Whether you’re in Tokyo for a week or for life, you’ll barely make a dent in the city’s ramen scene. There are simply too many shops to eat at, occupying every nook and cranny of the city. So where to begin?
The landscape is constantly evolving: The ordinary bowl of ramen is still as satisfying as ever, but no longer enough in a field where new flavors are constantly being experimented with, and where true ramen visionaries stand head and shoulders above the masses.
Here are five favorites, selected primarily for the quality of the ramen itself, but also for atmosphere, ease of access (not everyone has hours to queue at far-flung hole-in-the-wall joints) and innovation.
Kamo to Negi
Kamo to Negi (“Duck and Onion”) is one of those shops that stared ramen’s fundamentals in the eye and said, “We can do better.”
Its duck-based soup is a prime example of experimentation gone right, exceptionally rich in flavor but without feeling too heavy. Instead of the usual slices of chāshū pork, Kamo uses slices of roast duck (it’s described as confit — it’s not, but this can be forgiven) as well as grilled spring onion (you can choose from three types) as toppings. Add some yuzu koshō (the condiment made from yuzu citrus and chili) for an extra flavor kick and to cut through the soup’s fattier elements.
The oyakodon rice bowl (you guessed it, duck rather than chicken) is a favorite side dish, but sells out quickly. There’s almost always a short queue, and the shop often closes early if it runs out of noodles or soup, so get there as early as you can.
Ueno 6-4-15, Taito-ku 110-0005; bit.ly/kamotonegi
Ginza Kagari Honten
The reborn main shop of the Michelin Guide darling, Ginza Kagari Honten is ramen at its most gentrified. This is no bad thing: The shop is pristine, staff smartly dressed, and everything is presented in beautiful bowls or on stone dishes.
Crucially, the taste matches the presentation. Kagari is famed for its creamy, golden chicken-bone soup known as tori paitan. Don’t forget to request a bib to ensure it doesn’t indelibly stain your shirt.
First time round, stick to the special ramen (listed as soba) and then, on your next visit, go all-in with the special tsukemen set — dipping noodles that comes with a shoyu and porcini mushroom-infused broth. Don’t ignore the sides — the rice bowls are high-quality belly fillers, and the standard toppings are so good you’ll be hard-pressed not to order extra.
Special mention must also go to Kagari’s attempt to go entirely cashless. It didn’t last long, but definitely earns the restaurant some bonus points.
Ginza 6-4-12, Chuo-ku 104-0061; 03-6263-8900; bit.ly/kagarihonten
The camouflage exterior of this eight-seater in Miniamishinjuku does well to keep it hidden, but Naraseimen won’t stay that way for long.
From the proprietors of the brilliant Shin Udon just 100 meters down the road, the shop is more than ready for the Michelin judges. The aesthetic is clean, the ramen sublime and there’s a good selection of craft beer. The sign at the door — “an evolutionary form of udon” — is full of promise: The noodles are house-made and additive-free.
The soup is light, based on chicken stock, and comes in three varieties: the house-special tori paitan, as well as shoyu and shio (salt) blends. You can order just noodles and soup, but it’s worth going whole hog with the toku-atsushi specials: each is adorned with a slice of chāshū, a thick cut of pork shoulder, lightly blanched Shingen chicken, Kagoshima takenoko (bamboo shoot), white onion and, of course, an egg. It’s on the pricier side but oh, is it worth it.
Yoyogi 2-26-2, Shibuya-ku 151-0053; bit.ly/naraseimen;
Tai Shio Soba Toka
This restaurant is all hustle and bustle, with a constant churn of customers eager to try a creative take on ramen.
The shop’s raison d’etre is its tai (sea bream) ramen, a surprising but satisfying bowl of clear sea bream soup and thin-cut noodles, with a healthy serving of sea bream and bamboo shoots to finish it off.
The osusume (recommended) set comes with a side of sea bream sashimi, dressed with a homemade sesame sauce, and a bowl of rice with popped sesame kernels. Pour your leftover ramen soup over the rice to make chazuke, a meal closer that’ll leave you full until your next visit.
Funamachi 12-13, Shinjuku-ku 160-0006; 03-3354-3303; ramen-toka.com
“No rabbit, no life” reads the staff T-shirts at Usagi, a back-alley ramen shop a few minute’s walk from Shibuya’s infamous Love Hotel Hill. It’s a simple message, if slightly odd given the complete lack of rabbit on the menu.
The house-favorite is the shoyu-based ramen — go for the Usagi Special first time round, with extra pork, roasted chicken breast and one of the best ramen eggs in town. It’s delicious — neither too heavy nor too salty.
The fragrance that dominates the shop, however, is that of Usagi’s tantanmen — a spicy Sichuan pepper and peanut-based ramen variant that will leave the lips tingling and you wanting more.
The shop is run by the younger brother of the late Japanese producer and DJ Nujabes. The restaurant plays Nujabes’ music round the clock in tribute: a great soundtrack for a great bowl.
Shinsencho 8-13, Shibuya-ku 150-0045; 03-3464-4111; bit.ly/ramenusagi
No list would be complete without mention of Homemade Ramen Muginae, which stands at the top of Tabelog’s “Top 20 Ramen in Tokyo” list. It’s out of the city center, and queues are in the hour-plus range, but the chicken and niboshi (dried sardine) soup more than justifies the wait.
One of the better tonkotsu ramen joints in Tokyo is Toride (for the real stuff you’ve got to go to Kyushu), owned by an 11-year veteran of Ippudo, a tonkotsu specialist from Fukuoka that is one of the country’s most successful ramen chains.
Aficionados might disagree, but Afuri deserves kudos for its yuzu-flavored soup and (debatably tasty) vegan ramen.
Mensho San Francisco takes the dish from street stall to food porn, with designer bowls and a farm-to-bowl approach.
Swap one Mensho for another and also pay a visit to Mensho Tokyo, where the secret sauce is lamb — the ramen is good, the tsukemen divine.
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