5 Things to Keep in Mind When Trying Ramen in Japan
With ramen taking the world by storm, there are plenty of people who visit Japan looking to try some interesting ramen for themselves. There are so many types available, from different bases like pork stock, soy sauce, or salt. And with variations like light, innovative styles or big, extravagant servings, there's something for everybody to like about this dish. Of course, this huge variety of ramen comes with its own culture and rules, and before you make any faux pas, let us show you everything you need to know to keep up with the latest ramen trends!
Aug 16 2019 (Sep 24 2020)
How Much Do You Know About Ramen?
It's probably a safe bet that everyone has at least tried ramen once in their life. It consists of Chinese-styled noodles swimming in soup and topped with garnishes such as spring onions, bamboo shoots, and other delectable sides. It's said that ramen can be traced back to China, and it spread across Japan when the ports opened for trade with the Chinese. From there, ramen has since evolved in many different ways, depending on the region, into the large variety you see today.
The most sought after qualities in good ramen can be distilled down to 3 principals: cheap, quick and delicious. Most ramen costs around 600 to 900 yen a bowl, and the fast yet generous servings have elevated this dish into soul food status in the minds of the Japanese. Here are some tips to get you started on exploring the surprisingly deep world of ramen!
1. Mind Your Manners
Every ramen master puts their heart and soul into every little detail in their craft, whether it's the ingredients, the soup, the noodles, or even how it's served and eaten. Some of the more stubborn shops will take offence at customers' manners and habits, so perhaps it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with the customs associated with hitting up a ramen stand. This way you can avoid any trouble that might come up and enjoy your noodles in peace.
The majority of Japanese ramen shops have fewer seats than your average restaurant, with a large percentage that only offer counter seats. This means that if you linger you are effectively making other customers wait longer to get a seat. This is especially true for popular joints where lining up is a must. Another point to consider is that noodles can "stretch" if you take too long to consume it, damaging the integrity of the noodle. With that in mind it is probably for the best if you hold off on the chatter and concentrate on the delicious meal before you.
・Order One Bowl of Noodles Per Person
This is mostly aimed at people who order one bowl of ramen and share it between 3 or 4 people. This usually happens when some of the customers aren't that hungry or that they want to save money, but please understand that this is a taboo in Japan. Every shop will have its own variation on this rule but generally its one bowl per customer. If you can't finish a normal serving you can actually ask for a smaller serving of noodles at most stores instead by saying the phrase, "Men-sukuname-de." The price will usually stay the same as a normal size, but at least this way no one will be offended by the request. For those of you that simply can't touch ramen for any reason (allergies, etc.), you can order some fried rice or dumplings instead.
・Outside Food or Drinks are Not Permitted
Most restaurants in Japan will not allow you to bring your own food or drink. Instead, order something off the menu and remember, water and sometimes tea is usually offered for free.
While the number of places that have ways to communicate in other languages have been rising, the majority still only speak in Japanese. It gets even worse when you venture out away from the bigger cities, so be prepared to do a lot of gesturing if you can't speak Japanese. Another option is to take a translation app with you on your trip, just in case.
2. How to Order
There are 2 variations on placing an order in a ramen shop. The first is to call on the staff to place your order. The second involves buying a ticket from a vending machine. This method reduces human error and takes the burden off the staff, allowing them to concentrate on bringing out the food faster. If you ever see a vending machine at one of these places then you can use it to place your order. This method is so widely used these days that it is slowly becoming the norm.
Not every vending machine will be exactly the same, but they generally follow these steps:
- Insert money
- Press the button for the menu item you want to order.
- In some cases, you may need to press 確定 (confirm) to process your order.
- Take the ticket that comes out. Some machines will automatically dispense your change, but otherwise you need to manually press a button to receive your change.
- Hand the tickets to the staff.
The buttons on the vending machine will have the name of the menu item and the price. Some stores even add a small image too. A few places will have the items in English, but most will still be in Japanese. For those that are purely in Japanese it might be a better idea to ask for recommendations instead. You can also check the menu beforehand as they usually have a menu posted either inside or outside the store. This way you would be less likely to get stuck at the vending machine, forcing the other customers behind you to wait.
Operating one of these vending machines may seem like a huge hurdle for those who don't know any Japanese, but it's actually easier than you might imagine. Give it a go if you get a chance!
3. Ramen Jargon
Next, let's look at some ramen-specific lingo to help you customize your ramen order!
For Hakata Ramen
Kaedama: An extra serving of noodles, for those times where you still have soup left and still want more. Most ramen restaurants in Kyushu also use this word.
Bariyawa: Extra soft noodles
Yawa: Soft noodles
Barikata: Hard noodles
Harigane: Extra hard noodles
For Tsukemen Noodles
Atsumori: Served hot
Hiyamori: Served cold
Soup wari: Served with dashi soup, so that you may dilute the sauce to create a soup that you can drink.
For Ie-kei Ramen
You can adjust a few elements for this type of ramen, such as the strength of the flavor, the hardness of the noodles or the amount of oil.
・Flavor: Koime (strong)／ Futsu (normal) ／ Usume (light)
・Noodle hardness: Katame (hard)／ Futsu (normal) ／ Yawarakame(soft)
・Oil: Ome (more) ／ Futsu (normal) ／ Sukuname (less)
For Jiro-kei Ramen
If a normal serving is has enough toppings for you then just say Zenbu-futsu to the staff. If you want more, then use the following phrases:
・Mashi - More than usual
・MashiMashi - double the serving size
・Chomoranma - triple the serving size
※ You can also say oome instead of mashi
※ Mashi just means more, so the actual amount differs according to each store.
※ Chomoranma may not be available at all places.
4. The Traditional Styles of Ramen
Now that we've covered the manners section, let's bring out the ramen! In Japan, there are so many different styles and types of ramen that it becomes hard to keep track of them all. Amongst all the different soups and toppings, they can be divided into these broad categories.
The base for ramen comes from the first ramen restaurant in Japan - Rairaiken, located in Asakusa, Tokyo. The types of dashi they use in the soup changes according to region, but all of them use shoyu (soy sauce) as a base. Many places use chicken bones and various other ingredients as stock but pork, beef, fish or even a combination of these can also be used to make the broth. By mixing all of these they can create a whole range of soup, from light and delicate all the way to thick and deep varieties. Commonly used ingredients include spring onions, bamboo shoots, dried seaweed, eggs and slices of char siu pork. This type is so widespread and familiar to the Japanese that when someone says ramen in Japan, they are usually referring to the shoyu-based variety.
It's been said that the Shio (salt) based ramen originated in Hakodate, Hokkaido, at a western diner named Yowaken. This style of soup is made by taking a mix of ingredients and creating a dashi from it, then taking that dashi and combining it with a salt based sauce. Commonly used ingredients here include spring onions, bamboo shoots, veggies, and fish cake. It goes well with seafood toppings such as prawns, asari (Japanese littleneck clam), or seaweed. Popular with the ladies, it is generally clear and light, yet full of umami flavor.
The use of tonkotsu (pork bones) as a base for the soup was pioneered by a ramen shop called Nankinsenryo, in Kurume, Fukuoka. It then evolved into the thick, white soup we see today because someone at a shop called Sankyu, also in Kurume, made the mistake of overheating the soup. These days the style has spread all over Kyushu with many stores popping up all over the place. The flavor itself might vary between different stores, but the key characteristics of this style are the milky white soup and the super thin noodles. The soup gains its white color when pork bones that are high in collagen are left in boiling hot water and the collagen melts out of the bones, along with the distinctive fragrance and flavors from the bone. Common ingredients that are used in a bowl of this ramen include bamboo shoots, char siu, spring onion, broiled eggs, pickled ginger, and wood ear mushrooms. It is thick and filling, so while it is popular amongst the younger generation, it is also getting plenty of fans from overseas.
It has been rumored that miso ramen was first created in Sapporo, Hokkaido, at a store named Aji no Sanpei. The owner decided to develop a ramen that incorporates miso because it is a very healthy food item. This soup is made by extracting dashi from a mix of pork bones, stir fried meats and vegetables and then adding miso paste before heating. Common toppings include bamboo shoots, char siu, spring onion, eggs and sometimes even corn and butter at some stores. The complex flavors of the miso in the soup really whets the appetite.
Although its origins are unknown, this has been suggested that this style might be rooted in mizutaki, a local delicacy of Hakata, Fukuoka. It is made by slowly heating chicken bones, to the point that the soup becomes white in color. The common toppings here include char siu, chicken, spring onion, eggs, and cabbage or other assorted vegetables. While it doesn't have a unique fragrance like tonkotsu does, it is a light soup that packs a powerful punch with its chicken flavor. Popular with people of all ages, it has even given rise to a new trend of creamier, potage-like soup called noko tori-baitan.
Tsukemen is a dish where the cooked noodles are rinsed with water and then served with soup on the side that the noodles are dipped into before eating. This type of ramen is said to have been created as a staff meal made with leftovers at Taishoken in Tokyo. Thicker noodles are prepared for this dish, and because the noodles are washed after cooking, they retain their chewiness for much longer. The thick soup is characteristic of this dish and you can ask to have it hot (atsumori) or cold (hiyamori). Toppings include char siu, bamboo shoots, nori, and boiled eggs, among others. Once you've finished the noodles, you can add fresh dashi into the remaining soup to diffuse it into a thin soup that you can then sip after the meal.
Aburasoba refers to ramen that is served without soup, but there are 2 different stories as to how it came about. One states that the ramen shop Miyuki came up with the idea after trying to design a side dish to pair with alcoholic drinks. The other stems from Chinchintei, where the staff got the idea off the Chinese dish banmen. Either way, both of these stores are situated in Tokyo's Musashino area and the dish is celebrated by students for its size and affordability. In this style, the bowl is filled to the brim with noodles and toppings, and you mix it all with a bit of sauce before digging in. This dish can sometimes be referred to as mazesoba (mix soba) because of all the mixing. The sauce is generally soy sauce-based, but you can add other condiments as you eat to change up the flavor, such as chili oil and vinegar. For toppings you usually see ingredients like char siu, bamboo shoots, spring onion, eggs, and so on.
5. New Age Ramen
With over 30,000 ramen stores in Japan, you would expect that some of these stores will try to stand out by coming up with something new. These guys strive to create new flavors and attain a sort of cult status, where their names are whispered in hushed tones in dark alleys between ramen fans. In recent years they have become so popular that store have begun to pop up all over Japan, so much so that even the average traveler might bump into one by accident without even realizing it. For those who want to give these trendy creations a go we have listed a few of the more prominent ones below.
The name for this style comes from the stores that serve this dish, but it can sometimes be referred to as Yokohama ramen. The main store, Yoshimuraya, is located in Yokohama, Kanagawa, and most of the other branches are named in the same format, with a name and a -ya attached. The word they use for -ya is 家, so this style became known as 家系, or Ie-kei (Ie-style) as Ie is an alternate reading for 家. They use a rich shoyu-tonkotsu soup in combination with thick, straight noodles. For their toppings they mostly use char siu, spinach, nori seaweed, and so on. They can also adjust to your preferences as you can choose the strength and oiliness of the soup and the softness of the noodles when you place your order.
This style is based on the example set by Ramen Jiro, a ramen shop in Minato, Tokyo. It consists of a rich, dark tonkotsu-shoyu soup, super thick, chewy noodles and enough vegetables like bean sprouts to cover it all. You also get to choose if you want to add more toppings like garlic, extra veggies, back fat, or even more sauce to strengthen the flavor. The number of stores that have taken a page out of Ramen Jiro's book have been increasing all over Japan, elevating this unique style to cult status. Referred to as Jiro-inspired, there are also fans of these places that have taken to calling themselves Jiro-lian.
While it first appeared in Kyoto, the Awa-kei (bubble-type) of ramen created a trend in the Kansai area for a few years. They make it by putting the chicken-baitan or tonkotsu base broth into a mixer before serving it. Much like a cappuccino, by foaming the soup up you can achieve a soft, creamy mouthfeel. This way, the soup clings to the noodles much better, creating a whole new experience of trying ramen.
Enjoy Ramen in Japan!
Loved by not only the Japanese but also by fans all over the world, Ramen is cheap, delicious and somehow comforting all at the same time. From big chains to small local stores, each and every shop has its own distinct flavors and styles. When you visit Japan, don't miss out on these delightful bowls that are just brimming with character.
If you want to give feedback on any of our articles, you have an idea that you'd really like to see come to life, or you just have a question on Japan, hit us up on our Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram!
Title Image: TMON / Shutterstock
The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.