I love ramen and I eat a lot of it, especially when I’m in Tokyo, where I have two ramen shops of my own. More than half of my correspondence from friends and family are requests for ramen shop recommendations. From now on, I’ll just direct them here.
Now I could rattle a couple dozen shops off the top of my head, but explaining how to get there would be another thing entirely. Most ramen shops are built in tiny, off-the-beaten-path areas with the cheapest rent and the least amount of fuss—great for the owners but not great for those of us searching for them. I’ve lived in Tokyo for fifteen years, and it can still be really challenging to find the shops I’m looking for.
What also makes it difficult to recommend ramen shops in Japan is that for people who aren’t familiar with the Tokyo ramen scene, it’s hard to imagine just how many different kinds of shops there are. Here, I’ve chosen five shops that are the best examples of different styles and relatively easy to find. This is just a warm up, but it’s a great introduction to Tokyo ramen!
Fuunji (風雲児 lit. Lucky adventurer)
Tokyo, Shibuya-ku, Yoyogi 2-14-3 (Near Shinjuku Station)
Open 11 a.m.–3 p.m., 5 p.m.–9 p.m. (or until the soup runs out)
Closed Sundays and holidays
Conveniently located five minutes from the south exit of Shinjuku Station, this perpetually crowded shop sets the standard for deeply rich tsukemen broth. The shop is a couple of steps down from the sidewalk, and every time I’ve been there I’ve waited at least a half hour to get to the door. Unfortunately once you do get in, you see another twenty or so people lined along the back wall. The shop consists of one long counter, behind which is a bright and clean line with cooks in chef jackets. At most busy shops, they take your ticket while you’re in line, so when you sit down your food arrives quickly. At Fuunji, when they take your ticket, they’ll ask you what size portion of noodles you want. Sho is small, or about two hundred grams; nami is regular, or about three hundred grams; omori is large, or about four hundred grams. You pay the same regardless of the size, but be sure to eat what you order—it’s good manners.
The soup at Fuunji is laced with chunks of pork, and a pile of smoked fish powder sits on top. The Japanese employ a lot of dried and smoked fish in their cuisine, and many tsukemen shops garnish their soup with a sheet of nori and a spoonful of fish powder. The diner mixes the powder in, adding a massive flavor punch. The broth here is predominantly chicken based, and it doesn’t weigh you down as much as its 100 percent pork brethren. With its consistently delicious broth and perfectly chewy noodles, Fuunji is a no-brainer. Get there at 11 a.m. when they open, or be prepared to wait in a long line.
Konjiki Hototogisu (金色不如帰 lit. Golden-colored lesser cuckoo)
Tokyo, Shibuya-ku, Hatagaya 2-47-12 (Near Hatagaya Station)
Open 11:30 a.m.–3 p.m., 6 p.m.–10 p.m.
Thursdays from 11:30 a.m.–3 p.m. with a different menu
Konjiki Hototogisu is a short walk from Hatagaya Station on the Keio line. It’s also a doable walk from Shinjuku Station—maybe thirty minutes. This shop is a classic, coming up on its tenth year. It’s run by one guy with one helper. It’s small—just eight seats—and specializes in assari, light-style Tokyo ramen. Their claim to fame is that along with chicken and pork, they add giant clam to their stock, which gives both the shio and shoyu ramen an awesome aromatic, lingering shellfish flavor. I’ve been eating here almost since it opened and it is just so amazingly consistent!
There’s a limited menu on Thursdays. He’s done many specials over the years, but recently he did a great niboshi ramen: his regular soup cooked with dried sardines to give it a fishy, funky, bitter edge, which has become very popular in Tokyo. When I was last there, he did a Taiwanese-style aburamen: brothless ramen with seasoned fat, sautéed spicy ground pork, and a raw egg, another style popping up all over Tokyo.
Get here early. Hototogisu is the epitome of a postage-stamp space. When you enter the room, it’s almost a perfect square, with just enough room to squeeze through and sit on a stool. In the center of the L-shaped bar, the owner and his mate do a ramen ballet. These guys are so serious; there’s no chattering with each other or the customers. Just practiced movements while they cook noodles, slice chashu, ladle soup, and build bowls. It’s something to behold and perfect entertainment while you wait. This is Tokyo ramen!
Saikoro (さいころ lit. Dice)
Tokyo, Nakano-ku, Nakano 2-28-8 (Near Nakano Station)
Open every day 11 a.m.–11 p.m.
The owner of this shop, Koitani-san, is one of the ramen legends. He was a founding member of Bassanova, a shop instrumental in nurturing the ramen boom and one of the first to popularize kotteri (rich) ramen. He closed his original tiny shop four years ago and reopened in Nakano. His new shop is super stylized and diner-esque, with vinyl-topped fixed stools, a black-and-white floor, and a Formica counter. But what’s really amazing is that he threw away his original recipe and rebuilt his ramen from the ground up. What he came up with was brilliant. He started making his own noodles, thick and eggy. His soup is pork and chicken based, with whole smoked mackerel added at the end of the cooking process. He finishes the broth with a rich, dark shoyu and shingles the soup with thin slices of pork belly. It’s so different from his original bowl, which had a lighter flavor and a gentle, aromatic quality; this has more of an edge and is deeper and smokier. It’s reminiscent of old-style Tokyo ramen, known as chukka soba, or Chinese noodles, but without the straight shoyu flavor and healthy dose of MSG that those original bowls had. Definitely check this place out!
Kikanbo (鬼金棒 lit. Devil’s metal rod, the giant stick that Japanese devils carry around)
Tokyo, Chioda-ku, Kajicho 2-10-10 (Near Kanda Station)
Open 11 a.m.–9:30 p.m.
Sundays 11 a.m.–4 p.m.
This has been one of my favorite shops for the last few years. The owner, Miura-san, is a salt-of-the-earth, hardworking dude. He has two shops right next to each other in Kanda, right in the middle of Tokyo. Both serve the same soup, but one sells ramen and the other sells tsukemen.
When you enter the ramen side of Kikanbo, the first thing you’ll notice is the sound track: pounding taiko (drums) playing over and over again. Dun du dun du dun…it never changes. I imagine that in the U.S., the employees would have started a class-action suit against the shop ownership. One wall is covered with little demon masks, and their logo of a demon with a stick makes me wish it were my logo!
The soup is a pork-based one that’s cooked in a blazing hot wok with flames licking up the sides. The shop only has eight or nine seats, and your focus is drawn to the fiery wok. It’s one of the better shows in the Tokyo ramen scene. Miso is one of the more difficult styles to perfect, and I think there are only a handful of good miso ramen shops in Tokyo. This is one of them. Kikanbo’s miso ramen has both Sichuan peppercorns and chili peppers, and you can customize the amount in each bowl. They even have an oni (devil) spice level that’s the ultimate challenge for thrill-seekers.
Kagari (篝 lit. Bonfire)
Tokyo, Chuo-ku, Ginza 4-4-1 (Near Ginza Station)
Open 11 a.m.–3:30 p.m., 5 p.m.–10:30 p.m.
Saturdays until 9 p.m.
Kagari is in the heart of Ginza. Outside there’s a small sign simply stating SOBA, and it looks like any Japanese restaurant in Tokyo. On the inside, it looks like it used to be a high-end tempura shop (which I think it was), and it only has eight seats. The cooks all wear starched white chef jackets and white sushi hats, and look like anything but dudes making ramen.
The ramen they serve is a really rich tori paitan, or creamy chicken broth. You can get a variety of beautiful toppings. I like the lightly steamed seasonal vegetables, which steal the show. They also have roast beef as a topping, which is tasty but unnecessary. This is a delicious version of paitan, and this is a great example of the new café-style ramen shops in Tokyo. It also couldn’t have been a better fit for Ginza.
Ginza is one of the most exclusive areas of Tokyo, along the lines of the Champs-Élysées or Madison Avenue; you’re more likely to see a gorgeous kaiseki restaurant than a ramen joint. So it comes as a surprise to see a long queue in front of a ramen shop there. This is not your typical down-and-dirty ramen shop, though; it’s pristine and fits right in. And while a popular ramen shop in a different section of town would be full of young men, this line is populated with attractive young women, their boyfriends in tow. It’s a refreshing change to have the women dragging their men out for a bowl, because it’s so often the other way around.
Don’t miss Kagari, and make a day of your time in Ginza, which has become my favorite part of Tokyo to wander around. You can plan a full day of checking the stalls around the Tsukiji, visiting the exclusive boutiques and gorgeous department stores, and catching some Kabuki.
And for your continued education, here are a few more spots to check out. (Photographs by Mark Shimahara):