Shoyu Ramen from Nagi Ramen (Tokyo)
Nagi Ramen has been featured on Serious Eats before recently (link) and for good reason. Nagi is located in the Golden Gai district of Tokyo and is full of tiny back alleys lined with one room bars and restaurants. Nagi is an equally cramped space up a narrow set of stairs from where the chef calls the next customer up from a tube leading out to the street. Nagi specializes in a shoyu (soy) broth with niboshi (dried baby sardines) that gives a decidedly fish flavor. The ramen also comes with two types of noodles: a very thick, chewy noodle and another wide noodle that's a little akin to drunken noodles. It's a unique and tasty ramen experience.
Yuzu-Shoyu Ramen from Afuri Ramen (Tokyo)
Afuri is another small ramen shop a short walk from the Harajuku station in Tokyo. It specializes in a yuzu-shio ramen which is a shoyu (soy broth) ramen with a light citrus flavor. It's much lighter than most ramen and is apparently rated highly as a ramen fit for women. But it's still excellent for any gender. Another plus to Afuri is that they coal grill their charsiu, on a tiny grill barely wide enough for 3 pieces, giving the ramen a nice smokiness.
AFURI Harajuku: 3-63-1 Sendagaya, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo (map)
Yakitori from Yakitori Ton Ton (Tokyo)
Ginza is known for its upscale shopping and restaurants, but just on the margins are a lot of great, cheap spots. Underneath the train tracks by the Ginza station is a cramped, smoky yakitori spot called Yakitori Ton Ton. It's one of many street-side havens for cheap food and beer you'll find in Japan where salarymen come to unwind for hours after the workday. I sampled the pork, pork gizzard, chicken, and chicken meatballs. The pork gizzard was a little salty, but the rest were dangerously addictive. The chicken meatballs especially kept me there for several more orders.
Shio Ramen from Ganko, Tokyo
The most noticeable thing about Ganko (meaning "grumpy" in Japanese) from the outside is that it's not noticeable at all. Down a narrow alley (as most of these places seem to be) you'll find a black tarp covered shelter jutting out from a building with no signs or windows. Only a giant bone suspended from a chain to give any indication that there's something special inside. Inside you'll find a 5 seat counter where an old bearded man inside shuffles about his tiny kitchen assembling bowls of excellent shio (salt broth) ramen that he tops with hot shrimp oil. I understand that his recipe is so exact that he won't open if he doesn't think the broth is up to his standard on a given day. Thankfully that wasn't the case when I dropped by.
Bourbon Hot Dog from Bar High Five (Tokyo)
Bar High Five in Ginza and bartender Hidetsugu Ueno (formerly of Star Bar) are known for making some of the best cocktails in Tokyo. In his trademark suspenders and Elvis pompadour, Hidetsugu made me a couple of the best cocktails I've ever had. Then he made me a hotdog. I had read about the hotdog prior to my trip and asked him about it. It's one of Bar High Five's specialties and is topped with a housemade Bourbon Sauce. Naturally, the hotdog is paired with a Bourbon and Soda. It's an extremely simple presentation, but the flavors are wonderfully complementary and probably one of the few ways I'd be unashamed to admit I had a hotdog in Japan.
Shio Ramen from Ramen Street, Tokyo
Major train stations in Japan are usually also giant hotels, shopping centers, and food courts. Underneath Tokyo Station is a labyrinth of shops, kiosks, and restaurants. There's one corridor, dubbed Ramen Street, that houses 8 adjacent ramen restaurants. A handy thing to have while waiting for a train. I actually didn't know the name of any of these places, I just stood in the longest line. This strategy usually worked for me and this time was no exception. I sat down to a bowl of excellent shio (salt broth) ramen and slurped it up while commuters hurried in and out.
Soba from Magome (Kiso Valley)
After Tokyo, I made my way to a pair of historic, preserved postal towns in the Kiso Valley. They're connected by a 5 mile trail through the mountains. I started in Magome and had lunch at a small soba shop. I was served as a traditional teishoku (a set meal) with warm soba, fish, mochi balls, and a smattering of small dishes. It was a great piece of old Japan to be in a 100-year old town and having the same meal postmen might have had passing through ages ago.
Magome: Nakatsugawa, Gifu Prefecture (map)
Teishoku at a Ryokan (Tsumago)
At the other end of the trail from Magome is another historic town, Tsumago. Here I stayed at a traditional ryokan (Japanese inn) where I was served another teishoku that was brought to my room by the innkeepers promptly at 6pm. It included the usual rice, fish, tempura, some smoked pork, but also a small bowl of fried grasshoppers. Another great slice of historic Japan. After the meal I went promptly to bed at 7:30pm because the sun went down and there were no lights!
Tsumago, Nagiso, Nagano Prefecture (map)
"Fire Ramen" from Men Baka Ichidai (Kyoto)
I hadn't planned on eating much ramen in Kyoto, but I couldn't pass up trying Men Baka Ichidai. A few blocks from Nijo Castle in the heart of Kyoto is a little ramen shop with a particularly explosive special.
The "Negi Ramen" or "Fire Ramen" is popular because they, well, set it on FIRE before serving. For all intents and purposes, it's an otherwise excellent bowl of shoyu (soy broth) ramen, but the catch is the chef pours a serving of heated green onion oil over it before you eat it. As you can see, it ignites in a giant plume of flame. Before he does so, the counter (which is noticeably blackened) is covered with wet towels and he cautions you to remove all your belongings from the counter, wear a paper apron to protect yourself from splashing oil/flames, and don't get up or scream. The ramen, while excellent and little extra oily, doesn't actually taste particularly like it was just engulfed in flames. Check out a video I shot of the process here.
Street Food from Nishiki Food Market (Kyoto)
The Nishiki Food Market is a series of covered blocks lined with kiosks and shops selling all kinds of Japanese food. You can get anything from fresh fish, candy, to cooking knives. It's also a great place to grab food on the go. I walked down the streets and picked up a bunch of skewers of a variety of foods. Clockwise from the top left is: a coal grilled rice cake that is served brushed with soy sauce and a sheet of seaweed, a steamed sweet potato, pumpkin, and carrot cake, and an overflowing container of deep fried beef and onion skewers. Extremely cheap and tasty.
Akaniku Ramen from Ippudo The Original (Fukuoka)
Upon arriving in Fukuoka, the first thing I did was drop my bags at my hostel and run out the door in search of the original Ippudo. Tucked in an alley of the Daimyo neighborhood, there was already a giant line outside. When I finally got inside, I ordered the familiar Akamaru Tonkotsu (pork bone broth) ramen with extra charsiu (dubbed Akaniku, niku for meat) and was treated to one of the best bowls of ramen I've ever had.
It might be a romanticized hyperbole, but the anticipation made it all the better. Japanese food is often much more mild than American food and, while that's generally true, Ippudo's broth is so rich and flavorful that it really stood out compared to the other food I'd had. If only this place weren't halfway around the world.
Tonkotsu Ramen from Shin Shin (Fukuoka)
A much more pared down affair than Ippudo's, Shin Shin has more of a casual neighborhood feel. They only serve one thing - tonkotsu (pork bone broth) ramen - and is usually in front of you within a minute or two. A great, simple example of Hakata style ramen.
Ramen from Food Carts (Fukuoka)
Another thing Fukuoka is famous for is the legion of yatai (street food carts) that come out in the evenings. They serve everything from sushi to yakitori and, of course, tonkotsu (pork bone broth) ramen. There's a large concentration of them along the banks of Nakasu Island in the middle of the canal that bisects Fukuoka and they're usually packed. I grabbed a bowl of ramen at, again, the one with the biggest crowd. A great bowl of Hakata-tonkotsu ramen while rubbing shoulders with locals and having broken conversations lubricated by beer and food.
Nakasu Island, Fukuoka (map)
Tonkotsu Ramen with Fried Pork Fat from Hide-Chan, Fukuoka
Blocks from the Hakata train station is a major shopping center, Canal City. On the 5th floor is a food court, similar to Ramen Street in Tokyo Station, called Ramen Stadium. It houses 8 ramen shops that represent regional styles from all over Japan. One of the 8 is another export to New York, Hide-Chan. I ordered another bowl of tonkotsu (pork bone broth) with pieces of fried pork fat. Extremely rich and fatty. At this point I was getting a bit of ramen fatigue, but I still had no trouble getting through the bowl.
Tonkotsu Ramen from Ichiran (Fukuoka)
For the last real meal of my trip and my 10th bowl of ramen, I headed to the basement of Canal City to Ichiran. Ichiran is different in that it's not a standard restaurant. Ordering is done by filling out a slip of paper and selecting the level of richness and oiliness of your broth, the firmness of your noodles, and various other options. You then proceed to a tiny cubicle where you pass your order through a small window. A minute or two later, the curtain pulls up and your ramen is placed in front of you. You don't see a single person the entire process. The idea is to be able to enjoy your ramen in peace. Tranquility aside, I ordered my ramen rich and oily with soft noodles and it was spectacular. Extremely flavorful (because I ordered it that way) and a small dollop of Ichrian's special chili sauce gives it a nice kick. A fitting cap to my gastronomical tour around Japan.
Ichiran: Canal City 1B, Hakata, Fukuoka (map)