One Noodle at a Time in Tokyo
Basil Childers for The New York Times
The New York Times
Chuka Soba Inoue serves shoyu ramen (with soy-enhanced chicken broth) near the Tsukiji fish market.
By MATT GROSS
Published: January 31, 2010
NOT far from Waseda University in Tokyo, around the corner from a 7-Eleven, down a tidy alley, lies a ramen shop that doesn’t look like a ramen shop. In fact, Ganko, as it’s called, doesn’t look like anything at all. There’s no sign, no windows, only a raggedy black tarp set like a tent against a tiled wall, with a white animal bone dangling from a chain to signal (somehow) what lies within.
Tokyo's Brave New Noodle World
Past the tarp and through a sliding glass door is Ganko proper. Five stools are lined up along a faux-wood counter, and above it a thin space opens like a proscenium onto a small kitchen, crusted black with age and smoke but hardly dirty. The lone performer is a ramen chef. With a week’s stubble on his chin, his eyeglasses fogged with steam and a towel wrapped around his neck, he certainly looks ganko, or stubborn, and he speaks hardly a word as he methodically fills bowls with careful dollops of flavorings and fats, ladles of rich broth, noodles cooked just al dente and shaken free of excess water, a slab of roast pork, a supple sheet of seaweed, a tangle of pickled bamboo shoots. All is silent until the final moment, when the chef drizzles hot oil on top and the shreds of pale-green scallion squeal and sizzle.
From then on there is only one sound — the slurping of noodles. Oh, it’s punctuated by the occasional happy hum of a diner chewing pork or guzzling the fat-flecked broth, or even by the faint chatter of the chef’s radio, but it’s the slurps that take center stage, long and loud and enthusiastic, showing appreciation for the chef’s métier even as they cool the noodles down to edible temperature.
And when the noodles are finally gone, the bowl empty of everything but a few oleaginous blobs, each diner sets his bowl back upon the counter, mumbles “Gochiso-sama deshita” — roughly “Thank you for the meal” — pays the 700-yen fee (about $7.85 at 89 yen to the dollar) and wanders back out into the daylight world where Ganko suddenly seems like a hallucination, a Wonderland dream of noodly bliss.
Now, you might think that Ganko would be a closely held secret — a destination I managed to uncover only through bribes, threats and tearful entreaties. But you’d be wrong. I learned about Ganko out in the open, from an English-language blog, Ramenate!, started by a Columbia University graduate student working on his Ph.D. in modern Japanese literature and, more important, cataloging his near-daily bowls of noodles.
Ramenate! is hardly the only ramen blog out there. There are dozens, many in English, many more in Japanese. Together they constitute but one small corner of Tokyo’s sprawling ramen ecosystem, a realm that encompasses multilingual guidebooks, glossy magazines, databases that score shops to three decimal places (Ganko’s underrated by RamenDB.com at 76.083), comic books, TV shows, movies (like the 1985 classic “Tampopo,” in which a Stetson-wearing trucker helps a beleaguered widow learn the art of ramen) and, according to the Shinyokohama Raumen Museum (yes, there is a ramen museum), the 4,137 shops selling bowls of noodles in broth.
Still unclear? Well, combine New Yorkers’ love of pizza, hot dogs and hamburgers, throw in some Southern barbecue mania, and you’ve still only begun to approximate Tokyo’s obsession with ramen.
This ramen is definitely not the dried stuff you subsisted on in college. At the best shops, and even at lesser lights, almost everything is fresh, handmade and artisanal, from long-simmered broths and hand-cut noodles to pigs raised on red wine (for an inside-out marinade). In some quarters, regional varieties predominate: shoyu, or soy-enhanced chicken broth (like Ganko’s), is popular throughout Honshu, Japan’s main island, but tonkotsu, or pork-bone broth, from the southern island of Kyushu has developed a widespread following, while garlicky, thick-noodled miso ramen from Sapporo, in the north, has adherents too. Elsewhere, the flavors are simply at the whim of the chef, or of ever-shifting trends.
Over six days in late November, I submerged myself in Tokyo’s ramen culture, eating roughly four bowls a day at shops both fancy and spartan, modern and ganko, trying to suss out not just what makes a good bowl but also the intricacies of ordering and eating well. Above all, I wanted to know why such a simple concoction — brought from China by Confucian missionaries in the 17th century — inspired so much passion and devotion among Japanese and foreigners alike, and to thereby gain some deeper understanding of Tokyo itself.
My guide for much of this ramen adventure was Brian MacDuckston, the 31-year-old English teacher from San Francisco behind RamenAdventures.com. Tall and pale, bald and bespectacled, Mr. MacDuckston resembles a noodle himself, and his thin, lightly tattooed figure belies the amount of ramen he’s consumed. Indeed, as he told me, he’s even lost weight during the three and a half years he’s lived in Japan — a rare feat among food bloggers.
Not that he ate much ramen at first. It was only in January 2008, after months of noticing the 45-minute lines outside Mutekiya, a trendy ramen shop in the Ikebukuro neighborhood, that he finally decided to dip his chopsticks.