What's Ramen Really Like In Japan?

Hello to our readers!

This post is going to cover one of the first things that likely pop into someone's mind upon thinking of Japan:


The above picture actually isn't of "traditional" ramen, rather it's a dish called tsukemen, or "dipping noodles." Just as the name implies, you dip your noodles manually into the separate bowl of broth, pictured on the right. I took this picture in a small ramen shop in the Minami-Yukigaya neighborhood of Tokyo, in the southeastern Ota ward. The first time I had tsukemen, I thought briefly, "Why the dipping? I'd rather my noodles just come already in the broth so I can pig out with utmost ease," disgusting piece of garbage that I am. I realized not long into my first experience with tsukemen, though, that the whole dipping process was novel, even fun, and kind of satisfying. It also forces you to eat your ramen slower, which is good, yanow, like for your health. The accompanying broth in tsukemen dishes is often even more flavorful than typical ramen broth as it's intended to really pack a punch to the tastebuds after the noodles are sometimes only briefly dipped inside of it. The two most common flavor bases for the broth are probably pork and seafood! Both worth trying if you ask me.

I think a lot of people, mainly fellow foodies, may be interested in this kind of stuff- the different variations of ramen noodles, as well as what it may be like to eat actual ramen in a Japanese noodle house. In that vein, this will be our first food-related post, with hopefully many more to follow! In response to the question posed by this post's subject line, ramen in Japan and ramen in the West may not necessarily be so different; especially because there are of course Japanese-born and trained ramen chefs with restaurants of their own across the Americas and Europe (check out this famous chain with restaurants on four continents https://www.ippudony.com). There are, however, certain distinctions between the "authentic" Japanese experience and the experience which has nonetheless come to constitute a ramen-phenomenon in the West.

The biggest difference between eating ramen in Japan versus the way we eat ramen here in the states, I would say, is the price.

Ramen, in the sense that you're never more than a few blocks from a ramen shop where a pretty big bowl costs barely over $5, is like street food in Japan. It just isn't something that you're ever going to have to pay $15 or $20 for like we may be used to doing at the gourmet Asian restaurants in Downtown, USA. Ramen in Japan will hardly even cost you $10 unless you're getting the biggest size possible (特盛 - tokumori) - something you could quite literally expect a sumo wrestler, or myself, to be seen eating. The machine pictured above is known as jidouhanbaiki, or "automatic selling machine"; it's their word for vending machines. In a typical ramen shop, you'll enter the shop and immediately be able to turn to your left/right and see one of these suckers. All you do is insert your money, then hit the buttons which correspond with the food you want. You can choose between the different sizes and types of ramen available, as well as being able to hit additional buttons for additional toppings and items including a whole egg, extra noodles, extra pork, draft beer, and so forth. When you've got your tickets which come out at the same time as your change, you hand them to one of the chefs behind the counter and then sit down and wait for your meal while suffering through the tantalizing aroma of everyone else's food. 

Butter corn ramen. Something that one might easily think was a Western invention- a liberty taken with a traditional dish. Nope, butter corn ramen is as traditional as it gets. At least with regards to the 20th century, or since ramen "became a thing" in Japan. People in Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost main island, have been putting butter and corn in their noodles for some time now apparently. This picture makes me laugh, because it literally looks like some midwesterners took their family dinner and threw it into a ramen bowl. This stuff is seriously delicious though. It's a form of miso ramen, something Hokkaido is known for.

I really can't say enough about ramen in Japan. It really is almost an ethereal food for me, and many others I know, if not only because of the flavors and textures that are possible through the broth's base (dashi). The first time I ever had ramen in Japan was like the first time I had pasta made by my Italian friend's dad. It was just *better*. It was familiar, but so much more enhanced- fresher, richer, more nuanced. I really can't describe it with words, and I don't mean that to sound dramatic, but to truthfully say that flavors can't really be conveyed in prose. Just make it a point to get to Japan at some point if at all possible. On that note, I've got some great advice about finding affordable trips to Japan in terms of how to book strategically- I'm talking round trips for as low as sub-$500. Maybe all that info is best saved for a future blog post, but in the meantime I'll mention the following sites: Vayama and Skyscanner. 

Anyways, with ramen being nothing short of an art form in Japan, there's an infinite amount to learn about the history and culture surrounding it. Here are a few more factoids you may find interesting.

1) The 4 main kinds:

-Shoyu (soy sauce base)

-Miso (miso base)

-Tonkotsu (pork base)

-Shio (salt base)

2) The Origin: Japanese ramen is actually widely considered by many, including many Japanese themselves, to be Chinese in true origin. Lamian is the Chinese word that ramen was translated from and predates the Japanese term.

3) The Variations: There are so many delicious dishes in Japan that technically use ramen style noodles but don't qualify as traditional ramen. To name a few: aburasobamazesoba and yakisoba!

4) The accessibility: You can pretty much eat ramen at any hour of the day in Japan. I mean, in the city at least, we've got 24 hour restaurants galore as well as famous 24/7 chains like Ichiran which serves up some of the best chain ramen you could ever hope for; especially if you like spice. In addition to actual shops, which may of course be less plentiful in more rural areas, there are the honestly delicious "instant ramen" brands which can be bought from convenience stores anywhere in Japan at any time of the day or night. Japanese convenience stores is another topic incredibly deserving of its own post in the future, but for now we'll leave you with this mess of images and information which probably have you dying for a big ole bowl of salt and fat, don't they!?

Enjoy the hunger pains.


-Jordan Roth

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