On Ramen Shops & Eating Habits

Ramen in Japan is different. I don’t mean in what’s in it, how it tastes or anything to do with the food. I mean that in Japan it is done differently. The Japanese view on ramen is different to how we in the West see it entirely, at least traditionally.

Tokyo alone has over 10,000 ramen restaurants, all selling the same thing, with slight variations. It’s baffling, and no where else that I could think of would have so many places selling the same thing. That is except fast food restaurants. Burgers, chippies, kebab shops. These are probably some of the most common restaurant types in the West. And that’s the thing; the Japanese have traditionally seen ramen as fast food, for hurried businessmen or tired construction workers. Ivan Orkin of Ivan Ramen has said that in Japan the average bowl of noodles goes down in only a few minutes. And I’ve seen this from experience. Ramen shops aren’t communal places, most customers are alone, sitting at the bar, not talking, just slurping.

I find something very charming about that, that in Japan what is now seen globally as the “in” food, they still frequently treat as fast food. A proper, authentic Japanese-style ramen shop would not work here. They’re too small, so you can’t go with a group, and the profits wouldn’t cover the cost. They’re fast, simple, and thus lack the experience of going out for dinner. Our view of ramen is different, we have complicated it, moved it away from its original form.

Now this isn’t to say that there are not ramen shops in Japan that are closer to our take on it, not all of them are fast food. But even the world’s first Michelin starred ramen restaurant, Tsuta, is tiny, and takes orders via a vending machine, with hand-written labels. I think the difference of what we think is “Japanese” and what is really Japanese comes from the myths we believe of Japan, its futuristic style, belief in samurai ideals, technology or aesthetic.

A Japanese-style ramen restaurant wouldn’t work here. But it would be fun to try.

Photo Credit: Foodaholics Anonymous by Katri Niemi is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

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