Why you should care
Because you could eat a different restaurant’s ramen every day for 16 years — in one city.
Kurokawa Yusaku has his routine: At lunchtime, he ducks out of his office and heads for one of his favorite ramen shops. He picks out his order on the vending machine that dispenses order tickets (standard ordering practice at any ramen joint). He likes his broth thick and rich, and prefers tonkotsu, the kind made with pork bone.
But he has a staggering number of options for where to play out this routine. According to the Japanese-language restaurant site Tabelog:
There are 6,000 ramen noodle shops in Tokyo
… and more than 20,000 in Japan. That’s over half as many restaurants as there are in Manhattan, period, according to the New York City Department of Health. Sure, this is for a city of about 13 million people, many of whom, says ramen blogger Brian MacDuckston, will chow down on a bowl of the noodle soup two or three times a week, paying little more than 1,000 yen ($9). But that only begins to capture the ubiquity — and uniqueness — of ramen food culture here.
For one, ramen is a thoroughly new-school food, MacDuckston explains over steaming bowls of veggie ramen (a rarity, but possible, as your herbivorous correspondent discovered) at Soranoiro, in the Chiyoda neighborhood. It became popular only after World War II, he says. Modern sushi, in comparison, has been eaten since the 19th century, and tempura took off in the 17th century. But in a matter of decades, it’s become a staple. For 27-year-old Yusaku, a meal at a ramen joint is hearty and practical: “It’s easier to come here alone,” he says, gesturing around the shop — Chabuton in the Shimokitazawa neighborhood, where he works. Today, for 750 yen (less than $7), he’s slurping down a satisfying meal and doesn’t need a date. Not the case if he were to pop into an izakaya, or gastropub, instead.
Tokyo-ites love to eat out. The teeming city is full of apartments with small kitchens, and ingredients are expensive, MacDuckston says, so restaurant culture abounds. And it’s a foodie’s paradise, with 13 three-star Michelin restaurants and more than 200 with one or two stars. Among the latter category is a single ramen spot, Tsuta, which received the honor for the first time this year. But although ramen is spreading as a global phenomenon, attracting the attention of gourmands worldwide, MacDuckston warns us not to get too wild about experimentation. Some restaurants, hoping to seem innovative and fancy, throw things like filet mignon on top of ramen. MacDuckston’s take: Toppings are well and good, but the true test of ramen is the broth. That said, he’s seen some crazy things, like foie gras ramen and bitter chocolate ramen.
Ramen comes in many iterations — that pork bone style, tonkotsu; miso-broth-based; shoyu-based, with a soy sauce flavor — and MacDuckston says you can find almost all of them in Tokyo. But some remain outside the city’s grasp, like yatai-style noodles, made on the street, often found in Fukuoka.
The problem for Yusaku, though, is that there’s a little too much available. “I used to eat ramen two or three times a week,” he says. “Now I eat it all the time.” He pinches his stomach, where a little roll of fat rests above his pant line. “It’s getting really bad.”