Living in: Tokyo
Time in Japan: since 2001
Hobbies: movies and Ramen, but mainly ramen.
Boiled pork bone soup? Home-made noodles? Been there done that, but with Chili sauce? That's a little unusual however Ichiran sets a bold new standard for ramen noodle connoisseurs and lovers of food in general. Ichiran, originally out of Fukuoka in Kyushu, Japan, have been mastering their craft since the 1960's. They have around 30 branches around Japan, a remarkably delicious but modest list of dishes focused on their ramen and a uniquely memorable dining experience. I have visited their shop in Ueno, Tokyo more than once, and I'm not alone.
But what is ramen? Every so often I must remind myself that I too had a period in my life when I did not know what ramen was. Yes, as an Australian I had eaten noodles of many varieties before I came to Japan but I had no knowledge of "Ramen". A friend introduced me to one store after a night of many beers. The love affair began from there. It's unknown exactly when Ramen or Chinese style wheat noodles in a meat or fish broth, was introduced to Japan. Even the origin of the name is shrouded in mystery. What is known is that it grew in popularity around Japan from early 1900's. The varieties seem endless, different sauces, different noodles, toppings, dipping ramen, soup-less ramen to name but a few. The four basic soup varieties are Shio (salt), Tonkotsu (pork bone), Shoyu (soy sauce) and Miso. The noodles are traditionally made of wheat flour, salt, water and whats known as Kansui, a type of alkaline mineral water which gives the noodle it's yellowish color. The varieties of ramen extend even further according to region and individual ramen restaurant cooks. The fact is, you can't turn your head in Tokyo without seeing a ramen shop. I know because I've been to more than a few as a avid fan of this dish, for around 10 years now. Every so often though, you find a shop with an amazing soup, funky ambiance or unforgettable noodles that makes you want to come back. Ichiran is most definitely, one such store.
Ichiran's staff are efficient and friendly, (not uncommon in Japan) which is a great start and they more than willing to help the foreigner with limited Japanese. There's a ticket machine just inside the entrance, with pictures and prices of all the dishes, drinks and extras available. Then there's the preferences slip. Actually not only does their preferences slip come in English, Japanese and Korean, so does does the companion ordering guide! It's here the fun begins. Choose your flavor strength, richness (yup, that means fat content), garlic, green onion (Negi to those in the know), Choushu (roast pork slices), 'Secret Sauce' (with a red pepper base) and the firmness of your ramen noodles. A word to the wise, don't underestimate the hotness of this 'secret sauce'! I prefer a half serve personally. Once your done with the circling and submitting, its just a matter of waiting in your cozy little booth for your meal to be brought to your window, or your seat to become available if you're visiting on a busy weekend.
The seating arrangements are just phenomenal. The Ueno restaurant consists mainly of partitioned booths with only 3 or 4 larger tables that can seat 4 to 6 customers. Each individual customer is assigned a 'booth' with wood paneling to the left and right and a small window with a bamboo curtain in front of you. Maybe it's just me but I've always been the kind of person who likes these sort of intimate spaces. The whole restaurant is decorated by moody spot-lighting, with dark tones and colors, black, beige and wood paneling. Add to that the traditional but upbeat Japanese music playing gently in the background and the occasional odd sound effect, sounding like its straight from a Kabuki performance, to announce new and exiting customers, and you have one of the most unique and genuine dining experiences you can imagine. If you're not grinning and enjoying yourself before your ramen even arrives, there's something wrong with you!
And so, of course, to the taste. The soup is not too heavy and not too light with just the right amount of the famous tonkotsu (pork bone) flavor, without overwhelming you. The noodles were a delight, clearly freshly made and cooked to perfection. I've had better choushu but whats a slice of pork between friends? But the 'Special Sauce' is Ichiran's claim to fame. It's said to be based on the red chili and 30 other ingredients cooked over several days lending an bite and warmth to their ramen which is unique. The tonkotsu soup is also prepared with 'special water' and great care. And let's not forget the noodles made by Ichiran. They're reported to be made with special ingredients and in climate controlled conditions to produce a noodle that specifically suits their 'special sauce' and soup. And I simply couldn't agree more. Ichiran also promises as part of their 'Noodle replacement' system that any customer can eat until they're full!
Ichiran has a reasonable online presence with both an explanatory website in English http://www.ichiran.co.jp/pc/hp/english/ and Japanese http://www.ichiran.co.jp/. The Japanese site has information on each branch's location including maps and storefront pictures. It would be a little hit and miss to find this information for those not up on their 'nihongo' so let's hope they make some improvements in that respect soon. The Ueno branch is on the western side of the station at street level facing Ueno Park, nestled among a number of other various restaurants. On a regular day it couldn't be easier to find though. Just look for the line up of hungry noodle hunters.