Ramen in Japan is pretty amazing. That may be too obvious, but I feel like it’s worth mentioning, and the food is just one part of it. Corner shops serve as way stations for a pedestrian/bicycle populace who’ve looked up from their digital companions long enough to remember that there is a human starving for attention while they’ve fed the tech tape worm pixelating inside of them.
A door slides or swings or retracts or lifts, and you are knee deep in a cultural collision point bathed in warmth, scented in umami. The claustrophobic may find this immersion exercise intimidating. Most of these noodle dens seat no more than a dozen or so, and there is just enough space not to be sitting in someone else’s lap. In Tokyo in particular, space is a rare luxury. Kaleidoscopic social norms dominate, so forget what you think is rude and go with the flow. Push gently past the spectacled gentlemen to your right leaning into his bowl and slurping with audible vigor. Sidle next to the older woman resplendent in her kimono and painted face, with no concern of whether or not this seat may be taken. Feel free to point at one of the three dimensional ceramic models that serve as your menu, representing in great detail (since you can’t read its printed counterpart anyway, and the sweaty chef clad in white speaks no English) the exotic fare you are about to encounter.
500 yen ($4.47 at the time these words were written) is possible at many spots, though 600-800 is more common. Ramen for more than 1200, I’d leave alone. You’re more than likely paying for an experience that’s going to take you further away from the common man engagement that we’re striving for here. You’re steaming bowl of meticulous goodness arrives with no ceremony or fanfare, just chopsticks that you use to guide these floating aromatic bits into your gullet. Slurping is polite, tipping is not. So tilt that bowl back, gulp down that tender chashu, that perfect soft boiled egg, the scallions, the firm cluster of noodles against that backdrop of salty spicy broth. The chef will take it as a sign that you enjoyed the meal he prepared. You’ve already paid, so all you do is leave. These culinary grottos are not designed for you to linger or even socialize for that matter. It’s about the work of eating, utilitarian style, and making your way to your next adventure. You’ve been initiated.
An aside; to this day, one of the greatest compliments of my life came from a ramen chef in Japan who complimented me on my chopstick skills. I don’t know if it was a weighted assessment. I’m an American, I’m black, and I’m young (ish), so maybe it was just in comparison to his low expectations, but his smile was so broad and genuine. I’ve chosen to believe that I’m an adept.