Ramen was one of the main things I looked forward to eating in Japan (but then again I guess I looked forward to everything. Japan is a the food heaven.
(Senso-ji, Asakusa Kannon Temple, Tokyo)
So this was day 2 out of 14 in our beloved Nihon. We decided to wander over to one of the most recognisable Tokyo landmarks: Senso-ji, the oldest temple in Tokyo. We decided that we would walk there from JR Ueno station (because we had a JR pass and were too cheap to get subway ticket haha) – we ended up getting lost (naturally) and spent almost an hour trying to get there. Several mimes with kind Japanese strangers with directions later, we arrived at what we thought was Senso-ji, to find that it was closed.
How could it be closed? It’s almost New Year and it’s an important landmark, damnit! So we wandered around, cold and hungry. It was near lunch time and I desperately needed something warm to fill my tummy.
(Lo and behold! A lunch special)
My (horribly short-sighted) eyes suddenly spotted what my tummy was begging for – a ramen shop!
(our first ramen shop)
We hesitated. Of course, we hesitated. It was only Day 2 and we were still finding our orientation. We peered into the shop, it was absolutely tiny (see the picture – that is literally how wide the shop is – from the picture menu to the stop sign). The shop was absolutely packed and we must have stood there like idiots until we figured out that we had to order the ramen through the machine.
(the ramen ordering machine)
What I had figured out until then was that we were supposed to put in the money into the vending machine. But how on earth would I know what I want because everything was in Japanese! A ha, well this is where Japanese character matching session comes in. You refer to the picture menu (left) and then try to match the characters and price on the vending machine. The Japanese, thank god, are seriously into picture menu (and little food models) unlike snobbish Melburnians who would absolutely snub picture menus as a low-class Asian culinary blasphemy. God I love the Japanese!
So the go is you select the dish you want and you put some money into the machine (which gives you change). No. The food does not come out from the machine. It also prints you a little ticket, at which point you step into the shop, which is of course tiny and counter-only.
The ever unique counter-only ramen shop is a pure Japanese invention. The shop is split into two halves – the cooking section and the eating section (about, oh, 1.5m each). You seat yourself at the counter (which is probably about 50 cm from the wall behind you. Just barely enough space for a Japanese-sized person to manouver themself out of their bulky winter overcoat. Or not) and hands over the ticket to the nice ramen chef. S/he (generally he, actually) would then make your food and place it on the counter and say something nice like ‘Dozo!’
On the table in front of you would be water/tea jugs, chopsticks, soup ladles, napkins and various accompaniments (depending what kind of ramen shop you are in). And start chowing down your lovely ramen.
I don’t have any picture of this little ramen shop because the space was just too tiny and we sat so close to everyone that I didn’t want to take any pictures of the shop and make them feel uncomfortable but I do have some of another one which is nowhere near as small.
(Cha-shu ramen with shoyu-based soup)
I decided on the lunch special – the standard cha-shu ramen and cha-han (fried rice) because I was hungry. This shop seems to specialise in shoyu-based stock. Within a few minutes, my ramen was brought in front of me with lengthy apologetic speech which I guessed meant that my fried rice was being made and there would be a delay. A few seconds later Josh’s ramen arrived. My fried rice came a minute or so later, fresh from the wok.
(Pork and negi, Japanese leek, ramen)
My ramen came with all the make-ups of fabulous Tokyo-style ramen, chashu (Japanese-style roast pork), nori sheet, spring onion and menma. The chashu was fabulously soft and the soup fantastically fragrant with shoyu. The fried rice was very well made, it wasn’t oily and soggy. Just the right texture a fried rice should be.
The amazing thing is the entire shop was run by two people who did everything from such small space. The ingenius machine gets rid of the need for them to handle money (thus increasing hygiene). We thought it would be such great novel for Melbourne to have a shop like this!
(awesome looking shop next door which was closed)
One more note, when you are done with your ramen, you place all your bowls, cups, etc. back onto the counter so that the nice gentlemen do not need to come around the counter (hard to imagine how much of a bother it is until you actually see the size of the joint) and wipe down the counter with the cloth provided. As a courtesy to the next patron, you should vacate your seat as soon as you are done as the shop will always be full during meal hours.
(nearby snack shop)
We then wandered around the corner and ran into a little snack shop which sold candied sweet potato. There were two separate bowls of candied sweet potato so I asked in very broken Japanese whether they were the same. She said no. I then asked what the difference was. Much miming and a passer-by helping to translate later (Japanese people are so friendly and helpful) we figured that there were the soft kind and the hard (I guess crunchy was the word they were looking for). So we got a hundred grams of the soft kind (hyaku guramu kudasai!). I remember it to be ridiculously expensive because I just wasn’t used to Tokyo pricing yet (only Day 2!)
(candied sweet potato)
And then we walked around some more looking at all the antique and souvenir shops already giving up thinking that Senso-ji was closed when I suddenly realised that masses of people were going down one street:
Hallelujah Or should I say Piti! It doesn’t matter. This is a food blog.