We may be experiencing a ramen boom here in the United States, but that doesn't mean Japan can't have its own ramen boom. Evidence: Just one year ago, Tokyo Ramen Street opened in the First Avenue Tokyo Station retail center, which includes about 100 stores and restaurants. Here you'll find "Tokyo Character Street" with gift stores selling merchandise featuring popular Japanese anime and other characters, as well as "Gift Plaza" with its traditional Japanese confections—but our focus is on the ramen restaurants.
First, you must find Tokyo Ramen Street amidst the labyrinth of passageways, shops, and restaurants that comprise the Grand Central Station-like Tokyo Station. Watch for signs, or even better, ask someone official-looking "Ramen Street, doko desu ka?"
Eight of the best were invited to open at Tokyo Ramen Street, and the response has been stunning. The restaurants are open 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. with some variation, but go during prime lunch or dinner hours, and you'll be sure to find lines. The longest lines are always at Rokurinsha, famous for its thick noodles served tsukemen-style with dipping sauce, where people are known to wait well over an hour for a precious seat.
With historic male appeal (though that's changing), the ramen restaurants are mostly filled with salarymen (businessmen) in their ubiquitous white shirts and dark gray jackets—some wearing paper aprons to protect from oil stains. They wait patiently in the long lines, utilizing the time to message on their cellphones. Waiting times exceed eating times, as some say you should slurp your noodles and soup in seven minutes so that the ramen doesn't get soft. And then it's back to the hustle-and-bustle of work life.
If you're not a salaryman, you'll have time to survey the scene. For non-Japanese newcomers, there's a mix of mystery and confusion, and it may be difficult to find someone to help. Posters and even a video provide information about the types of ramen available, so check out the photos. Or look inside the shops to see what kind of noodle bowls people are eating. Choices will include broth bases of miso, shoyu (soy sauce-based), and shio (salt-based), as well as other options.
When you find what you like and decide where to eat, you'll typically need to buy a ticket from the machine at the entryway. Look for photos of ramen bowls on the machine. If you need help, there should be a worker nearby, and if you're not sure what to order, ask for the "ichiban no ramen, kudasai." (It means "number one ramen, please," but the worker will probably be confused and just point you to the first ramen on the machine.) Hopefully they'll direct you to a good one. Ramen bowls tend to run just under sen (1,000) yen, or about $10. Other buttons on the machine will be for eggs, extra noodles, meat, or side dishes.
Given the quality here, you're unlikely to make a bad choice--just, perhaps, not your first choice. But maybe you'll discover something new in the process. Enter the dining room, and you'll hear the chefs welcome you with a scream of "Irrashaimase," the rumble of trains passing by, and the sounds of slurping from happy customers, yourself the next one.
Tokyo Ramen Street
About the author: Jay Friedman is a Seattle-based freelance food writer who happens to travel extensively as a sex educator. An avid fan of noodles (some call him "The Mein Man"), he sees sensuality in all foods, and blogs about it at his Gastrolust website. You can follow him on Twitter @jayfriedman.