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Ramen-do: The Way Of Noodles

Author:Rowan Hooper, Puneeta Kala Issue: January 1999, Topic: Restaurants

Ramen noodles are the fish 'n chips of Japan (I can't say it's the McDonald's of Japan because McDonald's is the McDonald's of Japan), the fast food greasy spoons found on almost every road. Japan is famous for sushi, but the country doesn't run on raw fish, it runs on ramen. It is ramen, more than sushi, which is held dear by your everyday Japanese. It is ramen which fuels the workers, ramen which has powered Japan through the economic miracle, ramen which sees lovers and the lonely, gangsters and thieves. If there was an official religion of ramen, I'm sure it would make lots of cash. Many people worship at its bowl every day. Connoisseurs claim to be able to distinguish the proportions of essential ingredients in the soup not merely by taste, but from the smell of the stock mingling with the noodles and even from the nature of the shine of the soup above the pork slice. I can't list the ingredients even after eating it, but I like the people in ramen shops, they're like a slice of Japan without the geisha or Blade Runners of guide books, a salaryman hunched centimeters over his bowl, reading a porn comic; a truck driver heroically managing to smoke and slurp at the same time; a woman in oversized combat trousers eating almost silently; a woman in a pink skirt and matching lippo slurping and gasping and leaving pink kisses around the bowl.

I ate at all these places with my ramen guru Puneeta Kala; we wrote the reviews just for a laugh really, but hope you will visit some of them and maybe add reviews in future AT's. Remember, martial arts are not sports, they are life paths. Following ramen-do is not just going to some place to get fed, it is a way. Learn it. Practice it. Support your local ramen shop.

A guide to ramen shops in Tsukuba

Jigoku ramen
Amakubo, opposite the Big Echo (Cho-osusume) Hell ramen: a night-time institution, like a curry after the pubs shut or a kebab from the van on the corner. The proprietor is a burly no-nonsense man with a towel tied round his head and a Seven Stars fag in his down turned mouth. The only thing to have here is its specialty: hell ramen. Unlike Western versions of the underworld, Japanese Buddhism has 16 levels of hell, some hot, some cold. In this shop there are four levels of hell ramen, starting at an almost cold cowardly ten go (0.5) proceeding through the first and second gates of hell to arrive trembling sweating and crying (I was practically bawling) at the feet of Emma-O (level 3: san cho me). I recommend this last only to masochists, lunatics or drunkards (let's face it, you have to be in one of these categories to get a bowl full down); though perhaps everyone should try it, for like in Japanese Buddhism, your torment in hell will not be eternal (however, it will be intense, and worse, jigoku ramen delivers stinging revenge the morning after). 700 yen for a taste of garlic, chilies, onion and chunks of ginger and that crispy batter stuff that for some is like an adrenalin shot to the heart, for others a brush too close to hell.

Science-odori Ramen shop
Always busy. Buy your selection from the ticket machine inside and watch the team of cooks hack up negi (long onions), fling bags of ramen, ladle soup and boil up skinned pig's heads (well I don't think you're really supposed to watch them do this, I mean it's probably not part of the show). But this is their trick, their secret for soup perfection. In this shop, the soup is particularly good, one of the best so far, a result of (I'm reluctant to admit) the flavor from the pig's heads, sliced dorso-ventrally to expose the brain, and boiled. But let's not think about that. Instead let's look at the abundant garlic paste in front of every stool, and the little pots of vinegar, chili oil and the rich chili sauce, the clunking water machine and its crushed ice, the eclectic mix of ramen types who have made the lonely journey out along Science-odori and wonder, how much one can tell about the personality from the noise of a ramen slurp? The little drive from the centre is well worth it. Miso negi ramen, 600 yen.

Next to the Tremont hotel, off Higashi odori pretty near the university A relatively new discovery for us, this one is. Fronted by a capable, waddling obasan and powered by a couple of brash young fag smoking (of course) white hat wearing chefs, this shop had something unique on offer. It has the usual gyoza, ramen and Chinese dishes (which are apparently excellent), but these I've never tried since it also does a killer tan tan men, and here's the rub: they do it without soup. No diluting the chilies and ginger and whatever else they sling in there: you're practically mainlining that chili-loaded taste direct to your bloodstream. No real call even to slurp, though being in Japan naturally you give it a go. Only thing is that without the soup the portion looks too small, maybe some gyoza on the side or an extra beer afterwards is in order. Very fine, very friendly place, none of the hell of Jigoku nor the bustle of Science-odori, and compared to this, ramen from chain-store Chinese restaurants is shown up as the pot-noodle pap it is. Free matches at the counter. Tan tan men, 600 yen.

Seibu ramen stall
level one, Seibu food hall
Quite surprised by this entry as naturally you would expect a small family-run place to win anytime over a shop in a supermarket. But this place isn't bad, maybe because that's exactly what Seibu did: got a family in to cook ramen for them. The tan tan men here is unlike other sorts: lots of pepper (not freshly ground). No discernible chili, just pepper. The woman behind the counter always tells you that tan tan men is very hot, are you sure you can eat it type thing. After hearing this I thought hang about this sounds like it's gonna be a frisky one, and yeah it was good, just not hot. Puneeta tell 'em about the meat because mine is always niku nashi (without meat). Ideal for that 5.30 pre-Nihongo class cycle ride to the Expo centre, or the post-CD buying Saturday trip to Seibu. 600 yen.

Ramen shopu
Tsuchiura-noda, after the Shell garage, just before the Joban entry I can't understand much in here, and they don't know what I'm on about either (no change there then). Here the language is Ibaraki-ben, or truck driver-ben. As far as I can tell, this means basically snorting the words through your nose. A shabby place, more of a shack than a shop, it nevertheless earns points for plentiful garlic paste and chili relish (or whatever it's called), and for fine negi ramen, with a big handful of onion and a tasty soup that doesn't coat your mouth like some places who I don't know what they do, do they stick flour in the soup? Whatever, this is pretty good. Known also for the generous supply of nori (seaweed sheets) that are arranged around the bowl. Plenty of dog-eared manga (comics) to read. Negi ramen, 600 yen.

Sarintorn restaurant
1-6-11 Amakubo, (0298) 52-4377
Strictly speaking, this should be on another list as it's a Thai restaurant, yet it gets a place here because it does Thai ramen. Flat Thai-style white noodles with coriander (this alone is enough to get it on the list), and several Thai things floating about whose names I don't know: rooty type things and slivers of something in the ginger family. And red chilies (it's okay there's a box of tissues on the table). Menu lists it as pork ramen, but I had it with ebi (shrimp); plump and succulent they make a fine substitute. The waiters speak about as much Japanese as I do which is comforting; here you are reminded of restaurants back home in that the waiters are somewhat surly in comparison to the service ethic in Japanese-run places. A chef wandered in bare-chested (which was a bonus), others sprawled on the red 70's upholstery and smoked. So they dump the bowl on your table, and though of course it's not really ramen (but it is men), they go down with refreshing lip-smacking ease. Other stuff here is top too. Chotto takai (slightly expensive): 1000 yen for the noodles plus beer and whatever else you have (and you do need something else, or at least you'll end up having something else when you see the menu; flaming ebi soup and Indian crab curry are divine; there is a karaoke machine if you are so inclined). Just down the alley from Jigoku ramen, it's definitely worth a decko.

Near the university, round the corner from the Zep bar. (0298) 51-6041
Apparently this place is secret, only known to local Japanese. That's what one of the Germans told us as we joined their table. Secret it may be, but at lunchtime there's no room to snap your hashi (chopsticks). This cheap and fairly run-down place bases its reputation on tsuke-men, a home-made type of men which you pick up and dip into a small bowl of soup. This soup is delicious; the standard ramen is quite disappointing, the soup loaded with lipid. I tried to bail it out by flooding it with vinegar but it was basically a poor quality, fatty soup. The waitress was pretty crap too. Anyway it was cheap: 400 yen. Go for the tsuke-men, which is top.

Tsukuba University ramen shop
Tsukuba University, below the library next to the pond
Even cheaper than Maru-cho, the university place does a version of hakata ramen, the legendary white Kyushu ramen. We're not in Kyushu; we are in a university-run place but if you're not from Kyushu you'll probably enjoy it. Good hot soup, half an egg, lots of sesame seeds, could've done with some more negi and fewer ginger bits. If you're gonna stick ginger in, I prefer the natural stuff rather than the pickled. What do you expect for 340 yen?

Higashi-odori, just past the university on the right, near a 7-11. (0298) 64-7003
Looks very much like an American roadside diner in the desert. Air-con is on life-support, wheezing a little bleak air into the hot mass coming in through the open door. Waitress could also be straight out of some hick diner, middle-aged in mini shirt and hair piled on top chewing gum. But you know you're not in America when you see the fag machine bearing the legend: "Smoking for beautiful healthy heart." You have to admire whoever wrote that for their sheer audacity. Free eggs in this place. Negi-ramen comes with a great stack of onion with some spicy chili sauce sprinkled on top. Class soup, drank it all. Defo worth a slurp if you're on Higashi. Closes at 3am. Negi-ramen 550 yen. My friend gave the gyoza 4 out of 5, said they're pretty good.

Kita-kata ramen
Nishi-odori, on the left about 500m from RR to the centre, opposite a Hot Spar. There's an old Japanese cart thing parked permanently outside.
Hawaiian music plays inside this shop (Kit-Kat ramen?), giving an exuberant atmosphere which the rather camp, curly haired owner compliments perfectly. I had Hokkaido style ramen, means it's cooked with butter and has a richer, more fatty taste, which although not my usual preference, is nevertheless pretty good. I found only a very small pot of ninniku (garlic) paste. Water replenished regularly by the owner. You can sit at the bar and watch the wild kitchen action. You should be able to read Japanese or be with someone who can, to get the most out of this place. Negi-ramen, Hokkaido style, 550 yen.

Higashi-odori, on the right, about 500m from the AIST campus going towards Tsukuba centre. (0298) 51-1005
A Chinese restaurant complete with lanterns and dragons, bright red revolving table top with sticky plastic cover and Tsing Tao beer, 500 yen. Wicked place with a fine menu: Puneeta had miso ramen (rich miso sauce) and I had shitake ramen in here; both soups are tip top. The menu lists these dishes as miso soba and shitake soba, but bloody hell, it's ramen not soba. Has excellent gyoza (even does ebi [shrimp] gyoza and vegetable-filled gyoza, which were top). I was disappointed in the tan tan men (nothing beats the Kyoukason one).

Science Odori
Like many people, I've often entertained daft thoughts of running a ramen shop back home; a visit to this one on Science odori gave me a slap: I don't think I could hack it. This is run by a couple and a mother-in-law: 11a.m.-Midnight everyday for this young married couple (maybe they bought the shop after they were married and are trying to get by on it), 13 hours of hard monotonous work. All ramen shops must be hard monotonous work, but this one seemed more kawai-so (piteous) than normal. Anyway, it's not bad but to be brutal the shop 100m down the road has better soup, this one's chotto (a bit) slow, but there are lots of niniku and chili, free nama (raw) eggs (I thought they were hard boiled so rolled it on the table and got yolk and albumen everywhere). There's an area for kids. miso negi 650 yen.

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