Anyone who has ever met me for a meal and a meeting in New York will be aware that I will use any and every excuse to drag you to Minca or Ippudo for a slurp, even if neither is even remotely convenient to reach. A privileged (unfortunate?) few have been subjected to my attempts to recreate tonkotsu ramen in my own kitchen. It was probably inevitable that during 72 hours in Tokyo I would plan for as many ramenya stops as possible, but I took things a few steps further and decided to photograph them, photograph the neighborhoods around them, and use a few heroic leaps of logic to make these relevant to my work at hand.
The more I thought about ramenya, though, the more I began to see them as a legitimate third place. While many, especially at peak meal time, request that you eat quickly and leave when finished, there are still plenty of ways in which they facilitate social engagement. For one, there’s the queue. Lining up is part of the experience, helps build anticipation, and can even generate a sense of excitement and camaraderie with others present. If you go to eat with friends you can generally sit together, especially at a cafe style ramenya. During off hours, when turnover is not a big concern, you may find yourself in friendly conversation with other diners and the chef behind the counter. After bars close for the night, trains stop running, and neighborhoods go all but silent, the warm glow emanating from the window or lantern of a ramenya is often the last beacon of activity holding the dark at bay.
The first stop of my rounds was AFURI, just around the corner from Ebisu Station on the JR Yamanote Line.
The station is a good example of many of the notable things about the way Japan integrates transit with neighborhoods and daily needs. The entrance is bright, cheerful, and wide open to the streets outside. There are convenience stores and even a coffee shop just in the area in front of the ticket gates. Above the station is the Ebisu branch of atré, the rail integrated, retail development chain and subsidiary of the East Japan Railway Company.
Now, on to the noodles. I arrived a little before lunch rush, so it was on the quiet side.
Ever the showmen, the chefs make use of a counter-top char broiler and high powered vent hood to make it clear that my chashu was freshly carbonized just prior to going into my bowl.
AFURI’s signature is a clear shio or shoyu broth with yuzu, a type of citrus, for a bright and clean taste. I opted for chili oil on top to make things more exciting.
Ramen polished off, I made my way back past Ebisu Station to head toward Daikanyama.
The neighborhood police box (交番 kōban) stands watch over the front of the train station. These local offices are responsible for coordinating emergency response and processing crime reports, though in all of my time in Japan I’ve never seen the officers doing anything other than giving directions and accepting lost and found items. Maybe this woman was looking for AFURI, too?
This post is part of The Tokyo Project. Click here to go to the introduction and table of contents.
Additional volumes: Volume 2