Friday, March 28, 2014

Ramen Scavengers in Tokyo, Japan

Night at Shinjuku's Kabukicho entertainment district
Cold, snowflakes, winter in Japan
Slurping a bowl of hot ramen 
Warm the belly, warm the heart 
Smile on face, happy girl!

That was how I fantasized about eating ramen in Japan. And that was my lifelong dream!

My childhood dream finally came true last month when we stepped foot on the Land of The Rising Sun. Planning our trip around food destination was my main mission in Japan. Apart from eating the best sushi we've ever had, we also went Ramen Hunting.

Having had the difficulties in looking for tips online, I want to share my experiences about Japan for a English speaking audience.

Despite the slight drama of being stopped during transit in Kuala Lumpur for a night before getting myself legally into the largest city in the world. I was overwhelmed by how much Tokyo had to offer.

Ramen is the Japanese working class's soul food. It's dotted everywhere in the city, high and low and open 24/7. Just like kebabs are there waiting to be consumed by intoxicated Australians, ramen is the Japanese sober food. However, the ultimate question would be where is the best ramen and what type is the best?  No one can give you a straight answer as everyone has their own favourite. It's indeed down to your own personal preference.  

Ramen master assembling a bowl of ramen

Anyway, on my first morning in Tokyo, me and agent M was on a mission to look for a bowl of random ramen. Little did I know, it wasn't an easy task. They were everywhere. After passing through hundreds of ramen shop, we ended up in this shop just by the corner of the street without any particular reason and research. 

This place has all the stereotypical ramen set up. It was counter seating and an open kitchen. We get to witness the whole process from the chef dropping the noodles into a boiler, to assembling the bowl with different kind of toppings. I was fascinated. The whole process only took them 3 minutes, shorter than the duration of deliberating their menu.

We don't understand Japanese nor are able to speak the language. I can only understand some Chinese characters, enough to assume this place sells Tonkotsu Ramen (Pork bone broth) and it's 500yen a bowl. For non-Japanese speaking tourist, in places like Shinjuku, most shops have picture menus easy enough for us to order. Or worse case scenario, just wing it!

A basic bowl ramen gets a slice of chasiu (roast pork), half a hard-boiled egg, seaweed sheet, spring onions and woodear mushroom. And it was only 500yen (AUD$5.50)

Ramen with extra seaweed sheet for 600 yen
The broth was easily drinkable. Despite it being creamy in colour, the pork bone simmered broth wasn't too oily or too rich.

Ramen with extra chasiu for 700yen
We quite enjoyed the broth and the noodles, but this was probably our least favourite ramen we have had during our 3 weeks in Japan (still quite good compared to the ramen in Perth). The let down was the over-cooked egg and the stone cold chasiu slices. We later found out that this was a chain ramen store dotted around Shinjuku area. I guess we've learnt from our mistake and spent hours of ramen research for the remaining travel days.

Inoue Ramen, Tsukiji Market (井上)

Ramen master smashes up to 9 bowls of ramen at one time

We were brought to this place by the friendly local Tokyoite whom we just met at a sushi restaurant in Tsukiji Market. We skipped visiting the tourist packed sushi restaurants in the market such as Sushi Dai & Sushi Daiwa with their overflowing lines. Instead, we went to the back of the market where there were less crowds, and less tourists. That was where we met these amazing bunch of Tokyoites, they just finished work for the day (at 6am) and they hung out having sushi "supper" and getting drunk on hot sake. As always the drinking lead them to crave for ramen. They spoke limited English, but was very kind to us, they even shouted our bill without us knowing it and brought us to this ramen place just off the main market, which they claimed 'best ramen in Tokyo'. 

There were glow in their eyes looking into the bowl of ramen

The shop was facing the main road, located at the outer market of Tsukiji alongside with other fruit & veg shop. It's an old-fashioned standing ramen shop, where you ordered the ramen vocally and find an available table scattered around the area. Some were by the roadside. It was a rare sight to see, people eating by the roadside in Japan nowadays. But, having the chance to eat one of the best ramen in Tokyo by the roadside on a 2 degrees celcius morning = priceless!
Traditional Tokyo style ramen for 650yen

Tonkotsu broth have always been my preferred choice of ramen but that's a Hakata style ramen in the Fukuoka prefecture. So when in Tokyo, I've got to try their Shoyu (soy sauce) style ramen. I was watching the chef's well-oiled motion, lay out 9 empty bowls on his bench, each ladled with soy sauce, Japanese leek, hot chicken stock then the thin but curly ramen and topped off with slices of boiled pork, bamboo shoots, spring onion and micro bean shoot. I was sold, I loved it! The cleared brown broth flavoured with soy sauce was tangy, salty and savoury yet still fairly light and comforting on the palate. You can add any condiments you like to go with your ramen. Condiments offered on table were black pepper, fresh minced garlic, Japanese 7 spices and chilli oil.

We were grateful that we met such a wonderful bunch of local providing us the best Japanese hospitality to us. After we finished our ramen, we bit good-bye and wish all the best for them. Up til today, we don't know their name. Me and agent M, would love to say a warm thank you to them again!

If you are planning to go to Tsukiji Market, do drop by this ramen shop left of the main wholesale market.

Nagi, Golden Gai, Kabukicho, Shinjuku

Nagi in Golden Gai

Golden Gai was once Tokyo's brothel district and now the narrow alleys and lane ways are full of small bars and eateries.  We went to Golden Gai on our first night in Tokyo to check out the scene. It may be the rain or we were there way too "early" at 11pm, Golden Gai was kinda quiet to our surprise. However, I remember seeing bunch of people queuing in a narrowed dark alley quietly under the rain to a suspicious cult-like association. Fast forward a few days later after I've done my research on where to go for good ramen. Many suggestion pointed me to Nagi in Golden Gai. To my surprised, it was Nagi that people was queuing up for the other night. 

Pork bone hanging off the ceiling as decoration.

While we were in line waiting for our turn to enter this tightly fitting 10 seater ramen restaurant, we met some American tourists on a ramen hunt of their own. We had a chat with them and they said "just go up stairs, press the first button on top left of the vending machine, that's what you're here for!" Nagi is famous for their anchovy/fish base broth, a little unusual to the normal ramen broth. 

The atmosphere at Nagi was exciting for us. From the wait to the walk up  the narrowed stairs to settled down at the counter seats. The shop was packed to the rafters. I tried taking photo of the chef cooking, apparently it wasn't allowed so I was shy whipping my camera out after I got told off.

Nagi Special Ramen (top left button) 900yen

The broth was dark in colour and full of specks from the baby sardine used to make the broth. It was packed full of umami flavour, definitely a different take on ramen. After a few mouthful though, it starts to get a bit bitter and rich to my liking.

Best thing about Nagi - the thick cut & curly noodle

The noodles on the other hand was thick, fat and chewy which held up to the broth really well and that was the best thing about Nagi. It was my favourite ramen noodle variety during my entire trip in Japan which I would most certain buy a plane ticket for. They also served another cut of noodle in the same bowl, which are wider, thinner and silkier, both were very enjoyable. Broth and noodle aside, the roasted pork was soft and tasty so was the perfectly cooked hard-boiled egg.

Although I didn't quite enjoy the broth as much as I hoped to, I would definitely be back for the overall experience. Maybe I would try adding other condiments offered on table to the broth to take away the bitterness from the umami rich broth. After coming back from Japan, I've started doing more research on Nagi and realised they have a few other outlet around Tokyo that offer different kinds of broth. 

Neon-lit Golden Gai
This website I found has some really useful information and pictures about Nagi in Golden Gai. They are open 24 hours.

Nagi, Golden Gai
Shinjuku Golden-gai (G2 street) 2F, 1-1-10
Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku,

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