Ichiran is one of the most famous ramen restaurants found in Japan. This popular chain of ramen restaurants specializes in tonkotsu ramen. This type of ramen, originating in Fukuoka in southern Japan, has a rich and creamy broth made from pork bones simmered for hours.
When the first stall opened in Fukuoka in 1960, it was known then as Futaba Ramen. In 1966, the stall became known as Ichiran (蘭), meaning “one orchid.” In 1993, Ichiran’s first concept store opened. This store paved the way for the chain to expand into what it is today. Today, Ichiran operates around 70 locations in Japan along with locations in Hong Kong, Taipei, and Brooklyn, New York.
If you are looking for the best tonkotsu ramen in Tokyo, you should visit one of Ichiran’s many locations. On my visit, I stopped by their Ichiran Shinjuku Chuo Higashiguchi store located not far from the east exit of Shinkuku Station.
If you are looking for more information about Tokyo and Japan, I highly recommend you pick up a guidebook such as Lonely Planet Best of Tokyo 2020
Waiting in Line
If you are a frequent visitor to one of the many Ichiran locations, then you know the drill. You are going to have to wait in line.
I can only speak for the Tokyo locations, but every time I have visited, I have had to wait. Sometimes the wait was only 15 minutes while other times the wait was an hour.
On the wall at the Ichiran Shinjuku Chuo Higashiguchi location was a marker showing the estimated wait times. While an approximation, I appreciated knowing the estimated waiting time from my point in line.
While I was waiting in line, a worker walked up to me and handed me a clipboard with a piece of paper attached to it along with a pen. This piece of paper was an order sheet. With this order sheet, I could customize my bowl of ramen exactly how I wanted it.
I could customize my bowl of ramen in seven different ways:
- Dashi (Seasoning Stock): light, medium, strong
- Richness: none, light, medium, rich, extra rich
- Garlic: none, drop, medium, 1/2 glove, 1 clove
- Green Onion: without, white (green onion), green onion
- Chasu (Sliced Pork): without or with
- Hiden no Tare (Spicy Red Sauce): none, mild, medium, spicy, 3~10x
- Noodle Texture: extra firm, firm, medium, soft, extra soft
If you are wondering I picked: medium dashi, medium richness, 1/2 clove of garlic, with green onions, with chashu, spicy, and medium noodles.
After completing your order sheet, hold on to it. You will hand the sheet to a worker when you get a seat inside.
Ordering Ramen from the Vending Machine
After waiting for about 30 minutes in line, I finally made it to the front door located on the basement level of the building. After passing though the door into the restaurant, I immediately encountered a vending machine.
Vending machines are a common site at ramen restaurants in Japan. Put your money in, select what you want, take your ticket, and take your change if any. The machine accepted 1,000, 2,000, 5,000, and 10,000 yen notes. It also accepted 10, 50, 100, and 500 coins. Also, it was cash only.
Ichiran Shinjuku Chuo Higashiguchi Menu
The most basic ramen option on the menu was the Classic Tonkotsu Ramen (890 yen or about $8.04). This bowl of ramen came with sliced pork and green onions.
If you want to order toppings a la carte for your bowl of ramen, you may do so at an extra cost. Toppings included a half-boiled salted egg (130 yen or about $1.17), dried seaweed (120 yen or about $1.08), and kikurage mushrooms (120 yen).
You could also add extra sliced pork (250 yen or about $2.26), extra green onion (120 yen or about $1.08), extra garlic (120 yen), and Ichiran’s original premium vinegar (120 yen) to your bowl.
If you want to splurge, I recommend the Ichiran 5 Ramen (1,490 yen or about $13.46). This set takes the Classic Tonkotsu Ramen and adds extra sliced pork (4 pieces), kikurage mushrooms, dried seaweed, and a half-boiled salted egg. Served on a side plate were all the extra toppings, including the egg.
If you are really hungry, you can order kae-dama, a noodle refill (190 yen or about $1.72). Ichiran also offered a 1/2 noodle refill (130 yen or about $1.17).
Other than ramen, you had rice (200 yen or about $1.81 for small/250 yen or about $2.26 for large), smoke-flavored stewed pork (490 yen or about $4.42), and a matcha almond pudding with green tea sauce (390 yen or about $3.52). The stewed pork sounded amazing. I might have to give it a try next time I visit.
For drinks, you had draft beer (580 yen or about $5.24) and Ichiran’s original blended tea (250 yen or about $2.26). Complimentary water could be found at each seat.
Depending on your group size, after ordering, you may have to wait a few more moments in the hallway outside of the dining rooms. Luckily, I was dining alone and I only had to wait a few mintues.
Dining Room of Ichiran
After a few minutes, I entered one of the three small, bright dining room. I could tell right away that Ichiran was not your typical ramen shop. The seating system was like nothing I have ever seen. Each seat was at a divided private booth, separated for privacy from the person next to you. If you are dining alone or you want to eat your bowl of ramen in peace without any distractions, then Ichiran is perfect for you.
I am not the tallest person, but I felt cramped at my seat, almost claustrophobic. Making the situation worse, the stools did not move. It was a tiny space but I knew it would be worth it for the ramen.
So you might be wondering, what happens if you dine with someone else? Though the dividers were removable, I didn’t notice anyone doing this on my visit. I wouldn’t recommend a visit to Ichiran with a large group.
It was impressive how quiet the dining room was, especially for how small the room was. The dining room was quiet for how small the room was. Everyone was busy eating, not talking. The only sounds I heard were some of the worker behind the screen along with Japanese music playing lightly in the background.
The Man Behind the Curtain
When I sat at the small booth, I immediately noticed a screen in front of me. Immediately after sitting, a worker raised the screen in front of me and took my customized order sheet. After taking the sheet, he lower the screen.
After a few minutes, the screen raised up again and a bowl of ramen appeared in front of me. Once again, the screen lowered. I never once saw his face. He never saw my face either. One of the more private experiences you can have.
If you need to order anything else, including noodle refiles or more cold beers, just press the red button on the table. The mysterious man behind the curtain will once again appear.
Ichiran 5 Ramen Set
Since it was my first day in Tokyo, being jet lagged and hungry, I went for the Ichiran 5 Ramen (1,490 yen or about $13.46). This set was essentially the Classic Tonkotsu Ramen with the addition of a half-boiled salted egg, four additional slices of pork, kikurage mushrooms, and two pieces of dried seaweed. Served on a side plate were all the extra toppings, including the egg. For photo purposes, I added everything to the bowl to make it look pretty.
If you don’t want to order the set, you can order the Classic Tonkotsu Ramen (890 yen or about $8.04) and then add toppings a la carte.
The golden brown tonkotsu broth was absolutely amazing. It was rich, silky, and creamy without being too heavy. Each bite, a perfect salty and spicy balance with just the right amount of dashi, pork, and garlic flavors. As I made my way towards the bottom of the bowl, the flavors seemed to intensify and become more oily and rich.
While I’m usually a fan of firm noodles in ramen, I decided to go with the recommended medium firmness. The long, thin round noodles did not disappoint. Just as with the broth, the noodles were perfect. Fresh and chewy without being too soft or firm. The noodles might have been thin, but they still managed to soak up the delicious flavors of the broth.
The thin but large slices of pork chashu had the perfect balance of meat to fat. The texture of the tender yet firm meat complemented the almost melt in my mouth fattiness of the salty pork.
The bright red spicy sauce floating in the broth, known as Hiden no Tare, was smoky, spicy, and complimented the rich, milky broth. I ordered my ramen with a spice level of 2 (spicy). The heat level was perfect, leave a slow burn in my mouth. While I could have handled more heat, I felt that the addition of more red spicy sauce would have concealed the true flavors of the broth.
Finishing off the ramen were chewy and earthy kikurage mushrooms, crunchy, salty pieces of dried seaweed, and a soft boiled egg with a rich, creamy golden yolk. The one interesting thing about the egg was that it was served separately in a small bowl and had to be carefully peeled. I was not a fan of that.
This was one great bowl of ramen. Simple yet complex, packed with flavor, and executed well.
I found the service at Ichiran to be just as fantastic as the food. It was amazing to watch the operation in action, especially with a restaurant that is busy almost 24 hours a day. It was a well oiled machine.
Every worker seemed to have a specific task which they executed flawlessly. This included the hostess at the front door, the friendly lady helping guests with the vending machine, the worker helping me to my seat, and the hidden man behind the curtain. Everyone worked efficiently as a team. This ensured that bowls of ramen arrived quickly which in turn made the line out front move faster.
Though it’s a chain, Ichiran is affordable, the quality is consistent from location to location, and you always know what to expect.
Best of all, each bowl of ramen was customizable. I enjoyed how I could customize my bowl of ramen exactly how I wanted. I could decide every detail from the richness of the broth to the amount of spicy red sauce added.
And, I can’t forget about those tiny private booths. While not the most comfortable, it was a unique and enjoyable experience.
In my opinion, Ichiran is one of the better ramen shops in Tokyo, and in Japan. While many ramen experts might disagree with me, I will take a bowl of tonkotsu ramen from Ichiran any day over anything I can find back at home in Los Angeles.
- Delicious tonkotsu (pork) ramen broth that has been simmered for hours
- Unique dining experience
- Efficient service
- Open 24 hours a day
- Cash only
- Expect a line at almost all hours
- Very cramped private booths