The optimized experience of eating at Ichiran Ramen

Ichiran is a chain of restaurants serving tonkotsu ramen, known for their delicious spicy soup but mostly for their unique ordering system and interior design, meant to maximize your focus on the sole act of eating and enjoying the ramen.

You can order, pay, eat, and order more the ramen without talking with anyone. See the separators and blinds? It’s your own little ramen world.

From their official website
From their official website

I used to live near the Ueno Station branch and it was the only ramen shop that I went to regularly (in my pre-CrossFit days 😉 ). It seems to have grown in popularity in the past year or two, and I was surprised to see this line in the early afternoon one Saturday.

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Untitled | Tomomi Sasaki | Flickr

Explore Tomomi Sasaki’s photos on Flickr. Tomomi Sasaki has uploaded 6093 photos to Flickr.

So the stall design is pretty famous but in I want to share a few more details.

While waiting in line, you fill in your preferences for spiciness of soup, hardness of the noodles, amount of garlic, etc. This used to be in Japanese but they’ve added English and Chinese versions.

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You buy tickets inside, with the vending machine. Suica and Pasmo accepted, of course.

There’s only one type of ramen — customized with the menu above — but you can add extra toppings. If I feel like splurging, I’d get a hard-boiled egg, which is cooked just so, to draw out the taste of the soup. Yes, it’s possible.

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After sitting down, the waiter takes your order slip and closes the blind. You never see their face but you have a few seconds to peek inside.

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After the blinds close, there’s nothing to do but read their origin story.

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To order more noodles or other toppings, you use this order slip printed on the chopstick bag. There’s a pen and bell at each unit, too. The two-phased approach lets you fine-tune what to add to your ramen as you eat, which is cool, but what’s more interesting is their pitch that this takes away the social stigma of being seen ordering more noodles (or beer, I guess) for ladies.

Honestly, the soup is so fatty that I’ve never felt the need to add more noodles however it’s true that if I wanted more, I would not feel comfortable flagging down the staff in a normal ramen shop. #facepalm

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And last but not least, my favorite design detail — the tissue boxes within reaching distance from each stool. Eating hot things make your nose run, dontcha know.

Also, note that there are coat hook and hangars behind each stool.

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At the end of the day, I go for the soup, but also to enjoy the opinionated design of the experience.

Little hubs for asynchronous connections

A photo of a koban and a policeman
A photo of a koban and a policeman

Yesterday evening, I found a pair of house keys next to the ATM machine in a bank kiosk. Like any properly trained Japanese citizen, I crossed the street to deliver it to the neighborhood police box, the koban.

Not surprisingly, it was empty. Kobans are left open while the policeman on duty is out patrolling, and a sign instructs you to place a call to… someone.

Inside of an empty koban
Inside of an empty koban

I’ve had two good experiences with this particular koban, the closest one from my home. Perhaps that’s why I was willing, without a thought, to voluntarily spend 10 slightly uncomfortable minutes in an empty police box on a rare, early weekday afternoon, to wait for a policeman to come back so that I could fill out the paperwork.

You see, I’m fairly certain that the keys I delivered will make their way back to their owner. It had one of those little keychains that come with a 500ml bottle of sports drink, a campaign for a past World Cup. There was just something so ordinary about that keychain. Foolish perhaps, but I’d like to think that upon realizing that they’d lost their house key, the owner would have the same instinct that I had – to cross the street to go to the koban. Who knows, they might even have picked up the phone, where the same gentleman that I talked to would tell them that someone had just delivered a set of keys.

Let me share two stories about my other experiences:

My iPhone, a young lady, a policeman and I

My iPhone slipped unnoticed from the bicycle basket while riding along Roppongi Street one day. When I noticed it was missing, I knew that bump I rode over a few minutes ago must have been my phone. I quickly backtracked but of course, it was gone.

The next morning, I stopped by the police box. After the paperwork had been filled out, a policeman placed a call to the central lost and found. My phone had been delivered to the Shibuya Police Station, which was about 15 meters from where I must have dropped it.

I went to pick it up, where I was told that a nice, young lady had delivered it the day before. She didn’t want recognition or compensation, just asked that “the phone be returned to its rightful order”. It’s quite possible that my phone was already in the hands of the police while I was frantically searching for it.

Another set of lost keys, a lost boy, two policemen and I

A little boy, probably around third grade, was wandering around on the street in front of the neighborhood grocery store. I asked him what was wrong. He’d lost his house key and no one was home. After half heartedly joining his search for a minute or two, I suggested we go to the police box.

Two gruff policemen took over from there, trying to get an address out of the boy. They said there was nothing more that I could do, so I said good luck to the boy, and left.

Police boxes are little hubs for asynchronous connections.

I’ll never meet the owner of the keys, the young lady, or the lost boy’s parents. Or perhaps we will meet one day and never know.

We’re simply random strangers passing through time, connected by fleeting moments at a small police box in a big city.