When in Japan, a proper bowl of ramen belongs firmly on every tourist’s itinerary. There are so many different regional varieties available, but if it’s Hakata-style tonkotsu ramen you’re after, this place is well worth considering.
Where? Next to the Yamashita Exit of Ueno Station, in (or rather on the outer edge of) the station’s Atré Ueno shopping centre. Tabelog‘s map marker is right on the money. Note that this is just one of many branches spread across Japan (there are several in the Tōkyō area alone).
Operating hours? This particular branch is open 24 hours. Other branches may keep different schedules.
How much? 790 yen for a basic bowl of ramen. Various optional extras (more noodles, rice, egg, more sliced pork, etc.) are available at an additional cost.
English menu? The vending machine where you choose your orders has English labels on the buttons. An English version of the customisation sheet is available on request.
Links? If you know a little Japanese, Tabelog has the best write-up on the store, including an accurate map. The official Ichiran site has an English-language page for this branch (as well as others). TripAdvisor offers English-language reviews, but their map is terrible (seems someone simply staked out Ueno Station without bothering to mark the actual store location).
I first tried Ichiran in April of last year, when I spent a night in Fukuoka and dropped by their Hakata branch. The delightful memory of their delicious ramen stuck with me all throughout that trip, and at some point I decided I simply must have another bowl. By then, I was in Tōkyō and the most accessible location was their Ueno branch.
Less than three weeks ago, I returned to that same branch and sat down to enjoy the meal we’re about to describe here.
The place gets quite packed after dark, but even with the sun still out, there was already a line of people waiting for their turn (more were standing just inside the door).
As you step inside, head for one of the vending machines and choose your order. No language barriers up to this point – the buttons have both pictures and English labels. What’s more, Ichiran takes their key product seriously so there’s really only one main dish on offer (ramen); the other buttons are for optional extras like more noodles (kaedama) and various toppings that can be used to fine-tune your personal bowl. The machine will issue tickets corresponding to the items you’ve chosen and paid for.
Whilst waiting for a place to open up, you’ll be given a sheet of paper with various options printed on it. (An English translation is available on request.) This will allow you to convey your preferences to the kitchen as to the strength of the broth, the firmness of the noodles, etc. Here’s what I chose for this visit:
In due course, an attendant will direct you to an empty place where you can get settled in.
Most ramen joints I’ve seen consist of an open kitchen surrounded by a counter. I’ve also tried one that had restaurant-style seating with tables and chairs. But no other chain I’ve ever been to, whether in Japan or elsewhere, offered the sort of dining arrangements that were available here.
Take a look. (Sorry about the mess of bowls and so on; I took this shot after I was done eating.)
Instead of sitting elbow-to-elbow with your fellow patrons, Ichiran assigns each customer a personal stretch of countertop shielded on either side by wooden panels. (Judging from the hinges, it seems the panels can be folded partway so that you can interact with your companions.) The food prep area is also kept out of sight by a bamboo mat that staff will unroll as soon as they’ve served your order. In other words, what you’ve got is your own self-contained semi-private booth, complete with its own water dispenser (the silvery spout on the left).
I think it’s a stroke of genius. One of the reasons I tend not to eat out when travelling solo is the fear of committing some unforgivable faux pas in full view of the locals. (I’m sure the Japanese can be quite forgiving of baka gaijin who can’t use chopsticks properly, but the fear remains all the same.) With these cleverly designed booths, I don’t have to worry about any of my social errors becoming a matter of public record. I’ve got my own little world where I can freely use chopsticks as stabbing weapons, blow on my noodles to cool them down, or commit any other crime against culinary norms that might otherwise get me branded persona non grata.
Here’s a wider view of the row where I sat. There are others like this in the shop (they’ve got a total of 27 counter seats plus a few tables).
Right, on to the food. At the vending machine, I picked my usual selection of a bowl of ramen (790 yen) plus kaedama (160 yen), and added something I’ve never tried in my ramen before: soft-boiled egg (100 yen). The egg came in a separate dish – I simply peeled off the shell and slipped the thing into my ramen. Mmmmmmmm.
Speaking of my ramen, here’s the bowl of wonder now.
Let’s have a closer look.
Just look at that broth. Rich, milky, full of flavour and unbelievably delicious. I’m not exaggerating in the slightest when I say that my mouth is watering even as I type this; so good was the experience and the lasting memory it generated. The tender yolk of the soft-boiled egg (not visible here since I added it later) boosted the richness of the soup even more, and worked so well with the whole dish that I’m making it a standard side-order (together with the usual kaedama) every time I visit an Ichiran store. It took a lot of willpower to restrain myself from emptying the bowl of soup completely – it might be good for the tongue but I’ll surely regret downing all that sodium later!
The next time you’re in Japan, check out Ichiran’s store locator map and see if there’s a branch close by. I can’t guarantee that you’ll like it as much as I did – personal tastes are impossible to pin down after all – but I certainly think it’s something you should at least try. (I accept no responsibility whatsoever for any ramen addictions that may arise as a result.)