Tokyo Ramen Tours: Unveil the Magic of Japan’s Comfort Food

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Picture this: nestled among the bustling streets of Tokyo, a tantalizing scent wafts through the air. As soon as you recognize it, your mouth starts to water. It’s the unmistakable, divine aroma of steaming, spice-infused ramen. Queues of eager patrons snake around city blocks, their collective patience stimulated by the promise of this celebrated Japanese comfort food. It might look like they’re waiting at a rough-and-ready dive, but inside, a soul-warming, hearty bowl of ramen awaits – a perfect culinary symphony that never fails to delight.

The core of this ramen magic occurs behind the otherwise ordinary counters of Tokyo Ramen Tours at Syuuichi. Here, expert staff members prepare noodles for tour participants with an almost theatrical panache. The name “Syuuichi” essentially translates to “once a week,” a nod to the curry-flavored ramen that serves as a main draw here on the tours.

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The journey of every nourishing ramen bowl begins with a carefully crafted, cost-effective base with prices hovering around 1,000 yen ($6.50). This base can experience a multitude of flavor transformations, from the deep, umami intensity of soy-based “shoyu,” or the earthy allure of “miso” paste, to the fiery heat of chili-infused broths. On some occasions, a bowl of ramen may arrive sans soup, making way for a viscous sauce that clings to the noodles creating a different titular experience.

Distinct from their darker buckwheat ‘soba’ cousins, the curly ramen noodles often possess a much lighter composition. They stand apart too from the usually flatter, thicker ‘udon’ noodles, maintaining their exclusive culinary identity.

This humble bowl of noodles makes waves far beyond Japan’s shores. The United States and South Korea are among the nations where ramen’s popularity is surging, with its appeal transcending more than just food courts. According to NielsenIQ, a sale tracker, retail ramen sales in the United States have spiked 72% since 2000, totaling more than $1.6 billion in the 52 weeks ending April 13. Other creative adaptations of the traditional ramen soup are appearing in restaurants, like Del Taco’s Shredded Beef Birria Ramen.

Leading a dozen American tourists through Tokyo’s Shibuya district, Frank Striegl from Tokyo Ramen Tours delves deep into the heart of ramen magic, promising an intimate, immersive adventure into the realm of ramen. While he jests about being a walking bowl of ramen, it is the truth – he breathes life into the legacy of this dish, giving visitors a taste of history with each slurp.

With his guidance, tourists step into the enigmatic world of ramen, often behind wobbly doors and along narrow staircases, discovering the warming embrace of a bowl of ramen served in miniatures – just the right size to allow them to sample six different flavorful varieties on the tour, two at each spot.

Across the experience, Striegl’s food tours encompass places like Shinbusakiya, which serves ramen inspired by “Hokkaido classics” from the northernmost major island, and Nagi, an establishment that provides flavor profiles echoing “Fukuoka fusion” from the southern main island of Kyushu.

However, Striegl doesn’t merely serve ramen – he dishes out seminal knowledge about this comfort food, calling it the ‘people’s food’. No matter where they are in the world, he believes every country has some ramen-like dish within its culinary landscape that’s easy to appreciate & connect with.

While sharing fascinating tidbits like how ramen’s roots trace back to the samurai era, when a smitten shogun adapted Chinese noodles into what we know as ramen today, Striegl also educates tourists about the 1958 invention of instant noodles by Momofuku Ando. Ando’s invention is a poignant reminder of post-war scarcity and the shift-a-meal luxury born out of necessities. Ando’s endeavor ultimately led to the inception of the food giant Nissin Foods. Yet despite their convenience, Striegl notes, instant noodles do not equate to the gastronomic pleasure of traditional, restaurant-prepared ramen.

Ramen’s escalating fame has catalyzed its diverse evolution in foodie landscapes, prompting unique combinations like coffee ramen and ramen crowned with ice cream or pineapple. Jiro-style ramen, emanating from a legendary Tokyo restaurant, features a flavorful mélange of abundant vegetable toppings, succulent barbecued pork, and an intense broth imbued with fragrant garlic.

Kota Kobayashi, a former professional baseball player for the Yokohama Bay Stars and a minor league player for the Cleveland Guardians, now serves his version of life – Jiro-style ramen – at his chain, “Ore No Ikiru Michi’ (The way I live my life). Aside from the flavors, Kobayashi believes the ramen experience should be about entertainment, which, he thinks, is as integral to the dining experience as the ramen itself – creating a memorable atmosphere with his customer-oriented approach.

Ramen, however, has carried the weight of the pandemic, the climbing cost of wheat imports, heightened energy prices, and the weakening yen, significantly impacting restaurants across Japan. But with each difficulty, new opportunities unfold. For instance, Takumen.com, a service delivering frozen, ready-to-eat ramen, proudly touts about half a million subscribers across Japan.

Similarly, Gourmet Innovation, a Tokyo operation, has collaborated with 250 of the country’s premier ramen spots to sell packaged versions of their signature soup, noodles, and toppings. These products are intended for home preparation with boiling water, providing a more accessible, convenient dining experience.

Despite the nation’s challenges, Kenichi Nomaguchi, co-founder of Gourmet Innovation, has an optimistic view of Japan’s ramen future. He perceives ramen and animation as the most prosperous of Japan’s exports, considering homespun ramen creation to be an intricate art. Making ramen involves carefully simmering the right proportion of pork, beef, or chicken, supplemented with a variety of fish or bonito flakes and “kombu” kelp. Some stocks even incorporate oysters.

Ramen further springs to life with a host of additional ingredients: onions, grated garlic, ginger, sesame oil, and a handful of optional toppings like bean sprouts, barbecued pork, eggs, seaweed, fermented bamboo shoots called “menma,” chopped green onions, cooked cabbage, snow peas, or corn. Some even insist that a bona fide bowl of ramen isn’t complete without a slice of narutomaki, a whitefish cake featuring a vibrant pink spiral pattern.

The diverse variety and relatable charm of ramen have gifted comfort to countless souls worldwide. Whether you’re a graduate student like Katie Sell – someone who sees ramen as a cherished comfort food, a shared joy among friends in chilly winters – or an engineer like Kavi Patel, for whom a bowl of ramen brings as much joy as the ancient shimmer of Kyoto or the unique allure of the deer park in Nara, the soul of Japan manifests itself in each intricate, edifying bowl of ramen.