“No Ramen – No Life!” says the sticker above the door of one of our favorite ramen spots, and we are certainly not going to argue. Whether it’s a lifesaving cup noodle at lunch, the 2am post-drinks indulgence, the hangover salvation or the steaming dish that saves a rainy day of sightseeing… Ramen really is life, and the better you know it, the more you’ll love it.
Appearing in films, TV shows, and depicted rather beautifully in many anime, ramen may seem like a simple affair: noodles, broth, some scattered toppings—but really, the variety is almost unfathomable. With a selection of broth bases, different flavorings and toppings galore, there’s a perfect combination for everyone. Regions across Japan offer their own signature ramen, while ramen-ya, or ramen shops each have their specialities, with everything from a ¥500 bowl at your local station to the Michelin-starred spots dotted across the city.
Ramen: The origin story
Originally from China, as many of Japan’s greatest things are, Ramen was brought to Japan in the early twentieth-century Taishō era. Immigrants living in the port town of Yokohama (now home to the largest Chinatown in Japan) served it up as an affordable and filling meal, which many ramen joints still call chūka-soba meaning Chinese Noodles. The dishes really took off when soldiers returned from the second Sino-Japanese war, with veterans returning with a taste for Chinese dishes and shops began to pop up. Over the years, ramen has diverged from its origins in many ways—with the addition of Japanese ingredients and regional variations—but remains a cheap and filling meal that’s pretty much the signature fast food of the nation.
What is ramen: From broth to toppings
Aside from just being straight up delicious, ramen is a dish known worldwide, but not always in its best form. Cup Ramen is probably the most well known and certainly has its place in our hearts, but while it’s a great 11pm snack, and has the basics (noodles, broth and toppings) it is a mere shadow of the real deal. Put simply, ramen is a dish that originated from China and features broth, flavourings, noodles and toppings, with dozens of variations of each – but it’s one of those ‘more than the sum of its part’ situations.
The broth base can be cooked for days, and may include one or a combination of: pork bones, chicken bones or dashi—a staple fish stock usually made with bonito (dried fish flakes), kelp or dried sardines. For a super rich broth, pork bones are boiled until the broth becomes milky, making for one of the tastiest options—tonkotsu. Each restaurant will add their own aromatics to the broth, with options like onions, rice wine, oils and garlic. These days, vegan and vegetarian options are also available, with vegetable broth bases used instead.
Tare: The flavorings
These are where the options you’ll see at ramen joints come in, and you’ll probably end up with a go-to favorite.
- Shio is a classic, meaning salt, and is usually made with a chicken or fish base, forming a light, clear soup.
- Shōyu is soy sauce, and is one of the most traditional options, often added to a chicken or fish base. The flavor is a balance of salty and sweet and is a speciality of Wakayama prefecture, where shōyu was first produced in Japan.
- Tonkotsu is the pork broth we mentioned earlier, which slow boils pork bones for days, and is very rich. It’s the local speciality of Hakata Ramen in Fukuoka.
- Miso is a more recent addition to the ramen scene and adds a deep savoury hit to your noodles, forming an opaque soup that’s believed to have originated in Hokkaido.
- We have a special shout out for tantanmen – Japan’s take on the Chinese Sichuan Dan Dan Noodles. As well as sichuan pepper, a sesame paste or oil is added to the rich pork broth which is topped with spicy minced beef and scallions.
Ramen noodles are a distinct yellow flavor thanks to the lye water used to make them, called kansui in Japanese. The alkaline mineral water has potassium carbonated which helps the noodles stay firm in the broth. The thickness and style of noodle varies from region to region, with wavy, straight or curly noodles making appearances.
Toppings for ramen are more than an afterthought, with some classic options and delicious pairings to be made. Here are some of the most popular:
- Chashu: slices of roasted pork with plenty of fat, chashu is a standard topping with extra slices usually available to order—go for the chashumen option if this is your favourite.
- Tamago: meaning eggs, this is another standard option and is sometimes included. The common option is a soft-boiled ‘ajitsuke’ tamago, which is marinated in a sweetened soy sauce before being added to steaming ramen, they’re also called ajitama.
- Nori: The green sheet often sticking up from the bowl or sometimes sprinkled on top, the dried seaweed is a classic topping that crunches nicely. You can also opt for wakame, a kind of kelp that adds a nice crunch with plenty of bonus vitamins.
- Negi: Sliced green onions make for the final of the four go-to toppings that arrive on most bowls of ramen. Adding freshness and crunch, they’re a great compliment to an oily dish.
- Menma: These preserved bamboo shoots give a salty kick and are satisfyingly chewy.
- Kamaboko: An animation classic, the pink and white swirl is actually a slice of processed fishcake, and while the flavor is mild, it adds a little flair to the dish.
- Butter and Corn: OK, this might seem rogue, but it’s a Hokkaido staple and goes incredibly with their signature miso ramen—trust us, you’ll be converted.
- Kaedama and Oomori: If you’ve come to the end of your noodles but still have some room (and some soup) then ask for a kaedama or oomori—it means an extra portion and while some shops include it for free (often when thin noodles are served) but may cost around ¥100 to ¥150.
- Noodle firmness: Choose from yawa (soft), fuutsu (medium) kata-men (firm) and you can add bari to mean extra, so ‘bari-yawa’ for extra soft or ‘bari-kata’ for extra firm.
- Tsukemen: So this is a dish that’s similar to ramen in all but its final composition: you’re served the noodles in a separate bowl and dip into the soup. It was invented in 1961 in Tokyo and has become super popular—the noodles are usually thicker and are firm and the broth is thicker too.
- Sluuuuurp: OK, so more a sound than a word, but it’s the best way to show your satisfaction with the dish, so release your inhibitions (and feel the rain on your skin).
- Tsuta: The original spot to be awarded a Michelin Star, this fine-dining take on ramen has now moved to Yoyogi Uehara, thankfully losing the complicated ticketing process so you can sit back and slurp with unadulterated joy.
- Nakiryu: A tantanmen dream, Nakiryu received a Michelin star and rightly so. Their delicious blend of spice is hard to beat—give the sanramen a go, it’s spicy and sour and very addictive.
- Soba House Konjiki Hototogisu: A small and serious noodle house, this place offers a refined bowl of ramen, with a slightly intense no talking rule. Try the incredible sea bream and clam ramen with truffle sauce and porcini oil—it’s to die for (silently).
- Chukasoba Ginza Hachigou Awarded the Michelin star most recently, the chef behind this joint combines western and Japanese styles to craft an incredible dish, with elements working together seamlessly to form ramen you’re unlikely to try again in your life.
- Ippudo Called Hakata Ippudo in full, this chain offers reliable and affordable bowls with a still one-off restaurant feel about it. They’re known for crisp gyoza served fresh from the pan so get yourself a side of these while you’re in there.
- Ichiran : This is the home of customisable ramen, complete with forms to fill in before you’re served to ensure you get your ideal bowl, no disappointments allowed. Moving away from the idea of standardised chain food, here you can select noodle firmness, broth richness, amounts of garlic and green onion—basically everything, and that’s before you’ve even reached the toppings. Be specific, enjoy, and relax in your one-person booth where no one can see you slurp.
- Kemuri: Serving up smoked ramen that’s unlike everything you’ve ever tasted, Kemuri is a small restaurant dedicated to perfecting the dish. Each element is smoked in-house, but the overall impact is carefully balanced – head over in the evening for extra bar snacks.
- Yarou Ramen: Known for monster ramen, Yarou’s bowl comes piled high with vegetables and layered with slices of pork. The shop is in Akihabara and easy to spot with its yellow front.
- Kugatsudo Ramen: This spot is a ramen shop with a cafe vibe and natural flavorings, they even have a dessert menu to enjoy after your super savory meal.
- Tokyo Ramen Street: One of the most accessible if you’re travelling is found in the depths of Tokyo Station. Tokyo Ramen Street has 7 carefully selected ramen shops from across Tokyo with a regional restaurant that invites new hosts every 101 days. Soranoiro Nippon has the vegans covered, Oreshiki-Jun has mouthwatering Tonkotsu, and Ikarugi mixes things up with contemporary specials.
- Shinatatsu Ramen Street is located in Shinagawa, just a short walk from the busy station. It offers another seven delicious ramen shops serving up delights including tonkotsu with black garlic and super spicy miso. Significantly less crowded than the one in Tokyo Station and a little less shiny, this is a great option if you’re in the area.
- Yokohama Cup Noodles Museum: One for the instant ramen fans, the cup noodle museum is a bright, fun and interactive museum dedicated to the Cup Noodle brand and its founder. There’s a display of every cup noodle ever made, a make-your-own cup noodle factory where you can design your cup, choose the flavor and toppings and seal it shut, and a cooking class!
- The Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum: This one is a little more serious, and a little less museum, a little more ramen street. There is a section on the history of ramen, but the joy is the faux-Showa era streets with restaurants, all offering full or half-size bowls to try along with beer and sweets from the era (1926-1989).
- The Dai-tsukemen Strongest Ramen Festival: A little out of Tokyo in Machida, but running on successive weekends, this joyous event has been serving up a fierce noodle competition since 2009 and has both ramen and tsukemen (dipping noodles) that are especially loved in Machida.
- The Tokyo Ramen Show: The big one, this showcases dozens and dozens of ramen creators from across Japan, crowning a champion each year. It’s at Komazawa Park and usually has two halves with different competitors, so it’s worth re-visiting!
- Sapporo Miso Ramen: Miso and pork is a match made in heaven, with thick wavy noodles to carry that soup right up to you, with butter and corn (Hokkaido is the dairy heartland of Japan, after all) a popular topping option in Sapporo especially. We’ve got all the details here.
- Toyama Black Ramen: Chicken and fish stock with a strong black soy sauce, this is a unique bowl that’s surprisingly light and has won at the Tokyo Ramen Show three times in a row!
- Tokyo Shoyu Ramen: Considered the classic, Tokyo’s soy sauce ramen usually uses a fish and chicken broth. Rairaiken, a spot in Asakusa claims to be the oldest running joint in town having started ladling in 1910, and is run by the grandson of the original owner.
- Wakayama Ramen: A bit more of a vague category, Wakayama ramen varies from shop to shop, but the majority use a soy sauce and pork broth base (as the region is home to soy sauce producing town Yuasa) with delicious results.
- Kumamoto Ramen: Best served with double eggs yolks, sesame and black garlic (see above), this is a tonkotsu with thick and firm noodles and it’s incredible. That’s all we have to say.
- Hakata Ramen: A creamy and rich tonkotsu, Hakata is the dish of Fukuoka, with similar options in nearby Kurume, where the broth is even thicker. The city still has yatai on the riverside serving food late into the night – read on here for more details.
Etiquette and ordering: The ramen rules
The majority of ramen joints still use ticket vending machines to order, and if you spot one outside, chances are you’ll need to order before you enter. Sometimes there are English stickers or a whole set of English options on the buttons, but if not, we suggest google translate, or picking at random (price is a good guide) – sometimes there’s a star on the most popular option, so that’s a good bet. Head in and hand your ticket to the server (or if it’s a very small place, the person behind the counter) and take a seat—it won’t be long!
The best ramen in Tokyo
OK, so this is basically an impossible task—so many factors, so many bowls, so many options. Really, while there is such a thing as bad ramen, it’s not so common, and finding your favorite combination is a unique thing, so shop around, and try out some of our options below along the way.
The Michelin ramen joints
So Tokyo currently has three Michelin-starred ramen restaurants, but we’ve also included Tsuta—the first to be awarded a star (although it no longer holds it) as it is just as delicious.
If you’re looking for more fine-dining, be sure to check out the Bib Gourmande recommendations from the Michelin Guide—they focus on places that offer more affordable food at incredible quality. We also have a full rundown of Michelin restaurants in Tokyo to dream of…
The Reliable Chains
So if you’re ever lost, cold and hungry and the only thing keeping you going is the idea of sitting down to a reliable, delicious bowl of ramen, chains are your friend. Yes, independent, lovingly-crafted options are best, but they’re not always around, and to be perfectly honest, sometimes you just want that anonymity, that familiarity. Our two faves have similar-ish names and both specialise in tonkotsu ramen, hailing from Fukuoka—the homeland of divinely rich Hakata ramen.
The unusual options
Ramen has been taken in some creative directions over the years, and while some are seasonal (chocolate ramen for Valentine’s?) and some closed, (Pineapple Ramen will never leave our hearts), there are plenty of unusual options popping up to try. From green curry ramen to junk ramen—you’ll have to read our rundown of random ramen on to find out what exactly makes junk ramen so great.
Our best tokyo ramen picks
So we have our favourites, and there’s no point pretending we don’t, so here are a handful:
Ramen streets: All the options
If you need more than one bowl when it comes to ramen (and we feel you), then you’ll be delighted to know there are multiple spots that offer dedicated collections of ramen shops to try.
Ramen museums: Slurp and learn
These two options are both in Yokohama and while they’re pretty different, they’re both really fun and great for rainy days (more ideas for those here!).
Ramen festivals: celebrate the ramen
You read us right: ramen festivals. If something exists in Japan, there’s likely to be a festival to celebrate it, and Ramen has multiple. This is a fantastic thing, as it means loads of ramen joints from across the country gather in one place so you can try them all. Entry is free but you usually need to purchase tickets to buy the ramen, with prices all set at the same rate per bowl (it just makes everything a lot faster and simpler!).
Regional ramen: Find you local favorites
Japan loves a regional twist, and unsurprisingly ramen is a popular option for local dishes, with special ingredients and unusual histories—here are a few to get you started:
If you’re a regional-speciality-kinda-cat, check out our mega guide to the best dishes to try in each of Japan’s 47 prefectures.
Ramen FAQ: Everything you need to know
So we talked a lot about ramen, but there are some easy questions still lurking unanswered like the last noodles in your soup…
What is the average price for a bowl of ramen?
A standard bowl of ramen is roughly ¥750 yen, but there are plenty both below and above that too. Keep in mind that even Michelin ramen isn’t that expensive, coming in at around ¥1,200 a bowl and often less, so it can be worth an upgrade, but equally a lower price doesn’t mean bad quality either.
What is the Most Popular Ramen in Tokyo?
Hard to say—while the signature dish for Tokyo is a shoyu, it’s hard to narrow down restaurants in a city this big as everyone has their favorites. The chains we mentioned above like Ippudo are actually pretty great and perfect when you just want that reliable hit, especially when you’re in a new part of town and don’t know the ramen ropes. Equally places are given those Michelin stars for a reason, but keep an eye out for the Bib Gourmand spots too—check our section above for our full list of suggestions!
Where can you find vegan ramen?
Vegan ramen is getting more and more popular, and while it isn’t going to be the same as a bowl of traditional ramen (it’s best to accept this and appreciate it as a different style rather than comparing) it can still be super delicious. Try Soranoiro Nippon, T’s Tantan or Afuri for some delicious options. We have some extra veggie suggestions to try if you’re a plant-based explorer.
What’s the difference between ramen and tsukemen?
They are very similar dishes, and tsukemen was borne from ramen, invented in 1961 in Tokyo. The primary difference is that with ramen, the noodles come already in the bowl of broth, while with tsukemen, they are served separately: ‘tsukeru’ actually means dip. The noodles are usually firmer and thicker to help carry the broth, which is also usually thicker than with ramen too.