Ramen in Japan

I want to begin this post by saying that those who haven’t tried authentic Japanese ramen haven’t really lived. Now, I’m not talking about those freeze-dried noodle chunks you can find for 50 cents in the grocery store (although those can be delicious), but the savory, perfectly balanced noodles served fresh with meat and vegetables. In Tokyo alone there must be hundreds of ramen shops, all with their own unique approach and styles of ramen.

My first ramen experience in Japan, served with soup, salad and fried rice as a lunch set. It was so good, I almost cried (and I wish I was kidding about that!)

My first ramen experience in Japan, served with soup, salad and fried rice as a lunch set. It was so good, I almost cried (and I wish I was kidding about that!)

These noodles aren’t just a popular dish. Ramen is a countrywide delicacy, an art form, and a huge cultural phenomenon.

Second favorite ramen from Japan. This shop was located in Shibuya, and I ate there after class all the time.

My favorite ramen from Japan. This shop was located in Shibuya, and I ate there after class all the time.

I ate ramen at least once a week while I was in Japan, and I never got tired of it. It’s sometimes called gakusei ryori (student cuisine) due to its cheap and filling nature, but even foodies of Japan go to great lengths to grab the perfect bowl. On my way to school, I often passed a popular ramen shop called Ramen Jiro that had lines wrapping around the block at 8 am…. and the restaurant didn’t even open until 11!

Ramen Jiro has a cult-like following in Japan. It's known for its insane portion sizes, fatty broth, and heaping toppings of pork belly, garlic, and vegetables. I never got to try it, but I did go to school right near its original location in Mita!

Ramen Jiro has a cult-like following in Japan. It’s known for its insane portion sizes, fatty broth, and heaping toppings of pork belly, garlic, and vegetables. I never got to try it, but I did go to school right near its original location in Mita!

Different areas of Japan are known for different styles of ramen, each with unique broths and toppings. Sapporo style ramen, for instance, has a rich broth and is topped with corn and butter, while Tokyo style ramen has a soy and dashi (fish and seaweed stock) based broth with bamboo shoots and green onion.

Traditional Tokyo style ramen with shoyu (soy) broth

Ramen with shoyu (soy) broth

Tomato ramen from a specialty ramen shop. The tomato-based broth was filled with angel-hair like ramen noodles, bok choy, and a giant heap of parmesan cheese.

Tomato ramen from a specialty ramen shop. The tomato-based broth was filled with angel-hair like ramen noodles, bok choy, and a giant heap of parmesan cheese.

Typically, there are 4 types of broth, including shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce), miso (miso paste), and tonkotsu (pork bone).  Depending on the style of the dish and type of broth, ramen can be topped with a countless number of different ingredients. Some of the most popular include nori (seaweed), bamboo shoots, scallion, leeks, garlic, bean sprouts, egg, and fish cake.

Tonkotsu ramen from Osaka. Notice the cloudy, rich broth. This was by far my favorite type of ramen.

Tonkotsu ramen from Osaka. Notice the cloudy, rich broth. This was by far my favorite type of ramen.

Ramen from a Chinese restaurant

Ramen is originally a Chinese dish, so it’s easy to find in Chinese restaurants across Japan!

Yasai (vegetable) ramen

Yasai (vegetable) ramen

Ramen shops are typically very small, and only have seats at a counter or a few small tables and booths along the wall. Because of this, the shops fill up quickly and customers only stay long enough to eat their ramen before they go. To expedite the process even more, customers often pay for their food before they enter the restaurant using what looks like a vending machine. The guests enter their money, choose the type of ramen they want, and receive a small ticket that they hand to the chef.

Here's how I paid at my favorite ramen shop! You simply insert your money, choose the type of ramen, and get a ticket!

Here’s how I paid at my favorite ramen shop! You simply insert your money, choose the type of ramen, and get a ticket!

A counter at a traditional ramen shop

A counter at a traditional ramen shop

Ramen is great on cold days, when you’re sick, or you’re just looking for a great meal. It’s definitely the dish that I miss the most from Japan, as it’s hard (but not impossible!) to find authentic ramen in the United States. My favorites so far have been Pikaichi in Boston and Terakawa in Philadelphia.

My last ramen in Japan, at Narita airport. This was a sad day.

My last ramen in Japan, at Narita airport. This was a sad day.

Ramen from Terakawa in Philadelphia, courtesy of my Instagram account

Ramen from Terakawa in Philadelphia, courtesy of my Instagram account.

What about you? Where do you get your ramen fix? And more importantly…did I make you hungry yet?

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Asakusa

When I lived in Tokyo, I was constantly astounded by the mixture of old and new, tradition and modernity. Despite the differences between glass skyscrapers and wooden shrines, everything seemed to blend together seamlessly. That’s probably what I like the most about Asakusa, a popular destination that used to be home to Tokyo’s entertainment district in the Edo period (1603-1867). Although the area was bombed and severely damaged by World War II, today Asakusa offers a rich cultural experience as well as modern thrills.

With the Tokyo Sky Tree in the distance, first glimpses make Asakusa seems like just another modern district

With the Tokyo Sky Tree in the distance, first glimpses make Asakusa seems like just another modern district

Asakusa is probably best known for Senso-ji, Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist Temple. Thousands of people flock here every day to pay their respects to the bodhisattva Kannon, or visit one of the other many shrines in the area.

Kaminarimon, the entrance gate that leads to Senso-ji Temple

Kaminarimon, the entrance gate that leads to Senso-ji Temple

Senso-ji Temple

Senso-ji Temple

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My favorite part of the Temple grounds, however, was the long corridor of both traditional and modern shops that offer everything from keychains and Hello Kitty bags to yukata (summer robes) and traditional street snacks.

The main shopping street, Nakamise

The main shopping street, Nakamise

Here's the main street later on in the year. The decorations change to match the seasons

Here’s the main street later on in the year. The decorations change to match the seasons

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Asakusa is a great place to find souvenirs, especially if you’re looking for traditional Japanese arts. I must have come here 5 times, in search of the perfect gifts for my family and friends.

Traditional Japanese sandals, also called zori

Traditional Japanese sandals, also called zori

Ceramic dishes and cute pigs!

Ceramic dishes and cute pigs!

I regretted buying one of these, even though they were close to $40

I regretted not buying one of these, even though they were close to $30

Owl coin purses

Owl coin purses

Kimono shop

Kimono shop

Hungry? Asakusa is widely known for its tempura. Although I never had a chance to try it, I still had plenty of amazing meals in and around the temple. If you’re in the mood for a traditional snack, the vendors of the nakamise have plenty of options. If not, there are dozens of noodle shops and Western cafes just outside. My favorite food of Asakusa would have to be the ice cream- I’ve never seen so many interesting flavors from one vendor, and I wanted to try them all! I’ll cover the street food of Japan a little later, but here’s a few meals I managed to enjoy in Asakusa:

So many flavors!!

So many flavors!!

My favorite flavors- green tea on the left and sakura (cherry blossom) on the right

My favorite flavors- green tea on the left and sakura (cherry blossom) on the right

Other meals from Asakusa: katsu (pork cutlet) with soba noodles

Katsu (pork cutlet) with soba noodles

Kitsune udon

Kitsune (sweet fried tofu) udon

Gyoza (dumpling) set with fried chicken and rice

Gyoza (dumpling) set with fried chicken and rice

Asakusa is a great place to check out traditional Tokyo, but if you’re missing modernity, there are plenty of options around. Just across the Sumida river lies Tokyo Skytree, Japan’s tallest structure and the tallest tower in the world. There, guests can shop, explore an aquarium, eat at 5-star restaurants, and observe Tokyo from its full height of over 2000 feet.

Asakusa near the Sumida River, with the Tokyo Skytree in the distance

Asakusa near the Sumida River, with the Tokyo Skytree in the distance

I think the Tokyo Skytree is a post for another time. Until then, enjoy Asakusa and the cultural experience it has to offer. Where do you want to visit next? Let me know in the comments below!

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The Konbini

Walk through any street and Japan, and you won’t go far until you encounter a konbini….or a convenience store in Japan. On the commute from my home in the suburbs of Tokyo to my school in the financial district, I probably passed at least a dozen. In America, I wouldn’t touch convenience stores with a ten foot pole- they’re a huge misnomer. What’s so convenient about dirty stores, filled with week-old rotating hotdogs, dusty packages of chips, and cigarettes?

Japan, however, has taken the idea of convenience stores and completely transformed it. Walk into any konbini in Japan, and you’ll find fresh (nutritious!) food packaged that morning, manga books, candy, and more types of drinks than you can count. All the food, which is made fresh daily, is delivered periodically throughout the day. There’s no mysterious hotdogs or molten nacho cheese here, and it’s easy to make great nutritional choices, as every package is clearly labeled.

Salad and a selection of oden items from 7-11

Salad and a selection of oden items from 7-11

Just check out a few of things I managed to try:

  • Bottled hot and cold coffee, tea, energy drinks, vitamin drinks, soda, sake, beer, wine, hot chocolate, bottled lattes, mixed drinks, etc.
  • Bread, pastries, yakisoba pan (a bun filled with fried noodles), curry bread, melon flavored bread, etc.
  • Niku-man (a steamed bun filled with meat and onions, served hot), pizza-man (cheese and tomato sauce), and anko-man (sweet red bean paste)
  • Oden (a bowl of warm soup broth, filled with your choice of fried and stewed ingredients like tofu, radish, eggs, octopus, etc.)
  • Bento boxes, karage (fried chicken), rice, fresh salads, sushi, dumplings, ramen or udon noodles in soup, onigiri (rice balls), sandwiches, ice cream, etc.
Oden at 7-11. Customers choose which items they'd like to add to their broth.

Oden at 7-11. Customers choose which items they’d like to add to their broth.

Nikuman, a meat-filled steamed bun. They're kept hot at the register all day in many konbini.

Nikuman, a meat-filled steamed bun. They’re kept hot at the register all day in many konbini.

7-11, Lawsons, and Family Mart are the top 3 convenience stores and Japan, and you can usually find one of them on every street corner. Each morning, I stopped by the 7-11 near my campus to get a drink and an onigiri for breakfast, or stopped in later to get a bento box. The convenience store would be filled with salarymen on their lunch break, either grabbing a bite to eat or checking out the selection of manga at the front of the store.

A konbini breakfast. Veggie crisps, jasmine tea, and a latte with coffee jelly!

A konbini breakfast. Veggie crisps, jasmine tea, and a latte with coffee jelly!

And while the food is outstanding, what really sets the konbini apart is the sheer level of convenience that these stores offer. While I was in Japan, I paid my health insurance bill every month at the konbini. That’s right- you can pay bills. Try doing that at your local 7-11! Many people use their  konbini to purchase train, sporting event, and concert tickets, copy documents or send faxes, print pictures, or even pick up packages. The konbini truly embodies the value of convenience…American convenience stores could certainly learn a thing or two from their competition overseas.

Melon pan (front), cake bread, and green tea from Lawsons

Melon pan (front), cake bread, and green tea from Lawsons

If you ever visit Japan, I recommend playing “The Konbini Challenge.” When coming home from a night out, get off your train a stop or two from where you live or stay. As you walk home, visit every konbini you pass and buy an alcoholic beverage.

I think you’ll quickly learn just how pervasive konbinis are in Japan.

Ramune (Japanese soda) slush from Family Mart. Much tastier than the traditional slurpee!

Ramune (Japanese soda) slush from Family Mart. Much tastier than the traditional slurpee!

Don’t you wish convenience stores were like this in America? What would you change?

Kaiten Sushi

Whenever I tell people that I studied abroad in Tokyo, often the first thing they ask me is whether I ate sushi everyday. But when people in America think of sushi, they often think of this….

"Dragon" rolls from Sweet Mango, a sushi restaurant from my hometown in Philadelphia

“Dragon” rolls from Sweet Mango, a sushi restaurant from my hometown in Philadelphia

 …or designer, gourmet rolls, smothered in spicy mayo, tempura crumbs, and soy sauce. These are what we call maki, or sushi rolls. While Japan does serve these, they are often extremely simple, with only one or two ingredients and without all the fancy sauces that Americans love.

Instead, most sushi in Japan is the traditional nigiri (a piece of fish over rice) or plain sashimi (just the fish). While this seems boring compared to American standards, sushi making is definitely an art. Just watch the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and you’ll have a little insight into just how much time and effort chefs put into creating the perfect piece of sushi.

Tuna nigiri from the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Tuna nigiri from the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Sushi was always available in my local supermarket (which I can tell you was still 10x better than the sushi restaurants back home), and I passed a sushi-ya (sushi shop) every day on my commute back home. Although I never visited one of the more fancy sushi restaurants- where a dozen pieces of sushi can cost well over $350- I always had plenty of options.

Supermarket sushi from my local Japanese grocery store, Aeon

Supermarket sushi from my local Japanese grocery store, Aeon

However, my favorite place to eat sushi was always at kaiten sushi restaurants- more commonly known as conveyor belt sushi. Here, customers sit in booths with a conveyor belt rotating pass their tables, carrying small plates of nigiri and other goodies.

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At a kaiten sushi restaurant, you can expect to see a wide variety of basic nigiri, as well as a few westernized sushi rolls.

Fresh snow crab nigiri

Fresh snow crab nigiri

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Maki with shrimp, tuna, and salmon

Shrimp nigiri topped with avocado and fresh onion

Shrimp nigiri topped with avocado and fresh onion

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The plates travel covered by little plastic hoods, which also tell you what type of sushi is inside. When you want a plate, you simply pop the lid off and take the plate off the conveyor belt.

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Each table is equipped with a menu touch screen. If you want a specific type of sushi, or something else from the menu, simply select what you want and order it. Your dish will arrive on a red plate, which lets others know it belongs to someone, and the menu screen will light up once it approaches.

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You can even order things like noodles, chicken nuggets, french fries, and dessert! The chocolate cake was definitely our favorite.

A train of french fries

A train of specially ordered french fries for our table

Chocolate cake, anyone?

Chocolate cake, anyone?

The table also has soy sauce, wasabi, and matcha (powdered green tea) for the guests to enjoy. Here, everyone spoons a bit of tea into their cups and adds hot water from a spigot. It goes great with all the sushi!

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At the end of the meal, everyone stacks their plates and the waitress counts how many there are. At some sushi restaurants, each plate is a different color and a different price. At my favorite kaiten restaurant, each plate cost 125¥, or about $1.20 when I was there. Surprisingly, the most I ever spent was around $12! Not bad for ten plates, huh?

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Although each kaiten sushi restaurant is different, my favorite had a small computer game guests could play at the end. Near the conveyor belt, there was a small slot that the guests could put their plates down to help clear the table. With every 5 plates that went through, the menu touch screen played a lottery game. This was a great way to see how many plates you actually ate, and even win small prizes! I won a cell phone charm, while my friends won little play pieces of sushi.

Cute cell phone charm!

Cute cell phone charm!

Plastic shrimp, anyone?

Plastic shrimp, anyone?

Conveyor belt sushi restaurants are gaining popularity in the US, particularly in New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and other major cities. I’ve heard that there’s one in Boston now, but I haven’t had a chance to check it out yet.

What do you think? Would you ever try kaiten sushi? Let me know in the comments below!

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