Putting to one side my deep addiction to Ramen, Tokyo has bundles more to offer people who do not share my pentecostal zeal for noodles, broth and toppings. Having spent upwards of 3 months in Tokyo over the course of 4 trips beginning in 2000, I have been guilty of sticking to my tried and tested places on more than one occasion. I have ventured out and tried a few new spots when travelling with friends, but if i'm to spend a week alone in Tokyo my movements involve: Kiraku-JBS-Beatcafe-Shimo Kitazawa. Generally speaking.
Up at midday and off to one of the highlights of any visit to Tokyo: Kiraku Ramen. Last time in Tokyo a friend and I went there directly from the airport, backpacks and all. It's one of the oldest Ramen places in Tokyo and serves a very traditional old-school style. None of the perks of modern day cooking are here including melting pork, soft boiled eggs, no... this place is purely about childhood tastes, and some of the best noodles we have tried in Japan. The broth too is sublime.
(Diary from the first visit)
On a rainy day in Tokyo, we ended up randomly finding JBS (aka the Worlds Greatest Bar) and pulled up a stool to sip a whiskey and talk to Kobayashi. Since the weather was miserable and we had just arrived from Osaka on the Shinkansen, we asked him if he knew a good Ramen place nearby. Immediately his face lit up and he whispered "Kiraku!, Old style Ramen but OISHI!!!!".
Luckily for us it was 300 meters away down the road in Dogenzaka so we threw our backpacks into our capsule hotel and clambered up the narrow stairs to peruse the menu. The first thing that hit my eyes was the photos of the hard-boiled egg, a feature of ramen that I never really like (a 6 minute, soft, set yolk is always the best) however, Kobayashi had recommended it so we had to try. He mentioned that the Wonton-men was the best so all three of us ordered a bowl (800 yen) and a large bottle of Kirin and sat there waiting.
The old lady clambered up the stairs, and the bowls arrived via the dumbwaiter. Huge, steaming bowls of rich, dark, umami-bomb broth with wontons floating delicately on the surface, the aformentioned hard boiled egg, and some rather thick sliced, dry-looking pork. All our expectations were floored with the first taste of the broth. The deep fried shallots (or onions) adding that deep sweetness in a broth that resembled a rich French onion soup in some ways. Absolutely stunning. The highlight were the noodles. They hardly get better than this anywhere. Perfect thickness, chewy, able to soak up all that rich, unctuous broth. The pork and egg are secondary, the broth and noodles are the hero here so if you're looking for melt in your mouth Chashu, this is not the place.
If you're looking for tradition and perfection done right, affordable and slap bang in the middle of the red light district (which is strange and comical in the same light) then this is definitely the place for you. Fill your stomach and then head back to JBS or slip down to the basement of Beat Cafe and have a drink with Katoman.
JBS (Jazz, Blues, Soul)
Hard to argue that this isn't one of the best bars on the planet. A second floor hide-away which serves as storage space for the possessed owners rabid vinyl collection. 10,000 (and counting) records displayed in alphabetical order on shelves that cover the entire expanse of his bar. If you decide to go there our little piece of advice is to go early. Unfortunately the Lonely Planet or some other guide book wrote about the place shortly after we had been, and the next time in town we returned to find a shit fest of young hipsters who don't even know what jazz IS shouting over the music about their salad lunch or drainpipe jeans collection. It was truly disheartening and you could see on Kobayashi's face that he didn't want things to turn out this way. I can only hope that the hype spills over to another bar and they all leave us to our quiet reflection and music studies.
After the "peace and quiet" of JBS (if you're lucky), it's time to head down to Beat Cafe and say hi to Katoman! Randomly recommended to us by an Icelandic girl in Seoul (!!!) we headed down after JBS only to find out that Katoman had toured with lots of Japanese bands and had been to our club in Oslo. He also knew literally ALL our friends! Small world. Needless to say, this dive bar in a basement is where we congregated most nights sitting at the bar talking to katoman and listening to his eclectic music taste.
If you're lucky, you might get invited to his secret Karaoke bar which is a 10 minute walk in a building I could never find again.
Han No Daidokoro
Barely a 5 minute walk down towards Shibuya Station is another place that has become a dot on the map of all Tokyo visits. Slightly above the normal back-packers budget, but worth every penny this spot has some of the best tasting beef you'll find... anywhere. We asked for a selection of cuts of Beef, seasoned with just salt and pepper, and it came with some lettuce leaves (Korean style) for wrapping after you've cooked the meat to your preference (Yes, grill-your-own). We spent a small fortune but left with the most satisfied feeling. The marbling on some of the pieces was outstanding, the seasoning perfect, and the cooking (thanks to me) was just right. The meat literally melted in your mouth with that rich, fatty, amazing transcendent ease.
Next up was a visit to Ichiran, Japans most famous ramen chain along with Ippudo. We had already had a bowl of it in Osaka and were unimpressed to say the least, especially after some of the bowls we enjoyed there, but never judge a place on one visit, so we pulled up our sleeves and headed for a second opinion.
YES, its a chain. They have them everywhere. However, if you are not a people person, then this is the best thing on earth. Private small "booths" where you don't even have to look at the person next to you OR the person who serves you. AMEN!!!
This isn't the best ramen you'll have in Japan, but it's a decent option if you are wandering around and can't find anything else (or if you are a few beers in). The paper you fill out gives various options for how soft/hard you want your noodles, how mild/spicy your broth should be, how fatty/thin, etc. I always go for hard noodles, fatty, and pretty spicy. That makes a decent bowl of Ramen considering its a chain. This is by no means close to the top 100 ramens in Japan, but its the best choice between McDonalds and Ichiran at 4am (although sometimes i'll go for a big mac, dirty dirty).
I managed to head for one more bowl before we moved out to Asagaya for a few days. Caught the subway to Tokyo station and headed down into the basement to "Ramen Street", with only one place on my mind: Rokurinsha. A place David Chang had almost had a melt-down in a few years before, claiming them to be some of the best noodles he ever ate. I waited in line for more than 45 minutes, before being ushered in and seated at the counter.
The food came and I tucked into what will go down as some of the best noodles I have ever eaten. Springy, thick, expertly cooked. The only downside for me was the intense flavour of fish powder. I know its a favourite of the Japanese, but for me I try to push my palate at any given time but this was just a step too far. I ate the noodles and then left a lot of the broth even after diluting it with the Yuzu stock (which definitely improved it) that they pour into everyones bowl.
The days rolled by heading to Fuglen for coffee after a walk in Yoyogi Park, jaunts around Daikanyama, decent burgers in Harajuku at The Great Burger, and spending far too much time walking around Shimo-Kitazawa and listening to hair metal at Mother Bar.
The time for a change of scenery had arrived, so we headed out to Asagaya to stay in a huge Airbnb for a few days. Up early and the decision was made to head to Koenji to explore a bit, since I hadn't been there apart from on tour in 2000 when the band I was managing played at the legendary 20000V club. A lot had changed, the club had also moved to a new location which baffled me the first few minutes standing there going "But I was sure it was in a subway tunnel".
The daytrip to Koenji turned up one fantastic new discovery.
After a small earthquake in Asagaya, we headed by train to Koenji to hunt down a couple of ramen places that had come highly recommended. The first one was closed for 2 weeks holiday, the 2nd we just couldn't find. Not defeated (after walking around at least 2 hours) we saw some guys hanging around in an art studio. I popped in and asked if any of them knew a good ramen spot nearby. Immediately he ushered me out of the studio and pointed frantically towards a couple blocks away.
We followed his directions and ended up at Tabushi's.
I ordered the Miso Ramen and sat back watching the chefs disciplined and clean, cooking their noodles and prepping the toppings. The bowl arrived, steaming and tempting. The fatty glisten of oily-miso on top and a scattering of cabbage, pork and bean sprouts along with a Tamago (egg).
As I learned years ago watching Tampopo/Tanpopo the master told his student in the ramen shop that after observing the bowl, the most important thing is to taste the broth first and let the flavours sink in. This was one of the best bowls of Miso Ramen I have ever had. Everything was perfect, except perhaps the pork was stringy and not the type I prefer. However, there can be no complaints at all. A fantastic recommendation, and a place I have already convinced a few friends to go who all came back with glowing reviews.
With stomachs full we headed to a tiny bar that was 10 meters away from SUBstore, which was hosting a DJ night put on by the guys in Kikagaku Moyo, who had played in Oslo a few months before and invited us. A couple other friends from Oslo were in Tokyo at the same time so we all agreed to meet at the spot after a drink or two at Watashi's.
This place was a true gem. A tiny bar accomodating only 6 ppl downstairs and a few more up the narrow staircase, the owner perfectly poised to create phenomenal drinks with one of the best collections of liquor I'd seen. We over-stayed a couple extra drinks since it was so welcoming being there, before heading over to Substore to listen to the Kikagaku boys DJ set.
After a quick and nice reunion, we sat down and listened through a few hours of their set whilst drinking beers and catching up with old friends. Substore is run by an Indonesian man who sells tons of amazing vinyl and has a small cafe-bar in the back of the store. It's definitely recommended to pop by if you are in that part of town, you get to kill 3 birds with one stone: Tabushi, Watashi and Substore!
Our final Ramen adventure came at the recommendation of our friend Scott Hatch who had read about a place in California that had gained a massive following for their brand of Pig-Skull ramen. Obviously the shop was a Japanese sister-restaurant of the original in Shinjuku so one fine day we headed there by cab to try this peculiarity for ourselves. As usual, there was a line. Annoying, but a good sign that the food is up to par. Us, not knowing anything, picked the black bowls (should have gone for red) and sat and waited at the back for the meal to arrive.
10 minutes later, two big bowls of fatty Tonkotsu ramen arrived at the table.
First sip: ASTOUNDED.. both of us looked at each other and shouted "Holy shit". This was undeniably the best tasting ramen broth I had ever tasted. The chashu was a dream, the egg was perfect. You couldn't fault a single thing. Until you ate more......
From the heights of euphoria at having found potentially the greatest bowl of ramen on earth, we started hitting the half-way part of the bowl. I began to get nauseous. That feeling you get after eating too much Christmas Dinner but also a deep, deep fatty feeling of having had too much richness. We struggled to politely finish most of the bowl before leaving the restaurant complimenting the chefs (since it was delicious) and walking straight over to a bush in case I needed to "evacuate". My friend thankfully had 2 small bottles of Aquavit (Norwegian liquor) in his bag so we downed them, but literally continued walking around Shinjuku with the most nauseous feeling on earth.
A drink at Deathmatch in Hell 666 and everything was ok again. We found out afterwards that you're supposed to order the red bowl, the black bowl is the heaviest one reserved mainly for seasoned professionals. Next time!
All these recommendations are just personal opinions based on my palate, things change, chefs get fired or replaced, places open-close, relocate, so take it all with a pinch of MSG and discover your own gems too. But please do try a few of these, they have been researched exhaustively.