Unfortunately, my visit to Japan happened at that unfortunate time between the end of winter and the start of spring. This meant some muddy snow, winter coats, near empty sakura trees, and people with face masks everywhere. Thankfully, ramen is all year round.
We arrived just in time for lunch, freezing our tropical toes off. As soon as we had checked in to the hotel
and played with the famed Japanese toilet bidets, we were already hankering for some ramen. No trip to Japan is complete without getting to taste actual Japanese ramen after all. The staff of Best Western Astina (a hotel I highly recommend if you’re staying in Shinjuku area) were really nice and helpful, they even printed out maps and painstakingly wrote down directions to help us get around the city that day. Best of all, one of them pointed us to his favorite ramen place, which was gladly within walking distance away from the hotel.
Ichiran can be found in the heart of the shopping district in Shinjuku, just a hop, skip, and a jump away from the massive five-floor Uniqlo in the area (boy, we had a lot of fun here). Given that most street and store signs were in kanji and none of us could speak or read Japanese, it took us some time to find the place. Believe it or not, we had to rely on gut feel and checked each place that looked remotely like they serve food.
Ichiran has a large round black and red signage at the entrance in kanji so we couldn’t read it, we weren’t sure until we saw a small sign to the side that actually had the word “Ichiran” in letters on it. The dining area is in the basement and can be accessed by either a narrow flight of stairs or a tiny building elevator.
The first thing you see when you reach the basement is a couple of vending machines for ordering. I had read about vending machines in Japan beforehand and was looking forward to order a hot meal on a machine. It wasn’t exactly how I imagined it to be.
For one, I thought it would at least be a touchscreen with language options and food selections in my preferred language and mayhap a holographic image of a Japanese waitress
in a cat costume asking me how my day was. Alas, there was none of those things. Instead, the vending machine was an old-fashioned grid of illuminated printed photos with labels in Japanese and clunky buttons below each one. Because I was so hungry, I picked what looked to be a safe choice and prayed that I wouldn’t accidentally order whale meat or something. Thank heavens for pictures.
Another assumption I got wrong was the arrival of the food. I was half-expecting my food to magically be given to me by advanced AI, ala robo-maid Rosie of the Jetsons but with curves and anime eyes. (What? It’s Japan, I have high expectations of their technology.) Instead, the food is boringly served by a human. The vending machine is merely an ordering tool that is seemingly aimed to limit human interaction.
The theme of the whole restaurant feels the same. This dining area seems to be designed for individual diners hoping to get a quick, hot meal privately. Stools are positioned in a row and a long table is divided into single booths for the individual diner. To order, you fill up the paper survey on the table (you can specifically ask for English forms) to customize your ramen, ring an old-school bell and give your paid stubs to the server behind the flap in front of you whose face you can’t see.
Five minutes later, your food is on your table through the flap, served by the faceless server doing hand gestures and stuff. Human interaction or not, I’ll take it. Ichiran ramen? Best. Goshdarned. Ramen. In. All. The. World. I swear I’m not exaggerating. The meat in particular was outstanding. The thinly sliced pork was the melt-in-your-mouth-please-have-my-babies kind of meat. The entire meal was so tasty and happy that it had my belly gurgling in joy all throughout lunch hour and then some. It’s sooo good it could be the answer to life.
I mentioned earlier that there’s a survey form for customizing your order. This is one thing I wish we had here (among others, like discipline for instance). In Ichiran, they let you specify how you want your ramen to be cooked. You have options for flavor strength, garlic, onion, meat, chili, and most importantly, noodle texture. This gives you the flexibility to make you ramen suit your own personal preferences. If you’re undecided, you can pick medium for all anyway and it would still be a win. The basic bowl has soup, noodles, and a couple slices of (melt-in-your-mouth) meat but you can also get add ons to well.. add on. Eggs, nori, meat, and additional noodles are available for an additional cost.
All Ichiran ramen have the same basic ingredients but with the available options, you can customize it to satisfy your picky tastebuds. If you like dining alone but do not like the awkward stares, you’ll enjoy the design of the place. They take your personal space seriously, the division between customers effectively separates each single diner from the next and gives you some privacy while inhaling your beautiful, beautiful ramen. I guess the only drawback is for those when you actually want to enjoy your food with company. But for this kind of ramen, I’ll take it any which way. I’d be more than happy to savor every last drop of Ichiran ramen alone and in bliss.
Take a closer look and be jealous-
|5 out of 5 bacons! Ichiran quite honestly deserves all the bacon I can give it. The best thing about them is the customizeable ramen. We all have personal preferences after all. Having options to add noodles, as many eggs or nori as you want, or have the broth made less tasty makes sure you get YOUR perfect ramen in every bowl.*Apparently, they have a branch in Hong Kong! At least that’s only an hour and half away from us. 😛|
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