September 6, 2013

The Ramen Shaman: Jiro (Kabukicho, Tokyo)

by Will VanderWyden

This was one for the ages.

Jiro is legendary. It’s spawned a slew of imitators, one of which crossed an ocean. Many think it’s an entity unto itself, like tsukemen, rather than a type of ramen. I’ve known about Jiro since the very beginning of my ramen journey and although I’ve visited a few jiro-kei (aka Jiro-inspired) shops I’ve never eaten from the horse’s mouth. Er, you know what I mean.

Last year I ended up going to Senrigan, an excellent Jiro-kei shop, based on a friend’s recommendation. It was great. But this year I was determined to try the real thing, cause when in Rome…

The thing is, it didn’t happen. Again. Days passed, I ate other ramen, I had incredible home-cooked Japanese meals prepared for me, I had to meet friends in non-Jiro ramen shops, etc. Jiro eluded me once again. There were actually a couple times when I thought I would finally get to try it when meeting up with friends, but invariably those friends backed out saying things like, “Uhh… well… you see I have to work tomorrow…”, or, “Hmm, the thing is… I already had a muffin for lunch, so…”.

In other words, Jiro is not for the faint of heart. For the most part, ramen has been a manly man’s world, which makes Jiro kind of like a firefighter moonlighting as a boxer. It is the original Mt. Fuji ramen, with toppings of garlic, cabbage, bean sprouts and pure fat heaped above a basalt bedrock of noodles.

Websites actually explore strategies for tackling a Jiro bowl, the most popular of which is to have nothing but an Asian pear for lunch before a Jiro dinner. I am not making this up.

And so on my last night in Tokyo I had already come to terms with once again failing my Jiro quest. That night I went to a party, won bingo at a bar, and passed a certain shrine doused in memories from my first trip to Japan at one in the morning, all while riding bikes with a friend and drinking Yebisu Black beer (not recommended — the drinking and bike riding that is, the beer is awesome). We parted in Ueno and I headed west to my home base about an hour’s ride away.

But I wasn’t finished. Buzzing with good times and Yebisu Black, I was determined to crush some late night ramen. I knew there was only one area sure to be full of vibrancy and energy and a few open ramen shops — Kabukicho.

Not to mention also full of yakuza. Kabukicho is Tokyo’s biggest, most notorious red light district. Now, that’s not saying much considering that Japan is one of the safest countries on earth. But still, grant me some cool factor please.

Last year I tried to find a highly recommended shop in Kabukicho but failed, settling for Hakata Tenjin. Of course I then found the shop I was searching for (Hitotsubo) like 5 minutes after I finished eating at Hakata Tenjin. So I was determined to find Hitotsubo this time.

I pedaled all around but it was mysteriously nowhere to be found. I KNEW it had to exist having just seen it a year ago, and didn’t want to resort to the backup yet again. But there was another option, a yellow-awned shop that I remembered from last year, though I didn’t have a clue what it was. It seemed popular though, full of black-suited big-haired host dudes.

After what seemed like an eternity I finally found Hitotsubo, which was shuttered. I don’t know if they are fully closed or just not open late, but it was time for a back-up yet again. Ruefully I parked my bike across the street from the yellow awning and entered.

Everyone’s head lifted slightly as a random white guy walked into what I have to say is a mildly intimidating shop. But step aside boys, it’s hungry time for the Ramen Shaman. I masterfully operated the ticket machine and with a knowing look was nodded to an empty seat by a guy whose sole job seemed to be monitoring a giant vat of pure steam.

I put my ticket on the counter and took stock of my fellow diners. There wasn’t a female in sight. Everyone was hunched over big bowls of edgy-looking ramen. The cooks looked like medieval executioners. It all felt pretty awesome.

After a few minutes Steam Boy came over to me and asked in Japanese — with a skeptical look — something about “tappingu”. Thankfully I was well-versed in this scenario, realizing he was asking about “toppings”, so I gave my stock reply that Brian from Ramen Adventures taught me: “zenbu sukoshi,” aka “a little bit of everything.”

He repeated my request and nodded with a slight look of relief that he didn’t have to speak English.

I considered the exchange for a moment. Asking customers about toppings is not routine. In fact I had only experienced it at Senrigan and a place called Horomon… both Jiro-kei shops. I glanced at another patron’s bowl again.

Wait a minute… yellow sign… Kabukicho…

A giant ball of excitement started to form in my gut. I didn’t want to believe it in case I was mistaken, but I realized I might have just walked into a Jiro shop by accident.

Yup. I did. Sometimes the world falls into step with you. My last night in Tokyo and I had unwittingly stepped into the last great piece of my ramen puzzle.

It was delicious in the gregarious, obscene way that only late-night ramen can be. It’s like stuffing your mouth with garlic cloves, only every other flavor is so strong that it all makes sense. Leave one ingredient out and the rest would be overpowering. The salt keeps you guzzling broth, the broth keeps you chowing down on the thick, rough-cut noodles, and the noodles always taste better with more salt. It’s a beautiful, vicious cycle.

But must of all I was just thrilled to be there. For me it was like being able to go back in time and experience something historically singular — say, like Lincoln’s assassination. Ramen Jiro will only exist on earth for a certain time and in a certain place. And I was there.

One of the greatest nights of my entire life. Oh and by the way I crushed it. Didn’t even faze me.

JIRO
1-19-3 Kabukicho
Shinjuku, Tokyo
+81 3-3205-1726

One Comment

  • Jason Cha
    Posted February 5, 2014 at 2:01 pm

    Great write up. You may have crushed it, but zenbu sukoshi is a cop out. Mashi mashi, along with the yellow ticket!

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