Not far from Waseda University in Tokyo, around the corner from a 7-Eleven, down a tidy alley, lies a ramen shop that doesn’t look like a ramen shop. In fact, Ganko, as it’s called, doesn’t look like anything at all. There’s no sign, no windows, only a raggedy black tarp set like a tent against a tiled wall, with a white animal bone dangling from a chain to signal (somehow) what lies within.
Past the tarp and through a sliding glass door is Ganko proper. Five stools are lined up along a faux-wood counter, and above it a thin space opens like a proscenium onto a small kitchen, crusted black with age and smoke but hardly dirty. The lone performer is a ramen chef. With a week’s stubble on his chin, his eyeglasses fogged with steam and a towel wrapped around his neck, he certainly looks ganko, or stubborn, and he speaks hardly a word as he methodically fills bowls with careful dollops of flavorings and fats, ladles of rich broth, noodles cooked just al dente and shaken free of excess water, a slab of roast pork, a supple sheet of seaweed, a tangle of pickled bamboo shoots. All is silent until the final moment, when the chef drizzles hot oil on top and the shreds of pale-green scallion squeal and sizzle.
From then on there is only one sound — the slurping of noodles. Oh, it’s punctuated by the occasional happy hum of a diner chewing pork or guzzling the fat-flecked broth, or even by the faint chatter of the chef’s radio, but it’s the slurps that take center stage, long and loud and enthusiastic, showing appreciation for the chef’s métier even as they cool the noodles down to edible temperature.
And when the noodles are finally gone, the bowl empty of everything but a few oleaginous blobs, each diner sets his bowl back upon the counter, mumbles “Gochiso-sama deshita” — roughly “Thank you for the meal” — pays the 700-yen fee (about $7.85 at 89 yen to the dollar) and wanders back out into the daylight world where Ganko suddenly seems like a hallucination, a Wonderland dream of noodly bliss.
Now, you might think that Ganko would be a closely held secret — a destination I managed to uncover only through bribes, threats and tearful entreaties. But you’d be wrong. I learned about Ganko out in the open, from an English-language blog, Ramenate!, started by a Columbia University graduate student working on his Ph.D. in modern Japanese literature and, more important, cataloging his near-daily bowls of noodles.
Ramenate! is hardly the only ramen blog out there. There are dozens, many in English, many more in Japanese. Together they constitute but one small corner of Tokyo’s sprawling ramen ecosystem, a realm that encompasses multilingual guidebooks, glossy magazines, databases that score shops to three decimal places (Ganko’s underrated by RamenDB.com at 76.083), comic books, TV shows, movies (like the 1985 classic “Tampopo,” in which a Stetson-wearing trucker helps a beleaguered widow learn the art of ramen) and, according to the Shinyokohama Raumen Museum (yes, there is a ramen museum), the 4,137 shops selling bowls of noodles in broth.
Still unclear? Well, combine New Yorkers’ love of pizza, hot dogs and hamburgers, throw in some Southern barbecue mania, and you’ve still only begun to approximate Tokyo’s obsession with ramen.
This ramen is definitely not the dried stuff you subsisted on in college. At the best shops, and even at lesser lights, almost everything is fresh, handmade and artisanal, from long-simmered broths and hand-cut noodles to pigs raised on red wine (for an inside-out marinade). In some quarters, regional varieties predominate: shoyu, or soy-enhanced chicken broth (like Ganko’s), is popular throughout Honshu, Japan’s main island, but tonkotsu, or pork-bone broth, from the southern island of Kyushu has developed a widespread following, while garlicky, thick-noodled miso ramen from Sapporo, in the north, has adherents too. Elsewhere, the flavors are simply at the whim of the chef, or of ever-shifting trends.
Over six days in late November, I submerged myself in Tokyo’s ramen culture, eating roughly four bowls a day at shops both fancy and spartan, modern and ganko, trying to suss out not just what makes a good bowl but also the intricacies of ordering and eating well. Above all, I wanted to know why such a simple concoction — brought from China by Confucian missionaries in the 17th century — inspired so much passion and devotion among Japanese and foreigners alike, and to thereby gain some deeper understanding of Tokyo itself.
My guide for much of this ramen adventure was Brian MacDuckston, the 31-year-old English teacher from San Francisco behind RamenAdventures.com. Tall and pale, bald and bespectacled, Mr. MacDuckston resembles a noodle himself, and his thin, lightly tattooed figure belies the amount of ramen he’s consumed. Indeed, as he told me, he’s even lost weight during the three and a half years he’s lived in Japan — a rare feat among food bloggers.
Not that he ate much ramen at first. It was only in January 2008, after months of noticing the 45-minute lines outside Mutekiya, a trendy ramen shop in the Ikebukuro neighborhood, that he finally decided to dip his chopsticks.
“It was awesome back then,” he told me. The shop had recently been on TV, and was serving a special pork-laden ramen: “A slice of pork, and then it was stewed pork, and then it was a pork meatball, and then it was a pile of ground pork too. I couldn’t comprehend it. It was delicious, of course.”
He was hooked. He began Googling best-of lists and standing in line for hours. “That’s crazy, any way you look at it,” he said. “It’s noodles and soup, and you wait two hours for it? There’s something crazy about that.” Still, it was his kind of crazy, and since he was between jobs and surviving on unemployment insurance, he started to blog.
Today, Mutekiya’s lines remain long, but Mr. MacDuckston’s tastes have matured beyond the shop’s serviceable tonkotsu broth and slightly overcooked noodles. After Mutekiya, he became a huge fan of Nagi, a mini-chain with a branch just outside the wild, neon Shibuya shopping-and-night-life zone. As Mr. MacDuckston led me there one night, I realized the quiet neighborhood was familiar — two years earlier, I’d wandered the area with friends, searching for somewhere to eat. Little did I know we’d walked right by one of Tokyo’s better ramen shops.
It was an easy mistake to make. Nagi looks more like an exclusive drinking den than a bustling noodlery. The dining room is intimate, its walls decorated with brown-paper flour sacks, and you place your order not by buying a meal ticket from a vending machine, as is often standard, but with an actual waiter, who lets you specify just how hard (or soft) you want your noodles. We asked for ours bari — wiry — and that’s how they came, thin and deliciously mochi-mochi, the Japanese analog of al dente. They were so good, in fact, that we left soup in our bowls to flavor the kaedama, the almost requisite extra helping of noodles we’d ordered.
That soup wasn’t bad either — a tonkotsu broth, simmered for days until milky and rich — and the toppings (tender roast pork, an incredibly eggy slow-cooked egg) were top-notch, but this Nagi was all about the pasta.
At the next place Mr. MacDuckston took me to, Basanova, in a not very exciting neighborhood a few train stops west of Shibuya, the broth was definitely the star. That’s because Basanova specialized in green curry ramen, a clever adaptation of Thai flavors to Japanese tastes. It was fascinating to slurp, at once vibrant with the heat of chilies and the aromas of lemon grass and kaffir lime, but at heart a classic Japanese ramen. You won’t find this in Bangkok.
LIKE Nagi, Basanova was a nice place to relax. Sure, there was a ticket vending machine, and you ate at a stainless-steel counter, but the atmosphere invited lingering with a beer or two, and the owner didn’t mind our taking plenty of pictures. He even came over to chat, explaining that because his parents came from opposite ends of Japan — hence from vastly different ramen traditions — taking the fusion-cuisine route was a natural decision.
As we left, Mr. MacDuckston and I were followed out the door by a young woman who’d been eyeing us curiously. In the street, she identified herself as Kana Nagashima, a student just returned from a decade in Singapore who had started a ramen club at her university. Her giggly enthusiasm was delightful, and she seemed as impressed with us as we were with her. Before we moved on, she and Mr. MacDuckston exchanged contact information. Talk about meeting cute.
Another fusion dynamic was at play even farther west, at an unassuming corner shop called Ivan Ramen. Ivan is the brainchild of Ivan Orkin, a 43-year-old New York City native and former cook at Lutèce who in 2003 moved to Tokyo with his Japanese wife and son and, well, needed a job. Since “ramen’s fun,” as he told me one morning before the shop opened, his path was set. He started Ivan Ramen in 2007, and despite occasional skepticism from traditionalists it became a hit. His classics — salt and soy broths of remarkable single-mindedness — and his whimsies, like a “taco” ramen or rye-flour tsukemen (noodles served dry with broth for dipping), are so popular that he has a line of dried products in Circle K convenience stores and a line of 20-odd customers outside his door.
“One of the reasons it’s an obsession is it’s truly an everyperson’s dish,” Mr. Orkin said. “Pricewise, it’s affordable for just about anybody. It comes in a bowl, and a good bowl of ramen is balanced perfectly: the soup, the noodles, the toppings, everything works together. So when you’re eating it, even though it’s all these disparate ingredients together, somehow they feel as if you’re eating one thing.”
Nowhere did I have a more balanced bowl than at Ikaruga, where I ate with Meter Chen, a fashionable Hong Kong transplant who works in the entertainment industry and who has written a Chinese-language book about ramen, and his assistant, Naoko Yokoi. As we stood in a 20-minute line out front, Mr. Chen was hopeful — he liked Ikaruga’s logo. “You know if the taste is good or not,” he said later, by the attention the owners pay to design.
Inside, Ikaruga was bright and peaceful, with ample room between tables and counter. The cooks and waiters were bright and peaceful, too, wearing black shirts buttoned to the collar and Zenned-out smiles on their faces. This was an oasis, and I understood why it had been featured in “Girl’s Noodle Club,” a guidebook to shops that defy ramen’s stereotypically macho image.
And Ikaruga’s ramen? It seems almost heretical to pick it apart, to praise separately the deep tonkotsu broth with its hint of bonito flavor, or the slices of pork, their edges caramel-sweet, the flesh tender and not too fatty, or the bite of the noodles or the egginess of the soft-cooked egg. Suffice to say, this ramen was perfect.
But perfection takes many forms. The antithesis of Ikaruga is Jiro, a small chain of ramen shops that is something of a sub-obsession for Bob, the 42-year-old American who runs the RamenTokyo.com blog. If Mr. MacDuckston is a noodle, Bob — who didn’t want his last name used — is the unabashedly meaty pork. Which is understandable considering Bob’s goal: to eat at all 33 Jiro franchises.
“It’s like the White Castle of ramen,” he said: cheap, unrefined, flouting all the apparent rules. The bowls are huge, the noodles rough cut, the broth a thick, porky trickle, the toppings a garbage heap of bean sprouts, cabbage, chopped pork and garlic, garlic, garlic. “The taste is just unbelievable,” he said. “You can’t even describe it compared to regular ramen.”
Indeed, it’s great stuff, perfect in its way. But as I tried (and failed) to finish the monster bowl, I wondered how much the 45-minute line had affected my judgment. Who waits that long and doesn’t deem the ramen great? Was I crazy, à la Mr. MacDuckston? Or just obsessed like everyone else?
After a few days in Tokyo, I’d collected several theories about ramen’s popularity. At the Shinyokohama Raumen Museum — a cavernous basement done up like a 1930s urban area, with branches of famous ramen shops — an exhibition explained that in the 1960s as Japanese cuisine became industrialized and as foreign cuisines attained “gourmet” status, ramen became a throwback to a simpler time. By the 1980s, ramen was a way for an affluent new generation to connect with its roots.
Naoko Yokoi, Meter Chen’s assistant, said there was another angle — for young people, ramen is now a demonstration of trendiness: “It’s status for them. Knowing and going to a famous ramen shop is cool.”
Bob was succinct: “On the planet Earth, who doesn’t enjoy eating noodles?”
For many of the ramen obsessives — myself included — it was all, I suspected, about the hunt. Whether they were scouring the Japanese media for leads or wandering around, nose in the air, eyes alert to suspicious lines, finding gems among Tokyo’s 4,137 ramen shops (a conservative estimate, by the way) was a laborious process that made the final first slurp that much sweeter.
Would I have loved the inky-black “burnt” miso ramen at Gogyo as much if I hadn’t gotten lost trying to find the cavelike restaurant? Would the textbook shoyu ramen served by elderly men at the Chuka Soba Inoue stand have seemed so cool if I hadn’t known that a block away tourists were overspending on sushi at the Tsukiji fish market? Would I have had such a crush on the pan-seared tsukemen at Keisuke No. 4 if Mr. MacDuckston and I hadn’t walked two miles there through the rain after everywhere else had closed?
Each step in that process brought other rewards as well. I learned better how to navigate Tokyo’s notoriously unnavigable streets. I improved my Japanese (slightly). And I began to see how ramen mania, whatever its origin, allowed strangers to connect in a city where connections can be hard to make. All I had to do was mention my quest, and I’d be besieged with recommendations, reminiscences and requests to join in, which is how, one evening, I found myself eating ramen topped with grated cheese with Sohee Park, the romantic lead from “The Ramen Girl,” a 2008 movie starring the late Brittany Murphy as an aspiring noodle chef. His verdict (and mine): “fun to try.”
“Fun to try” may not sound like much, but in Tokyo — a city that is, at times, open to all manner of experience and yet just as often closed to those who don’t know the social codes — “fun to try” goes a long way. It softens the hard, geeky edge of obsession and lets you laugh off 45-minute missteps and closed-on-Tuesday failures.
The night Mr. MacDuckston and I ate at Nagi, for example, we were wending our way through a crowded section of Shibuya when he spied a line of young people extending into the street. He approached a young woman at the end, his eyes shining with ramen lust, and asked, in Japanese, what they were waiting for.
The elevator, she said.
So on we hunted, hungry and unfazed. Somewhere out there was the next great bowl of noodles, and we would find it, even if it took all night.
“As I sit here reading over the specs of the new iPhone Jumbo, and look at the guy next to me gazing deeply into his Kindle, I can’t help but wonder whether Steve and Jeff’s ultimate vision for my living room isn’t a padded white cell filled with clear goo, with me suspended in the center, slowly poking at a sleek, silver tablet that dispenses entertainment, oxygen and waste management services. I have some vague concerns about the jacking-in process, but what really bothers me about such a future is this: what happens when my friends come over?”—Music as Artifact: Introducing BCWax « Bandcamp Blog (via williac)
“I text allegiance to the flag of the United States Of American Apparel and to the facebook for which it friends, one nation, OMG, indivizzibizzle, with Liberty and Jonas for all.”—Stephen Colbert (via wumbologyy)
“People two, three or four years apart are having completely different experiences with technology,” said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project. “College students scratch their heads at what their high school siblings are doing, and they scratch their heads at their younger siblings. It has sped up generational differences.”—The Children of Cyberspace: Old Fogies by Their 20s