A steaming hot bowl of ramen was placed on my table, through the window gap ahead of me in my little booth. Through that gap, I saw the server step aside to bow deeply at his waist, while chiming some Japanese words melodiously. Japanese restaurant staff are always greeting you welcome, enjoy your food and thank you. My bamboo blinds were then released by the waiter, closing off further interaction between us.
Now, it’s just me and the bowl of ramen in front of me.
Dining at Ichiran Ramen in Tokyo
Is it ramen for the antisocial?
Videos and social media tend to portray the Ichiran Ramen experience as a mysterious, odd dining experience, almost meant solely for loners and anti-social beings. All you’ll get to see are disembodied hands delivering your food, not faces of people.
I must tell you, that impression is not fully accurate, because I did catch an 80% glimpse of my server’s face, lol.
The Ichiran Ramen experience is actually about enjoying your bowl of ramen without distraction.
If all goes as planned, you don’t even need to speak to any staff.
By having individual booths specifically compartmentalized for this exact ramen experience, you get all permission to fully focus on your food. No longer do you have to be distracted by social settings: chatting with friends, interacting with restaurant staff etc. Though who would have predicted that the biggest distraction we’ll face in our current world is our mobile phone.
Technically, you can still speak to your friend if he’s sitting beside you. All you need it to pop your head out. It’s not as lonesome an experience as imagined. Just don’t be too loud though.
But why should you not be speaking with restaurant staff?
In the more traditional sense of Japanese culture, you – as a guest or a customer – are so honorable that wait-staff should be able to understand what you want, without you having to speak a word. Perhaps that’s why interaction is kept to a minimum when it comes to dining preferences in Tokyo. However, the origin of Ichiran Ramen was that, when the restaurant owner was a young student, he noticed his female school-mates appearing very conscious about eating and slurping ramen in public. Hence, he came up with this concept for ramen booths – to offer privacy for people to eat ramen without feeling awkward.
At Ichiran Ramen, you place orders via machines and paper forms. It might seem a bit overwhelming at first, but there was actually a host waitress at the entrance during our visit. She was ready to guide us with orders, and to advise our seating.
Customizing your preferred Ichiran ramen
No onions in your ramen? Softer noodles? You can specify all of that.
Ichiran Ramen only serves one choice soup – tonkatsu-based soup, but you can customize your preferred bowl of ramen to some extent. You get to choose the richness of the soup, some of the ingredients like garlic and onions, firmness of the noodles, and how spicy you want it to be.
I chose the default recommended marked in the dotted circles, except stating Spicy for the red sauce.
Ordering ramen refills and extras
Kae-dama refers to noodle refill – it’s part of the ramen experience. Kae-dama is an additional serving of freshly prepared noodles (you don’t get a refill of soup) which you can then add into your bowl.
Since I can be a big eater at times (it must be because I hiked Mt Takao in the afternoon before coming to Ichiran), I decided to order an additional half-serving of ramen. To order second servings, mark it on the additional piece of paper provided for each booth. This time, I chose “Firm” instead of my original order of Medium. Gingerly pressing the little button on the gadget, I waited to see what happens.
The blinds lifted, the server collected my order sheet, placed a tiny little metal plate meant for my payment at my booth, and closed it. Shortly after, my refill arrived. The hardness of my noodles turned out perfect.
By the time I left Ichiran, I was well-fed, full and happy.
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Is Ichiran Ramen worth a visit?
Although it’s not the best ramen I’ve eaten, it’s still really pretty good.
Ichiran Ramen’s prices are on par or slightly higher than many ramen eateries you’ll find in Tokyo, but way cheaper than any established ramen restaurants in Singapore. For 890yen (S$11, USD$8), you get the basic bowl, while adding a soft-boiled egg will cost your order to total 1020yen (S$12+, USD$9+).
Other than the unique dining experience, Ichiran Ramen is also well-received because of its spicy red sauce. It’s made of 30 different kinds of ingredients – so much work goes into the sauce! The ramen was tasty and authentic. If you order with the egg, peel the shell off then add it to your soup. The egg, unfortunately, lacked the excellent Japanese standard of a gudetama egg.
I’ll be happy to visit Ichiran Ramen again for my future trips, as long there’re no crazily long queues!
How to order your Ichiran Ramen
1. Place your ramen order via the machine
It’s common to order ramen via machines in Tokyo’s ramen restaurants. The machines at Ichiran Ramen have small photos accompanying the buttons. Press the button, insert your money. Get the little ticket and any change.
2. Specify your ramen preferences through a chit
My goldfish memory cannot remember if the host waitress took our ticket or I passed it to the kitchen staff at my booth, along with the Preference chit. But not to worry, in Tokyo, many things are instinctive and people are always helpful and respectful. You’ll never be left to deal with problems alone nor made to feel stupid.
As it wasn’t crowded yet, the host waitress allocated seats such that my Mum can sit beside me, and my little nephew can sit next to his Mum, in individual booths of course. I’d read that at other Ichiran outlets, when it’s your turn in the queue, you might have to press a “空” (it means Vacant) button on the screen to indicate you’re taking that available cubicle.
When in doubt, follow what others do! Or simply check out this guide for the most user-friendly guide I found!
We’d read that the Ichiran restaurants at Shinjuku get long queues, and since we were staying at Ikebukuro this time, my family and I met up for the branch in this area. There wasn’t a queue when we arrived at 6.45pm on a Friday evening, even though there were just 22 seats at this branch.
When we finished eating, people had already formed a queue outside the restaurant.
Tips for visiting Ichiran in Tokyo
- There is only one option served at Ichiran Ramen – Tonkatsu pork-bone soup.
- Go during off-peak hours, to minimize having to queue.
- Choose the less popular branches as those in Shinjuku are known for long queues.
- As with ramen restaurants in Tokyo, there’ll be hangers behind your seats for you to hang your jackets/coats/scarves.
Have you visited Ichiran Ramen? Did you enjoy it too?
Visited: Nov 2017
A long shot but does anyone happen to know this? Years ago, there’s a little ramen eatery at Cuppage in Singapore called Ken Ramen. It serves the most delicious cold ramen. The ramen place has since closed down. Does anyone know if it can be found anywhere or a similar taste?
Mini guides on Japan!
• Tokyo for the first time? Here’s where to go!
• 15 reasons Tokyo is great for solo travel
• My preferred hotel in Tokyo: Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku
• How to use Japan’s naked baths (onsen)