I love ramen. I could eat ramen every day. I did for a while, until it took a toll on my wallet and my stomach. Skinny guy with a beer belly was not the look I was going for. So now I hit the gym after every ramen meal. The gym usually hits back, though.
While living out my fantasy of visiting Japan recently, my friend Shiguchi-san took me to a hole-in-the-wall by the name of Ramen Jiro. Located in Tamachi, a district of Tokyo, this shop’s claim to fame is being the original Ramen Jiro, the first of a chain that spread throughout the country. Shiguchi-san explained that this place was sacred to Japanese ramen otaku. If you missed my past post, otaku is the Japanese word for someone who is extremely passionate about something to the point of being obsessive. It’s not really a good thing to be called, so don’t go around calling random people otaku, unless they’re your friends. And even then, you should think hard first.
The day was hot. I was looking forward to a cool glass of soda. Then I found out that soda isn’t served with ramen in Japan. At least, not in traditional ramen spots. It’s more of a western thing to drink soda with everything. Or maybe it’s just my thing. This place was so small that it didn’t serve anything but water. If you wanted something else, you had to look towards the vending machine by the entrance.
I found out that most Japanese ramen shops have you order via a machine at the entrance. The machine has a picture menu of the choices. You deposit your yen and a ticket or chip comes out. You then hand it over to the cook and your bowl is prepared. My friend guided me through the process and I ended up getting the signature dish, which I believe was also the cheapest. I think it was between 600 and 680 yen, roughly the equivalent of $6 to $7. Authentic Japanese ramen for less than $8? Take my money.
While standing at the entrance waiting for a seat to open up, I got a good view of the interior. It was tiny. There was a bar that sat roughly 12 people, with the cook and his assistants working frenetically behind it. Heat from the stove, the boiling broth and the customers filled the tiny space. Ramen Jiro must be magical for people to subject themselves to such furnace-like conditions. Or maybe I was just hot, sweaty and tired from all the walking it took to get there.
The cook was like a military commander, the assistants his lieutenants, and the customers his troops. The cook barked orders at his assistants and the customers, and like an assembly line, bowls were filled, ramen slurped and seats emptied. My friend told me that it’s Japanese style to eat as fast as you can, so you can get out of there quick. Japanese people are always busy and have places to go, according to Shiguchi-san.
Not today, though, because I tripped up the assembly line.
While making their bowls, the cook asked each customer something, to which the customer responded. Everyone pretty much gave the same response. Basically it was to ask for extra garlic and vegetables. Without looking, the cook would fill the bowl with the extra ingredients, already anticipating the standard response, moving a fraction of a second after the response was given.
When it came to me, I froze. Shiguchi-san had even told me what to say. For whatever reason, I couldn’t say the words correctly and everything stopped. The cook stared at me, his assistants stared at me, the customers stared at me. I felt like ramen zombies wanted to eat my brains. Luckily Shiguchi-san was patient and helped me pronounce the words correctly. Then everyone could resume eating again. I believe the words were, “yasai mashi mashi ninniku.”
I made the mistake of eating a big breakfast that morning. It was Japan and the food was good everywhere, so I ate a big breakfast. And it’s ramen and I love ramen, so I had no doubt I could finish whatever was put in front of me. I was wrong.
There was a mountain of sprouts in my bowl. I hate sprouts. But I had already caused one scene and didn’t want to cause another. Aside from the sprouts, everything else was amazing. The broth was spicy and full of flavor and seasonings that made me sweat, but I was already sweating so it didn’t matter. If you like salty, this broth is for you. There was a generous portion of chopped garlic, which I love as well. The noodles were much thicker and firmer than ramen noodles in Hawaii. There was even a hint of egg taste, which I loved. The portions were huge. So was the mountain of sprouts. And there was no takeout at Ramen Jiro.
Regretting having eaten breakfast, I attacked my ramen like a prizefighter. I could’ve been a contender, but in the final rounds I got hit with the TKO. Lucky for me, Shiguchi-san was a champ. He ate his bowl and the remaining half of mine. I tip my ramen bowl to you, sir.
If you’re ever in Tokyo and love ramen, don’t eat breakfast, get ready to walk, and practice saying “yasai mashi mashi ninniku.” You’ll find yourself at Ramen Jiro, ready to fill the hole in your heart and stomach with what’s been missing all this time: sprouts.
Minato, 東京都 〒108-0073