Today I went with my husband to the embassy to pick up visas for a trip we have scheduled later this month. Most of the embassies here in Tokyo seem to be located in or near to Roppongi — an area of central Tokyo just west of the Imperial Palace area. Because so many of the embassies are located here, Roppongi, Azabu, Akasaka… are pretty much considered to be the expat areas of the city.
The subway ride from Shibaura to Roppongi is rather circuitous and clumsy (which is unusual for Tokyo) so we opted to walk the two miles there and back… stopping for lunch somewhere along the way. It was a chilly, rain-spitting morning here in Tokyo, but with umbrellas in hand, we set out. Picking up the visas was pretty easy, we just walked in, handed them our receipts, and walked right back out with our new visas. Now for lunch!
Ramen. Ramen is a very popular noodle soup dish here in Japan. Originally from China, it has become embedded into the cuisine of Japan. You can barely walk a block without seeing at least one ramen shop… ラーメン (in Katakana)… or らーめん (in Hiragana). Ramen has become the quintessential fast food/quick lunch in Japan. What can be better than a steaming bowl of savory broth, noodles, and toppings on a cold, wet, winter day?
Please don’t be thinking of those dried up little noodle bricks you used to reconstitute and eat when you were in college. Yes… you can buy that kind of ramen here too, in all the supermarkets and conbinis (convenience stores). The ramen shops, though, can give you a wonderful steaming bowl of noodles for anywhere from 500¥ to 1000¥ — depending on extras and toppings, of course. (From $5 to $10 US.)
A lot of the noodle shops — ramen, soba, and udon — have ticket machines at the entrances. When you go in, you put in your money, push a button, and out pops a ticket that you give to the wait-staff. They direct you to a table, bring water glasses (pitcher on the table), and then bring you your noodles. Some places also offer rice to go with the meal, and there are always jars of condiments on the table to make your bowl of noodles just the way you like it: pickled ginger, chili oil and pepper, vinegar, shredded long onion, garlic, and sometimes different types of shredded seaweed.
Pretty much, you can walk into any ramen shop and end up with a delicious meal. Sometimes, however, it can be a bit of an adventure. Today, for example, our ticket machine was all in Japanese (of course), but did not have any pictures to help us decipher the different selections. We could read some of the Japanese, but as the line was backing up behind us, we just decided to wing it and press a button. I knew I was getting a bowl with pork cutlet because I could read “tonkatsu” on the button, but that is about all I had a chance to translate.
Regardless… It turned out fine. I got my bowl of “shio” ramen — ramen in a salt-based broth — and my husband got his “shouyu” ramen — ramen in a soy-sauce-based broth. Both delicious, both warm and steaming and filling.
They say the reason that fast food chains do so well is that people like to know what to expect when they order food. We all like the predictable… predictable selections, and predictable quality. People here are no different. But, “fast food” noodle shops here all seem to provide a predictable and dependably delicious meal… no matter which shop you go to. Certainly, there is enough variation for everyone to choose a favorite, but in a pinch, you know you can always swing into a convenient noodle shop for a tasty lunch.