Last month we went to Japan. But this was no ordinary vacation. This was a business trip! The purpose: eating ramen. We thought that a great way to evaluate our own product would be to go to Tokyo and eat ramen day after day, trying styles and flavors and absorbing the atmosphere. Daily ramen intake would help sharpen our ramen sensitivities, in a way that would be hard to achieve in the U.S. It's impossible to match the sheer concentration of ramen shops in Japan, or the diversity in the ramen they serve. This kind of experience would give us a better lens to look at what we're doing with Shiba Ramen.
So we made up our minds to eat ramen at least once each day, and to try two kinds of ramen at every restaurant. Of course, we had to reserve meals for friends and family and for eating toro (which occurred not less than three times). We ended up trying 13 different bowls of ramen over 6 days. We even exceeded our once-a-day goal, once having ramen for both lunch and dinner. Two different ramens at each restaurant, except for one that only had a single-item menu, where we got two bowls of the same thing.
In the process, we tried spicy ramens, clam ramens, soupless ramens, and chain restaurant ramens. At every single place, we paid in advance at a ticket machine (see below). Some places we found through recommendations or website best-of lists, some just because they happened to be there when we needed to eat ramen. Some were great, some were good, and some were just so-so. We measured the ramen's salt content at each restaurant (an important metric).
Let's start our ramen tour with three shops outside Tokyo, in Chiba prefecture to the east and Shizuoka prefecture to the West. Next time we'll hit four shops in Tokyo.
Next to Ramen School (Yachiyo, Chiba)
We hoofed it out to Chiba for our trip to ramen school the morning after we arrived in Japan. After our visit, we were starving. We asked Akimoto-san for a recommendation, and he suggested a place called Junki right down the road from Shoku no Dojo; we'd walked past it on the way from the bus stop. This was exciting. First ramen of the tour! We walked in, and saw right away how ramen is ordered and paid for in Japan: through a ticket machine next to the entrance. We ordered, handed our tickets to one of the servers, and sat down.
A few minutes later two bowls of ramen arrived, along with two mandatory beers. We tried a tonkotsu (below left) and spicy miso (below right). Very tasty, a lot of flavor, and a nice pile of vegetables on top. The best part, though, was that they had roasted the chashu over coals, giving it a great charcoal grill flavor. The grilled flavor was pulled into the broth, and enhanced the whole experience. The ramen was pretty salty (1.8% or so) and garlicky. All in all, positive, and I think this ramen would be a hit here in the U.S.
Meh. Chain Ramen (Mishima, Shizuoka)
We wanted to try at least one chain restaurant ramen. There are a lot of large ramen chains in Japan, and we wanted to visit one of the more highly rated ones and evaluate the quality of the ramen against the other stuff we were eating. We were passing through the Izu Peninsula, on a Shinkansen bullet train ride from Tokyo to Hamamatsu (Hiroko's hometown), and we got off the train along the way to meet a friend in the town of Mishima. Mishima is near the ocean; they have good sushi there, so our first stop was a sushi restaurant to have some of the local catch (fyi this is 4 hours after an 8:30 a.m. sushi breakfast).
But this was also our last chance on the trip to try chain ramen, since our trip home was the next day. So we did a second lunch at what was reputed to be a pretty good chain, Ramen Kagetsu (third-largest chain in Japan with 276 locations). The interior was sort of dilapidated, but it was still pretty full on a Sunday at 1 p.m. We ordered some tonkotsu (lower left) and miso (lower right). When they were hot, they tasted ok. Fairly salty (~1.5%), but not as strong as other places. As they cooled down, though, the taste changed and it became clear that a lot of msg had been added to prop up the flavor. In the end, pretty much meh. We didn't come close to finishing (although we were handicapped by those plates of nigiri we'd downed 30 minutes earlier).
Train Station Ramen and Hamamatsu Gyoza (Hamamatsu, Shizuoka)
On our last day, we took the Shinkansen back to Tokyo and decided to squeeze in one last ramen at Hamamatsu Station. Our real objective was to eat the style of gyoza popular in the area: "Hamamatsu gyoza." Hiroko has been telling me for years about some restaurant that specializes in Hamamatsu gyoza, on the far edge of town out in the middle of a bunch of farm fields. Supposedly this place's cabbage-filled gyoza are hugely popular, so despite the remoteness, we'd planned to go.
When we realized there wasn't enough time to get there, we decided to find a ramen shop in the train station. There was only one place, so that's where we went. We got some dark miso ramen (lower left) and clear shio (salt) ramen (right), along with a side of apparently very unremarkable Hamamatsu gyoza. It was solid, but not as good as the stuff we'd eaten in Tokyo, and too salty (2%). The charcoal grilled chashu, however, was redeeming.