso-based), shoyu (soy sauce-based), tonkotsu (made from pig bones); there is also the more traditional style, called shina soba or chuka soba with a lighter broth. Then there are the noodles, which can be thick, curly, smooth. And sometimes are served separately, in the tsukemen variant.
The restaurants are usually open from breakfast to very late, though some of the best restaurants close for a few hours in the afternoon. However, they are quite small and in some famous places it’s almost impossible to wait less than forty minutes in a queue.
When you enter you are often faced with a vending machine: you choose what you like (sometimes there are pictures, other times there’s just the name in Japanese), pay, take the ticket and hand it over to somebody behind the counter. In general, not always, the recommended dish is in the top left corner. When in doubt, go top left!
Prices for a bowl vary between 500 and 1000 yen. Many restaurants also have gyoza (meat dumplings) and chahan (fried rice) in their menus.
5 – Hakata Tenjin (Shinjuku and pretty much everywhere in Tokyo)
Maybe it’s just because it was the first experience with ramen, or because sometimes I just want a cheap and tasty bowl without having to wait for an hour in a queue, but I am really fond of the Hakata Tenjin chain. The first time I walked into the tiny restaurant on the outskirts of Kabukicho I was a bit scared. Japan was still uncharted territory for me and it took some courage to open the plastic curtain and enter this small world of men curved on their bowls, slurping noodles at an unbelievable pace. Then I sat on a stool, ordered the cheapest dish, just 500 yen, and a bowl of creamy tonkotsu ramen that instantly made me feel at home.
Getting there: Hakata Tenjin is a chain with many restaurants throughout the city. You can recognize it from the plastic curtains (in the style of the restaurants in Hakata/Fukuoka, in southern Japan), and the logo with a pig. What I have described in the post is in the street connecting Shinjuku station (East exit), with Kabukicho. It’s on the left.
4 – Rokurinsha (Tokyo Station)
Some of the best restaurants are inside the stations, as strange as it may sound to a westerner. But it makes sense, as almost everybody goes through many stations every day in Tokyo. And at Tokyo Station there’s an entire area devoted to ramen restaurants. It hosts eight places, chosen among the best in the city: it’s called, quite predictably, Ramen street. The eight ramen-ya are all very good, but the longest lines are in front of Rokurinsha. You’ll be lucky if you wait less than forty minutes.
The restaurant specializes in tsukemen. The noodles are very thick and the soup is tonkotsu style (with some chicken and katsuoboshi, dried tuna), incredibly creamy. I have tried the signature dish of the restaurant, Ajitama tsukemen, served with a seasoned boiled egg. The broth was a little less warm than I would have liked it to be (maybe it was a mistake?), but I vividly remember those flavours and the textures. It should mean something.
Getting there: Follow the signs to the Yaesu side of the station and take a lift or the stairs to the lower level (B1F). You will find yourself inside a shopping mall. The signs pointing to Ramen street are scarce: if you can’t find it, just ask. Here is a link to a nice review. In the station, but in a different place, there is also a vegan ramen restaurant!
3 – Ginza Kagari Ramen (Ginza)
⇒ UPDATE Ginza Kagari is closed at the moment, will reopen april 2018 in a different location
It ‘strange to find a ramen restaurant in Ginza, where it’s easier to find a starred sushi restaurant or an expensive boutique. But this place is a completely different type of ramen restaurant. There is no sign, but an enigmatic writing, ‘Soba’. Under it there is usually an orderly yet rather monstrous queue (be prepared to wait an hour or so if you arrive after 11).
If you make it to the end, you will be rewarded with an outstading bowl of noodles, that I discovered thanks to the Yukari Sakamoto blog. The signature dish here is the tori paitan: very thin noodles in a chicken broth – no pork or fish – very thick and tasty (rather fat, but in ramen is the norm). The toppings are also special: ajitama (seasoned egg), seasonal vegetables, mushrooms, Kyoto bamboo shoots.
The alternative is the niboshi shoyu soup, made with soy sauce and dried sardines. There is also tsukemen, with thicker noodles.
Getting there: the main restaurant is next to Ginza Station (Tokyo, Chuo-ku, 4-4-1 Ginza, from 11 to 22.30 – closed between 15.30 and 17). Closed on Sundays, as many restaurants. There is a second restaurant in the station, in an area called Echika, near the Marunouchi entrance (queues should be shorter here).
2 – Kaduya (Meguro)
It was the Tokyo fixer, Shinji Nohara, that took me to this seemingly anonymous restaurant, hidden in the greyness of Meguro. It might have looked anonymous, but the taste here had great personality. Its ramen is shina soba style with a very clear soup, mixed with chicken and fish broth, very balanced. Don’t miss the dumplings (yude gyoza, boiled or yakigyoza, grilled). And if you are very hungry ask for the ramen with wonton, another type of dumplings, served in the broth.
How to get there: it’s in Meguro, not too far from Fudo-Mae Station.
Kaduya is on a large avenue parallel to the Nakameguro canal. Here is a map. Review on Eataku (where it’s called Katsuya. I believed too that was the name the first time I went there).
1 – Fu-unji (Shinjuku)
My friend Ayano knows I like ramen. I just arrived from the airport in Tokyo, badly jet-lagged and we are going to eat straight away with a friend of her and her little daughter. She is taking us to a place she wants us to try, a few minutes walk from Shinjuku Station. We arrive in front of a door, a few steps below the level of a nondescript alley. You don’t get to this restaurant by chance.
There is the usual queue, which doesn’t seem too long until the sliding door opens and I see with horror that it continues inside. Fuunji is so small, a dozen seats or so, that you literally queue behind the people eating. Looking at their bowls is ideal for studying the options, even if the choice is very simple. The choice it’s between ramen and the very popular tsukemen (950 and 1000 yen). And you can choose between three sizes for your bowl, all at the same price, namimori (small), chuumori (average) and oomori (big).
The place is famous for tsukemen, but I choose ramen: I miss it too much and it’s winter, I want all my food to be warm. Ayano sits with her child and the cook immediately gives her a small bowl for the child. “I will be able to come here even when I will have a son”, I think with relief while tasting the dense, creamy broth. The soup is made with chicken and a little bit of fish for an extra punch. It’s delicious. Maybe it’s just the jet lag, but I get goose bumps. Ramen restaurants in Tokyo are many, but I already know that here I will come again.
Getting there: This is the map. 2-14-3, Yoyogi, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, Japan (ten minute walk from JR Shinjuku Station, south exit). Hours: 11-15; 17-21. Closed on Sundays, as many restaurants. A review (in English) with some more photos.
Check out the chapter on ramen in my ebook Horizon Japan