Ichiran Ramen: Eating Without a Word
By Lynda Deaver
After getting off Tokyo’s packed rush hour train in the evening, you probably don’t want to look at another human being, much less talk to another. For the weary throughout Japan, the ramen shop Ichiran has created a brilliant albeit convoluted system to grant this wish.
Upon entering Ichiran, which serves only 豚骨ラーメン (pork bone/tonkotsu ramen), you are greeted by the standard ramen shop vending machine. You insert your money, press the button corresponding to your desired food item, and take the dispensed ticket to your seat.
At some of the larger Ichiran restaurants, an electronic seating chart is placed near the entrance showing which seats are empty. The Ichiran website explains that the seating chart was created as part of the system that “reduces interactions with shop staff as much as possible.”
Once at your seat, you’ll find that Ichiran has done as much as possible to reduce interactions among customers also. Each of the counter seats has a partition on either side so that the only indication that others may be in the shop is the slurping of noodles. Needless to say, Ichiran isn’t the ideal place for a date.
You then slide your ramen ticket to the staff through a small window in front of your seat. If seeing the mid-sections of the staff through this window bothers you, don’t worry; after one of the staff members slips you a ramen customization sheet, the window will be shuttered. In complete solace, you are free to choose your ramen preferences at your own pace.
In the style of Hakata ramen from Fukuoka Prefecture, you have the choice of noodle firmness (麺のかたさ, men no katasa) from very hard (at Ichiran called 超かた, chō kata) to very soft (超やわ, chō yawa). In addition, at Ichiran, you can choose the level of spiciness, richness and flavor, whether you want roasted pork included, and the amount of garlic, spicy red sauce and scallion.
After filling in your preferences, you press the call button in front of you, and one of the staff members open the shutter, take the sheet, and then close the shutter. While waiting for your noodles, you can get a glass of water from the dispenser at your seat or read the shop information above your seat.
Again, the window flies open and your ramen is placed in front of you. You can now fully experience your personally customized tonkotsu ramen with no distractions. If you find that one serving of noodles isn’t enough, you can order 替玉 (kaedama, second serving) at your seat in cash by circling the 替玉 space on your chopstick cover and handing the marked chopstick cover to the staff. The shop information sign at your seat explains that in Fukuoka both women and men normally order a second serving.
After ordering, specifying your ramen preferences and getting a refill on noodles all without uttering a word, it’s hard to know whether upon leaving you should say ごちそうさま (gochisōsama, loosely “Thanks for the food!”). Personally, I left the shop in silence to complete the experience and consider this article my way of saying I enjoyed the ramen.
What do you think of the Ichiran system? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.