Is ramen Japanese or Chinese? That particular question is clearly a non-starter for the good folks at Japanese Soba Noodles Tsuta — whose name stakes out their position. But, to clarify things, you won't find buckwheat noodles in their bowls; what you get is arguably the finest ramen in northern Tokyo. Plenty of others rate the Sugamo shop, too, judging from the line outside. Count on a good half hour in the queue, whatever the weather — though there is shelter.
It's worth the wait. There are four basic options to choose from: ramen or tsukemen — that's soba or tsukesoba, in their terminology — in either a shio (salt) or shōyu (soy sauce) soup. Quality and flavor are paramount here. The noodles are stone-ground from four kinds of wheat and the soup is a chicken-seafood blend. The seasonings, toppings and umami-boosting condiments are all righteous, and there are no chemical enhancers. It all adds up to a very superior slurp.
The only negative is that Tsuta isn't open past 4 p.m. But that has been addressed now a branch has opened on the north side of Sugamo Station. Called Tsuta no Ha (03-3916-7115; open 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., 6-9 p.m.; Sat. Sun. and hols. 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; closed Mon.), its specialty is duck, used in both the rich soup, as a chashu-style topping, or ground up in a terrific spicy chili duck ramen. Highly recommended.