Striking a few ramen spots around Tokyo opportunistically on the first and last days of the trip (and at the end of the trip finding one amazing one whose name I still don’t know, in Southeastern Tokyo near the Daimon station).
Many major train stations have a nearby food alley, and I heard Shinagawa station had a “ramen alley” Shinatatsu. After landing at Narita but before hopping a shinkansen to another part of Japan (Shinagawa’s conveniently one of the shinkansen connection points), I dragged my suitcase out the West exit and then South along a dark sidewalk. It felt like I was in the wrong place– an industrial sidewalk hugging the station wall, with no business or signs of life, and cars rushing by to my right. But just two blocks later, a glowing entrance beckoned me to step down to a wooden boardwalk below street level lined with 7 or 8 ramen shops.
I squeezed my way into Tetsu, which I’d read about as one of the pioneers of the tsukemen ramen style.
As at all ramen shops I’ve been to here, before you sit down you choose your ramen and toppings from a vending machine which prints out a ticket– you then hand that ticket to the waiter. Some of these vending machines also have photos of each dish on the buttons, but this one didn’t.
Fortunately, even though I can’t read any kanji, I had brushed up on the two phoentic alphabets (there are various hiragana/katajana smartphone flash card apps these days, and with a week of study before the trip I had them reasonably well memorized– I recommend this as you can sound out a surprising number of street signs and menus this way– or at least keep a cheat sheet). For example, the top left small button on the machine is all phoenetic and spells out Tsu-ke-me-n, and the button in row 4 column 3 spells out me-n-ma (bamboo shoots).
Then the ramen arrived, and it was what I thought I’d ordered! Whew. The tsukemen style is “dipping ramen” — you get a bowl of ramen in a plain broth along with a bowl of heated, strongly-flavored sauce, and you dip and eat.
It was a rich, slightly oily, sweet, and nutty sauce, almost like a gravy, and a very different ramen experience. The noodles themselves were very good– springy and firm, and it hit the spot and transformed me from grumpy and low on sleep to relaxed and low on sleep (enough to at least make it through the few hours of additional travel), but overall it was too rich and not my favorite ramen style– it mirrors how I feel about deep dish pizza compared to thin-crust.
At the end of the trip, a morning bowl of ramen. Decent, and a good deal at $6, but nothing special.
And then, the last night in Tokyo with a friend, after not having a hotel lined up at 11pm and scrambling to find one, everything fell into place– and there was a ramen shop a block down the street that was amazingly good. I still think about it.
Watching the ramen be made was a production as well– the single fast-moving chef was pounding something(?) in a gigantic (floor-to-waist high) pot with a large wooden post, into a white paste he strained and ladeled into each bowl. He also had bowls of some oil, broth, onions, soft-cooked eggs, and sliced pork to arrange. The noodles themselves were boiling in individual wire strainers in a large pot– as time passed he broke off a piece of noodle from each batch, squeezed it between two fingers to check texture, then bit off the end. When he was satisfied, he’d lift the strainer out of the water and with a single, sharp flinging motion down– sluice the water out onto the floor behind the bar. The whole time he made minimal eye contact but had a sly sliver of a smile on his lips as if he had his own private joke.
The noodles were so springy in texture, the soft eggs were like a rich pudding, and the broth was creamy (presumably a pork tonkotsu broth, not a salt/soy/miso broth) but with modest flavors beautifully in balance– like tuning in and out distance conversations, at any moment I could taste savory, salt, richness, or meat, with no individual flavor being especially strong (well, except for the bite of the green onions). And all of this for $8.50.
I wish I knew the name of this place so I could recommend it to others, and I couldn’t find anything matching it browsing Google Maps, Foursquare, or other location databases, but here’s the block it’s on (three and a half blocks west of the Daimon subway station) and the front awning looks like this:
With beer glasses so chilled there are chunks of ice on the rim. Japan does make me more open to crisp, light lagers.