TGS backwash: Down the ramen hole

My weekend looks to be dedicated to working on my very last big review of the season, so I should probably blog now before my head gets all funny from too much inverted gravity and those constant, effeminate cries of “WHEE HEE” from its shrill castrato hero. More to the point, I should post this Tokyo Game Show-derived article now before it becomes even more irrelevant. It’s only been, uh, five weeks? Six? Yeeeeeah.

I have mentioned at various times a strange place we ate last year — alternately “the ramen hole” or, more correctly, “the ramen gloryhole.” Thus called because (1) you eat ramen there and (2) it is a dehumanizing, anonymous experience that leaves you slightly uneasy but nevertheless wholly satisfied. That is because the ramen is so good — seriously, no one who eats there doesn’t love it. So we went back this year, and I acquired photographic proof of its (glory) holy ways.

It’s technically called Ichiran, but it will always be “the ramen hole” in our hearts. Here’s another reason why: It doesn’t have a storefront, just a random, poorly-marked stairwell leading down into who knows what on a normal Shibuya street. I do not know how anyone from our group discovered this shop in the first place, but it truly is a hole in the ground.

On a hot, muggy Tokyo day (like every day we spent at TGS), the miserable climate pools in the cement entry area, where people are always lined up and ready to eat. Such is the allure of this amazing ramen! A tiny fan rotates near the entrance, trying in vain to fend off the sweltering humidity — an endeavor not unlike trying to bail out the Titanic with a shotglass. At the back of the entryway stands a vending machine where you insert money and receive in return tickets indicating how many noodles you want, how much pork, how many extras to add to your soup, etc. This spares the staff the trouble of human interaction.

Once you have your tickets, you move into crowded and tiny (but slightly cooler) anteroom where a sign is posted on the wall, along with an indicator featuring 21 lights in two parallel rows. These lights correspond to the numbered booths inside; the restaurant is basically a long, narrow rectangle divided into two lengthy rows by a kitchen in the middle, and when it is time for the next person to be seated a light comes on to indicate which seat is empty.

Right side seat numbers: eight, nine, ten. Or I guess hachi, kyu, jyu. Whatever.

Yeah so pretty much the restaurant is divided into individual booths, and you can pretty much forget about socializing. You’re seated randomly as booths become available, and the wait can be a bit long if you’re determined to get two or more adjacent seats. So Sam and I ended up half the restaurant apart, although at least I did end up next to one of our crew, Alice — a rare stroke of fate never to be counted upon for future visits. Karmically, I will undoubtedly be forced to sit in the opposite half of the restaurant from everyone else the next time I go.

The idea here is that you don’t really talk to people — you friggin’ eat. This is ramen and it is serious business. Although the place did seem to be frequented by more couples, enjoy better illumination and contain more people murmuring to one another this year; the grim, dark, oppressive atmosphere that made it so remarkable in our first visit seems to have been gentrified somewhat. Alas, another facet of indigenous Japanese culture lost to Progress.

A sight never before witnessed by human eyes: A shot through the kitchen and to the other side of the restaurant. The front of each booth is a tiny, shuttered window into the central kitchen through which the staff collects your order and dispenses your ramen. Wordlessly — you never actually interact with the staff, and in fact the shutters are at such an angle that you only occasionally catch glimpses of someone’s waist or legs as they walk past. Unlike any other Japanese shop I’ve ever been to, the staff doesn’t even yell “Irasshaimase!” when you enter. They are quite possibly robots, in fact, or the undead. But man, who cares? They may be evil but they make the best damn ramen on the planet.

Here Alice tries to look, uh, excited? Awed? I’m not actually sure what’s going on here. But she has a bowl of amazing ramen and therefore all goofy expressions are excused. It is normal for a person to be left incoherent when first confronted with the reality of soup and noodles this good.

This is the booth. It consists of a set of disposible chopsticks, a plastic cup and a water dispenser. It looks absolutely ghetto, but the water inside was so cold that the little metal pump was completely coated in condensation — and given that I had been wandering in the heat with barely anything to eat or drink for about 12 hours, it was like a tiny pump dispensing liquid heaven. Also, Ichiran specializes in spicy ramen, so the pump is probably a legal necessity or something.

Plus, it prevents the zombies in the kitchen from having to interact with you. This is important, see — human interaction is akin to a crime in this place. In fact, when your soup arrives, the little window into the kitchen is pulled shut and you are promptly forgotten until you have finished your meal.

Not that you care, of course, because the soup is so good you don’t want anyone to bother you for the next 15 minutes or so. This was a fairly middle-of-the-road customization; firmer-than-usual noodles, moderate heat, moderate fattiness to the broth (though you can see a skim of delicious pig fat on top; apparently if you get max fattiness it’s basically a millimeter of melted lard on top, which, ugh). No green onions for me, thanks, since they tend to overwhelm the flavor of whatever they’re served in. The results: truly amazing ramen.

Of course, you probably want to be a non-vegetarian to eat here seeing as the menu options range from “moderate dead animal bits” to “hella dead animal bits,” but I think that pretty much holds true for anywhere in Japan.

And when you are finished, you press the little button to announce that you are finished. Or I hope that’s the case, anyway, since we pressed the button when we left. I definitely know one of those kanji is used in conjunction with “exit,” so, uh, hopefully we weren’t telling the robot zombie staff to go forth and consume the brains of the innocent or anything.

When you press the button, an amusing fanfare plays and (I presume) a pair of disembodied hands reaches through the window to retrieve your used bowl… and the cycle begins anew for another customer about to experience the exquisite, inhuman delights of the ramen hole.

15 thoughts on “TGS backwash: Down the ramen hole

  1. Fascinating. It appears they have found some kind of Nash Equilibrium with product quality, human alienation, and customer throughput.

  2. I’m still stuck on the amusing fanfare part. I imagine little fireworks pop, congratulatory banners are displayed, and little pieces of confetti flutter up and over. A little jiggle plays and some disembodied voice thanks you for a successful experimentation and tells you that cake will be served at the other end of the hallway. Ah, what fun.

  3. You may be stripped of all possibility of social interaction when eating, but you can still publicly bathe naked with strangers, so it’s a bit of a wash.

  4. “a bit of a wash

    Oh clever boy.

    I wish there had been cake afterwards. Or even ice cream. We stopped at the Haagen-Daaz but apparently it had closed down permanently within the past three days. Sam had gotten a cone there earlier in the week, but we looked through the windows and every permanent fixture had been torn up. I assume the employees were tossed into the incinerator.

  5. Or were killed by a virus spread by a rampant AI. Oh, those darn AIs and their self awareness, believing they’re god or some–such.

  6. I knew that Japanese restaurants tried to limit human interaction with their ticket machines and the like (it’s for, like, efficiency – they’re so, so efficient in Japan. SO efficient.) but I’ve never seen the kitchen walled off by private booths and curtains.

    I really must find this place when I return to Japan. It is… fascinating. Fascinating and delicious.

  7. Comparing your restaurant visit to a glory hole has really distubed me. Now whenever I think about ramen I associate it with disgraced Senators. Major appetite buzzkill.

  8. reminds me vaguely of the entrance to the downstairs bar at the beginning of Akira. minus the graffiti.

  9. wow, nice find. Ichiran is actually a really big chain, and by most ratings the best ramen among the chain stores. When I went I didn’t really think of the place as odd… have you ever been to a manga cafe?
    Private space is hard to come by in tokyo, and even in tiny doses, I think people generally find it relaxing.

  10. If it’s strange to eat there, I imagine it’s even more surreal to work at such a place. They must get orders from a machine to make soup certain ways, and then dispence and retreive bowls through little windows for eight hours.

  11. What Traumadore said sounds like the setup to a good horror story. Some restaurant worker (and you know each of the workers are probably seperated into their own little sections so they don’t even bump into OTHER workers) getting tickets and dispensing bowls one day breaks free to find that he’s the last person on earth, and he’s been serving no one for years.

  12. I’ve been getting red x’s for every image on this site for awhile now. What’s going on with that? Did I miss something?

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