When was the last time you wrote an exam? Do you remember what it felt like? Were you trembling, tired, anxious, or hungry? Who knew that on vacation would I encounter that familiar setting, while eating ramen? The difference is instead of bringing your A game, all you need to come with is an empty stomach, and money of course. Ichiran ramen shop is what I’m talking about. It’s exciting just writing about it.
Ichiran is a ramen chain with 29 stores across Japan. The seven locations in the heart of Tokyo are in Roppongi, Ueno, Tokyo Dome / LaQua, Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, and Shimokitazawa. I visited the Ueno store right next to Ueno station. There was a line up to get in but like any queue I’ve encountered, it was quick. Once you get closer to a table, the hostess would ask you to purchase a meal ticket at the vending machine. This one was very easy to read as there were pictures and the choices were simple. They were mainly ramen and extra toppings. I simply selected a ramen for ¥790. There’s only one kind but I’ll tell you how to customize it a little later. To give you an idea of what else you can get, they sell boiled egg for ¥100, two pieces of nori for ¥50, additional roast pork for ¥150, additional noodles for ¥160, and kikurage (cloud ear fungus) for ¥100.
The décor of the restaurant is distinct. First of all, the hostess uses an electronic seat map on the wall that tells her which seat is available or occupied. There are three rows having nine seats side-by-side and another section having two tables for four and a table for two. What’s interesting is the rows are separated by a divider so you wouldn’t interact with the person beside you. This was what reminded me a lot about examinations. Apparently, the reason behind this is so that customers can focus on the ramen as you would on an exam. Don’t worry, there’s a hinge allowing you to fold in the divider if you want to talk to the party beside you. I hear the lack of interaction is a favorite for Japanese women and foreigners not wanting to deal with speaking to servers. It’s neither the best place to bring the whole family, infants, or talk on your mobile.
The eating table has a little curtain to the front where servers would bring your ramen. They pull the curtain down once your ramen is served so that you’re boxed in. I couldn’t see what was on the other side so I tried to take some pictures to have a look. One other thing I noticed was that you get napkins, or tissue, on the wall facing your back where you hang your coats and belongings.
Now that you have your meal ticket, which, by the way, is called ‘shokken’ (食券) in Japanese, and a ‘desk’ (for lack of a better term), there’s a couple of things you still need to do. First of all, you’ll notice a sheet of paper in front of you with a pencil. This part reminds me of multiple choice answers. Basically, you are to customize your ramen by selecting the strength of the flavor, richness of broth, amount of garlic, amount of green onion, with or without roast pork, amount of secret sauce, and the tenderness of the noodles. If it’s your first time to Ichiran, they recommend circling down the middle which is essentially going for regular ramen with pork. So that’s what I did. If you’re wondering, the prices don’t change no matter what you select. All you had to do was pay for the ramen at the ticket machine.
The thing about this order sheet is that it’s written only in Japanese. So you might want to take a look at their order sheet online written in both Japanese and English before going. Once you’ve filled out everything, there’s a button on the table which you push, and the server will come up to your curtain / window and grab your papers. The countdown begins and soon enough, a server will come back with your ramen and shut the curtains for you.
It’s on. Focus, examine, snap photo, smell, and indulge. First step was to take a sip of the soup – yummy rich pork broth. Although I’m going to say Mutekiya edges slighty. Second step was to slurp the noodles – al dente galore. Then you wonder what ‘extra firmness’ noodles would yield – raw ramen? It was thinner than other ramen places I’ve tried but it provides a slurp fest all the same and another vibe. That’s a compliment. In fact, thin noodles chow down easier and doesn’t feel like a mouthful of flour, even though that’s what I’m eating. Hard to describe. Third step was to tear up the pork, although not much tearing up occurred because it was tender. Rinse, repeat, and say ‘oh my’ in between. The red sauce in the middle is their secret chili based mixture. It wasn’t spicy but added a lovely kick to the flavor of the soup. After having tried the regular ramen, I think next time I want to add some nori and kikurage, up the green onion, secret sauce, richness of broth, and try for a level higher of noodle firmness to see what that’s like. It’s all about finding my bowl of ramen with some trial and error. That’s the good thing about Ichiran: customization.
So what do you think? Pretty neat, right? This location opens 24 hours all year round, and other locations either open 24 hours or from early morning to late at night. Oh, one last thing I want to mention is that the spoon has a little hook at the neck to make it stay against the bowl. Say goodbye to spoons falling in the bowl of soup! Love how simple things like that could be so functional. I hope every restaurant in Toronto replaces their spoons with that. Anyway, make your way to Ichiran and enjoy!