With my departure date drawing closer and finals in full swing, my to-do list has become less sight/site oriented and more bite oriented! TUJ doesn’t offer study abroad students any meal plan options, although there is a cafeteria for independent enjoyment in our dorm, so I knew early on that most of my meals would be eaten out. I cook sometimes but, as mentioned in a previous post, Tokyo has an abundance of restaurants offering affordable, balanced, and above all delicious meals around the clock.
Japanese cuisine tends to be less meat heavy than is common in the West, which is totally fine with me as a recovering vegetarian. (I’m nine years “clean.”) Noodles, rice, and starchy vegetables provide a base, topped with a portion of meat prepared in any number of ways, and pickles, ginger, and a bowl of miso soup will usually accompany the main dish. My favorite quick dinners, in no particular order, are: gyudon, beef bowl; udon, a thick buckwheat noodle, and tororo, grated yam if available; and, of course, ramen.
Despite being a broke, over-booked college student for over two years now, I didn’t actually have instant ramen until over a month into my time in Japan. I come from an Easy Mac family and the thought of having to boil water with noodles in a pot, rather than simply stick a packet in the microwave, repulsed me. I mean, really? It’s the 21st century. Little did I know, ramen (and I mean ramen, not Cup’O’Noodle noodles) can be purchased in a Styrofoam bowl, mixed with boiled water from a kettle, and cook in said bowl within minutes!
Extra flavoring, a sheet of nori, seaweed, bamboo shoots, and slice of charsiu, pork, all preserved, come along with it! I get the spicy flavor but other bowls are available for those who can’t handle the heat. Instant ramen has changed me, for what I hope is the better.
For sit-down ramen, you can find at least two shops on every Tokyo city block. Chains abound as well as mom’n’pop spots and most only offer ramen, usually no more than five different bowls. This, as well as the standard mode of ordering via vending machine, makes ramen an especially valuable option for those who aren’t fluent in Japanese.
Ichiran is an excellent introduction to ramen, checking all of the boxes of standard shops but allowing diners to customize their bowl in the slightest way. In Japan, modifications aren’t just discouraged, they’re non-existent: there’s no ‘sauce on the side’ or ‘without cheese’ or ‘hold the salad,’ you get your food exactly as it looks in the case model or advertisement. But Ichiran allows tweaks to spice level, toppings, noodle density (admittedly a modification allowed at other venues where noodles are made fresh), and noodle quantity, appealing to natives and tourists with equal measure. Added novelty comes from the cubicles customers sit in, leading it to be deemed an “anti-social supper club” by some.
Slightly less universally appealing and accommodating but still excellent is Tenkaippin’s kotteri ramen. They offer two bowls, one with thin broth and the kotteri, which is almost gravy-like. (Thick, with two cs if you get me.) The latter tends to be more popular so I’ve stuck to it in my various visits, always adding a side of fried rice for only a dollar extra. Tenkaippin does not seat customers in cubicles but around a t-shaped counter, the room silent aside from slurping. Though I will definitely be dining there a few more times during my stay, I must say they lose points for solely providing water when offering the choice between that and tea is the norm.
And for days when you want ramen but not the broth, due to heat or light colored clothing, whatever, I don’t know your life, there’s shirunashi, ramen dipping noodles. To try ramen without the broth, hit up an excellent shop called Doraichi right down the street from TUJ’s campus with a great lunch deal.
I’ll miss being able to get fresh made noodles whenever but luckily there’s room for a few of my favorite instant brands left in my suitcase!