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Friday, Aug. 18, 2006

TOKYO FOOD FILE

Roamin' for ramen: five favorites


Ramen. It's one of the few cuisines that the Food File rarely writes about. Why? Because just about everyone in Japan is an expert on the subject. Everyone has their own favorite noodle joints, as often as not in obscure suburban locations and with hourlong queues outside. And most are fiercely vocal about their hard-slurped expertise.

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Slurp your noodles alongside the tipsy salarymen at a yatai -- like the one outside Shibuya JR Station. ROBBIE SWINNERTON, YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTOS
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So why do we dare to tiptoe into such a minefield? Because when the Great Heat sets in, noodles are exactly what we feel like eating. Here are a few places around the city where we have sat and slurped this summer.

Kaotan Ramen is the archetypal ramen shack, a scruffy wood-clad hut so cluttered with crates and empty cans it's hard to identify the entrance. Wedged below the tip of Aoyama Cemetery, the address is Minami-Aoyama, but the time zone could be several decades ago.

The inside is equally basic: breeze- block walls; shelves filled with provisions; electric wires running across the ceiling; plywood panels plastered with handwritten menus; and, running the length of the room, a single communal table with low wooden benches well-polished by the generations of ramen lovers who have made this pilgrimage.

But it's tidy and clean, the air conditioning works, and the ramen is satisfying. The not-so-secret ingredient in the broth is the deep-fried onion bits that add a distinctive, dark sweetness to the flavor. They also serve a good tsukemen -- hot noodles served not in the usual soup but with a thick, rich dip on the side -- perfect for summer.

The blue-collar lunchtime crowd drops into Kaotan Ramen for the 900 yen set meals of ramen or gyoza (potstickers), with rice, pickles and boiled moyashi (bean sprouts) on the side. In the evening, the punters linger longer, nursing cheap beer and shochu. Past midnight, it's a popular post-clubbing port of call.

The shantytown retro ambience; elbow-to-elbow camaraderie; pews so low you're almost squatting; and a late-night cast of characters that have to be seen to be believed: Kaotan Ramen is one of those "only in Tokyo" experiences.

Kaotan Ramen, (03) 3475-6337, 2-34-30 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku; nearest station: Nogizaka (Chiyoda Line), exit for Aoyama Cemetery. Open: 12 noon-4:30 a.m.; closed Sunday. Ramen from 650 yen; tsukemen 900 yen. No English menu.

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Kaotan Ramen's ramshackle premises at the bottom of Aoyama Cemetery

Around the corner, we found noodles of a very different stripe. Gogyo is a ramen shop that looks and acts like an izakaya. Or is it the other way round? We'll leave that particular argument to the fundamentalists.

Whichever, it's a large place where you can settle in for the evening, nibbling on spicy tebasaki (chicken wings), a variety of fish dishes, or a selection of Okinawan specials, washing them down with libations of shochu or awamori. But the heart of the matter here is still the noodles with which you close your meal.

They offer a choice of soups -- shoyu, miso or shio (clear broth). But those are for the wimps. To show you really know what you're doing, you need to order the kogashi "burned" ramen. This Kyushu specialty involves heating oil to a high temperature, igniting it in a blaze of flame, then pouring the sooty remains over the top of your noodles. The result is alarmingly black, slightly gritty, and with a pronounced taste profile that rests somewhere between charred and scorched. It's an acquired taste, shall we say, but a highly entertaining one, as the kitchen crew at the back of the house detonate small fireballs at intervals throughout the evening.

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Gogyo Chef Keisuke Yanagimoto knocks up a kogashi miso ramen.

Gogyo, (03) 5775-5566, 1-4-36 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku; nearest station: Nogizaka (Chiyoda Line), exit for Aoyama Cemetery. Open: 11.30-2:30 p.m. & 5 p.m.-2.30 a.m. (Sun & holidays 11.30-2:30 p.m. & 5-11:30 p.m.).

At Hashigo , they don't serve mere ramen -- they call it shina ("Chinese") men. This is a way of telling the world that here the noodles are closer in spirit and substance to their country of origin, and also that they are slightly superior.

The menu is filled with katakana transliterations of unfamiliar food terminology. The zasai-men, for example, are topped with those uniquely Chinese pickled vegetables; daro-men come with pork meat; paiko signifies chicken. You can order these either with ramen noodles or in the dandanmen style, in a delectable soup thickened with sesame and lightly spiced with chili. Likewise, they offer a choice of pork or chicken with their refreshing chilled noodles (ask for "reimen").

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Hashigo serves Chinese-style noodles like paiko (chicken) dandanmen.

There are lots of little touches that make Hashigo a cut above the average noodle joint. The gyoza are first-rate. They keep pots of pickled ginger on the counter, perfect for refreshing the palate. During the day, they offer plain white rice free of charge. Best of all, they declare they use no artificial chemical seasonings.

The decor is simple and serene, just plain wooden paneling and a few timber beams to disguise the raw concrete walls. The atmosphere is quieter, with none of the usual clatter and clang that encourages customers to slurp and run.

This is a formula for success, and Hashigo is now a chain with six or seven restaurants. We have sampled and enjoyed those in south Ginza (not so far from Shiodome) and also in unknown Irifune, on the shitamachi side of Tsukiji. The main shop is close to Yurakucho, and there are also branches in Akasaka, Shin-Koiwa and Iriya.

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Kookai's staff make a mean tsukemen (ramen with soup served separately).

Hashigo, (03) 3572-6986, 8-10-7 Ginza, Chuo-ku; nearest station: Shinbashi (JR, Ginza and Asakusa lines). Open 11 a.m.-5 a.m. (Saturday till 9 p.m.; holidays till 8 p.m.); closed Sunday. Japanese menu; no English spoken. Also: Irifune (03) 3553-2905, 2-2-13 Irifune, Chuo-ku; nearest station: Shintomi-cho (Yurakucho Line). Open: 11 a.m.-3 a.m. (Saturday, Sunday & holidays 11 a.m.-9 p.m.).

Shina-soba is also the name of the game at Kookai, wedged under the expressway in nether Ebisu, but here it is given a chic, modernist interpretation.

The walls are plain gray concrete. The U-shaped counter, big enough to seat a dozen, gleams with stainless steel. The hip young staff dress in black T-shirts, with matching headgear. The sound system plays classic soul music.

The ticket machine by the entrance where you choose and prepay your meal has helpful illustrations. But we've never spent much time exploring the various options, because we already have a firm favorite here.

Especially at this time of year, you can't beat the chilled tsukemen. The noodles are served on a wide wooden tray, decorated with a sprinkle of fine-cut nori seaweed, with small side garnishes of menma (soft-cooked bamboo shoot), slivers of cooked chashu pork, and a small mound of komatsuna greens. The dipping broth is comfortingly thick, in texture and in flavor, but with no cloying, lingering fatty aftertaste.

This is just what you need when your appetite is depleted -- food that is simple, light, easy on the stomach, in a setting that's cool and stylish. If it were only closer to a station, we would make Kookai one of our regular summertime refueling stations.

Kookai, (03) 3440-1272, 3-49-1 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku; www.kookai-web.com; nearest station: Ebisu (JR & Hibiya lines). Open: 11 a.m.-11 p.m.

* * * * *

But when all is said and done, ramen is and always has been street food, and the classic setting has to be at a yatai. They aren't as numerous as they once were, but everyone over a certain age has their favorite, their local, the one they've been visiting late at night on the way home for decades.

Ours is the stall outside Shibuya Station, which has been a fixture there for over 30 years. There are no seats here. You just duck under the bright red awning, put in your order, then stand shoulder to shoulder with the tipsy salarymen who balance their bowls and cans of Kirin on the makeshift counter at the end.

There's little or no choice -- plain ramen in the shoyu broth is 600 yen; extra menma is 700 yen; extra chashu pork 800 yen. But there's a definite sense of pride in the way it's prepared, a sense of old-fashioned artisanship. And the broth is excellent -- a closely guarded secret, of course, but betraying the slightest hint of aromatics.

No frills, no hanging about -- but this is ramen in its purest form. Catch it while you can, weekday evenings from late evening until after the last Yamanote Line train has departed.

Outside Shibuya JR Station (Tokyu Plaza exit). Open: weekday evenings, till late. Closed: Saturday, Sunday & holidays. Ramen 600 yen. No English spoken.



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