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There are times when food is just so profoundly, soul-satisfyingly good that we find it difficult to divert our attention enough to do the socializing often required when eating out with company. The folks who devised Ichiran Ramen must have taken that into account when they set up shop. Their concept is to offer complete personal space so that customers can give their undivided attention to the Hakata-style ramen served there.

Imagine being encouraged to loudly suck up your ramen in the privacy of your own personal counter “booth.” Nobody really knows or cares who’s there, and whatever slurping happens there stays there. That’s the Ichiran style, and the founders have created what can only be called a phenomenon in Japan, with fans and outposts stretching from one end of the country to the other.

The entrance to Shibuya Ichiran Ramen is down a long stairway, like at a speakeasy. The first thing we encountered on our visit was the inevitable automatic pre-payment machine that greets visitors to many traditional ramen joints. The apparatus has order buttons for the basic tonkatsu-style ramen on offer and the many add-ons and drinks that are available. There are helpful pictures of each item as well as the price on each button. To order, we deposited money into the slot, selected the desired button, punched in a few choice add-ons, collected our ticket and then headed to an LED seating panel to look for available counter space. There was no need to go in and poke around or to communicate with an actual human.

After stealthily settling into our counter sanctuary, we had some more tasks to complete. Hakata-style ramen from Fukuoka Prefecture contains a milky white pork bone marrow broth with somewhat thin noodles and is often customizable. We ordered the simple ramen, so we were next asked to choose the firmness of the noodles – from quite soft to beyond al dente – on what looked like a printed survey of preferences. We tend toward just the traditional middle way. The next choice was flavoring – weak, medium or strong? Then richness (oil content), from light to ultra-rich; garlic tolerance, from none to half a clove to an entire clove, with two more for an additional fee. How much green onion did we want loaded on, and should a slab of pork be included? The tricky part was selecting the amount of the proprietary spicy red sauce, which ranged from none to a double dose to anywhere up to a level of “20” for an additional fee.

We summoned a staff member to pick up the sheet (the clever illustration at the bottom of the sheet explained how this is done), and one arrived. Or more precisely, half of one did; the space facing the counter showed the server from chin to waist. (On other visits, we’ve asked questions and had a genuine human lean down to talk to us, but it’s not necessarily part of the experience.) The server left another order sheet with instructions to press a button and summon him or her if we required anything from the new information. At this point we needed to assess our hunger. Did we want an additional portion or half-portion of noodles? If so, we were instructed to leave some soup in the bowl and have it refilled with noodles when ready by pressing the call button. And come to think of it, if we were really hungry, did we want an extra slice of pork, more green onion, an egg, mushrooms, seaweed, vinegar or more garlic – all available for a small price? For the extra hungry, there are large and small side bowls of rice also on offer. There are tea and beer, as well as a matcha anin tofu dessert. All extra items are cash only, paid to the somewhat invisible person who serves you. Water comes from a spigot at each seat.

Our order finally completed, a bamboo curtain came down, separating us from the servers, leaving us to our solitude. (We frequently stop in with a friend, and the partition between the seats is easy to fold away for quiet conversation.) Within minutes the curtain rose and a steaming bowl of noodles with a reasonable amount of piquant hot sauce, attractive scallions and a side of seaweed slid toward us as a sign for the slurping to begin.

At the beginning of every meal in Japan most people say itadakimasu, which translates as “I humbly receive this food,” an expression of gratitude. At the end of the meal it is customary to say, gochisousama – “It was delicious” – in appreciation for the person who has prepared the meal or served it to you. Having enjoyed our ramen rhapsody, we had no check to pay, no person to thank with the customary “gochisousamaand nobody to part ways with as we silently glided up the stairs blinking alone into the sunlight.

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Fran Kuzui and Lindsay Anderson

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