There's a story that I've been meaning to tell. It is an episode in my life that I'll never forget. I tell this story whenever I can, and I tell it so often that I forget who I've already told it to. I apologize to those friends who I've annoyed by telling this story more than once; it's just that the ramen in this story is so good, finding this place was a turning point in my life.
I've got to say that the place I'm going to talk about in this blog post has been my most favorite ramen shop for a while, and I haven't had ramen quite as good as this one. Different ramen shops are good for different reasons, but this has got to be my most favorite ramen shop in my life, so far, hands down.
Now, before I begin my story, I'd like to start by talking about what people know to be "ramen" in the first place.
What is ramen?
Well, to most foreigners outside of Japan, when you say "ramen," they might think of this:
...which is sad, because the cheap crap you can get at a grocery store for $0.25 or so, doesn't do real ramen justice.
That is to say, that even instant ramen in Japan puts the instant ramen in the US to shame. If Americans would only try the instant noodles sold at Japanese convenience stores, they'd cry, because they'd realize they've been eating CRAP this whole time.
But anyway, I digress.
Ramen, real ramen, is a bowl of noodles attended by a broth of some kind, and a selection of toppings. Every bowl of ramen is unique. Every ramen shop is unique, and offers different options on how the ramen will be served, and what other dishes are made and sold there. Each ramen shop will have the way in which the soup is prepared, how the noodles are obtained, what toppings are available, what other dishes are available, and even the terminology and speech used to describe their merchandise. You might even say that each ramen shop has their own atmosphere and "feel" to it.
Different people prefer different things. Like people and personalities, sometimes a person might go to a ramen shop, and the person and the ramen shop might not "click." As with people meeting other people in social situations, if something just doesn't "feel" right, you tip your hat and move on. Ramen shop owners know that they can't appeal to everyone, and most are actually OK with that. They prefer not attracting people they, or other customers, might not "get on with."
Serious ramen shop owners have a particular persona or atmosphere they want their shop to take, and they do their best to adhere to it, even if it means losing customers; it's not just a business, it's a family and a lifestyle. If you don't like a place, leave and look somewhere else. It's that simple.
So in short, at its most simple reduction, ramen is a bowl of noodles with soup and toppings.
The best bowls of ramen are put together by ramen shop operators who have put in much time and effort into each and every detail.
Every aspect of the bowl has been tested and tweaked so that it tastes "juuuuust right," from what noodles are used, to how the soup is made, to what toppings are used, and how those toppings are prepared.
Ichi Go, Ichi E
Quite possibly my most favorite Japanese expression is a 4-Chinese character proverb that goes "Ichi Go, Ichi E." (一期一会) Roughly translated, it means, "One Time, One Meeting." This is one of those expressions that isn't easily translated or conveyed in English. The "time" part of the expression can be a reference a lifetime. So it might be better translated as "One lifetime, one opportunity." There are many interpretations of this expression, but I take it to mean something like "Once in a lifetime." When a Japanese person who knows what the implications of this expression means says it, there are so many things he wants to tell you in such a small phrase, so much he wants to unpack.
It is said that this expression comes from the practice of the Tea Ceremony. Japanese Tea Ceremony isn't just a refined way of making and serving tea; it is a school of thought, some say, a microcosm and the very embodiment of Japanese philosophy and thought. There is so much you're supposed to be thinking about when you make a bowl of tea. It's not just pouring hot water and tea powder into a bowl, no. It's so much more than that.
As a host, you're supposed to be thinking in each and every way about your guest. What time of the year is it? What season is it? What can you do to make your guest's experience an enjoyable one? The host is supposed to be trying his utmost in, not only preparing the perfect bowl of tea, but in creating a relaxing and enjoyable environment for his guest. Everything about the tea house has been carefully planned and orchestrated to create a relaxing environment for the guest to enjoy tea, and to encourage meditation. The cup the host chooses. The tea scoop. The hanging scroll, flower, flower vase and burning incense in the alcove. The kettle and hearth. Everything has been especially chosen, particularly orchestrated for the guest.
It is expected, too, that the guest is able to appreciate every single little detail that goes into planning the tea ceremony. The learned guest will have learned to notice each detail, and to express gratitude for all the trouble his host went through in planning them. One can almost say that a tea ceremony is a delicate dance between guest and host.
Now, here is where the beauty of Ichi Go, Ichi E comes in.
The tea house is supposed to be a place where everyone with in it is of equal social status. The samurai was expected to leave his sword outside of the tea house. The door of the tea house is one such that, the most respected of noblemen must be forced to bow their head, and drag themselves on their knees. Within that space, and within that time, the guests and the host are of equal standing. In some occasions, the guests all take turns playing the role of the host preparing tea.
And that, I think, is what Ichi Go, Ichi E means to me.
You only get one chance. Make the most of it!
What does this have to do with ramen? Well, for me, the best bowls of ramen are those in which the ramen shop owner has put the time and effort crafting the ramen experience of his guest.
When you enjoy a bowl of ramen, you can tell whether or not effort has been put forth to bring you the best ramen experience possible. It's in the shop keeper's and employees' smiles. The way in which they speak with each other in front of you. The way in which they treat their customers and take care to make sure their needs are met. The way in which the shop is set up; the decorations, the music playing, the furniture, the art motif etc. Where your eyes are made to travel. The coldness of the water or tea brought to you when you sit. The cleanliness of the counter or table. And ultimately, the presentation and the taste of the bowl of ramen.
If you're a ramen shop goer, you just know what you're looking for, and you just know when you're getting it. You just know when something is real, or when something is contrived and obligatory, and you'll know right there and then whether you want to come back or not. The best ramen experiences, in my experience, have been those where I have been completely satisfied, from the time I walk into the shop, to the time I leave. Those are the shops I seek to visit again and again, whenever I can. This is the one ramen shop I try to get to whenever I get a chance.
My Most Favorite Ramen Shop To Date
I found my most favorite ramen shop completely by accident.
It all began one evening. I was on a train home on my way from work. At the time, one of the trains on my way home could be a direct train from one station to the other, or a train where I needed to make transfer at a major station, depending on the time I caught it. It was always nice to catch a direct train, because then it meant I could sit down and didn't have to get up and fight for a seat in the middle of the route when I changed to the next train, but catching a direct train wasn't always possible.
One time, I got an a train I had to transfer from, and completely forgot about it. I was probably having some argument on Facebook about something or other, and so my eyes were glued to my smartphone. After a while, I started getting the feeling that things weren't right. I don't know what it was. Was it the different sound of the rails? The fact it had already been a few stations and the train wasn't dipping underground? (From the transfer station, the train heading to where I wanted to go immediately dips underground.) For whatever reason, I decided to look up and out the window, and I realized I wasn't recognizing the scenery outside. As we pulled up the next station, I looked at the name to see if it was a station I recognized.
I had missed my train change at Awaji Station to get on a train to headed to Chayamachi. I was heading right for Umeda (a central district in Osaka), a completely different direction from where I needed to be going. I figured I needed to get off the train and get on another one that would take me back.
Angry at my situation, I got off at Hankyu Minamikata Station. This is one of those stations where you can't just get off the train and get on another one that goes in the opposite direction, no. At Hankyu Minamikata, if you want to get on a train that goes the other way, you have to exit the station and go all the way to the end, cross the tracks, and enter the station again on the other side.
I started calling my wife to let her know I'd be late. I was trying to explain my predicament to her when I stopped mid-sentence. As I got out of the exit, my nostrils caught a wonderful scent, unlike anything I'd ever smelled before.
"What's wrong?" asked my wife.
"Nothing," I said, as I tried to make sense of the situation. I was looking around to see where the smell could have been coming from.
"Are you going to be OK?" she asked.
"Yeah, I'm fine. I'll be home later than usual," I said.
"Will you have dinner at home, or are you going to eat out?" she asked.
"I'll be home, just late." I responded, noticing that there as a long line of people leading up to a suspicious-looking building.
"Well, hurry back. We'll be waiting," she said.
"Alright, I love you," I said as I hung up.
I figured out that the smell was coming from some sort of restaurant, although I couldn't quite tell what it was. I looked in the window and I saw people sitting at a counter, and men with white cook's hats working behind it.
Was it a ramen shop?
I suspected it was, but couldn't be sure.
It was getting late and I needed to start heading back home, but not before I found out just a little more about this place. I finally caught a sign outside that said the place opens at 6:00pm in the evening, and that it was closed on Thursdays. This was on a Wednesday. I had already told my wife I'd be home. If I wanted to come back, it would have to be two days later. So I made a promise to myself that two days later, I'd come back and see what the place was about. I'd ask my wife for permission to eat out. "I'll be back for you," I said in my head as I walked away.
Come Friday, I headed straight to Minamikata after work. I arrived at 5:30pm and the shop was closed. "Yes!" I thought to myself. "I'm the first one here!" One by one, customers started lining up, until at 6:00pm, when the shop finally opened, there was a long line that crossed right in front of the exit from the station, the same exit I came out of when I discovered this place. Right away, I knew that I was going to have an unforgettable experience.
The employees open the door and showed me to a seat on the counter. There was already a cold glass of water there for me. The water was cold and thirst-quenching. After work, and after getting off a hot train, nothing beats a cold glass of water. Playing in the background is music from one of my favorite J-Pop groups, Mr. Children. A DVD or live feed is playing footage from one of their concerts.
I sat there looking at what I could only guess was the menu. I mean, my Japanese is OK, but I still struggle with kanji and kana, especially when it's hand-written. From what I could see, there were three bowls of ramen on the menu. I was beginning to read about each and every one, when I heard a voice.
"Could I take your order?" asked a friendly employee.
"I'm not sure what to get. What do you recommend?" I asked.
"Well, the Genten is a good bowl for starters," he said to me. (Genten is this shop's all-round middle bowl; not too salty and strong, not too mild, but just right.)
"Thank you," I said. "I'll go with that."
"Would you like thick or thin pork?" the employee asked.
"Is there a price difference?" I ask back.
"No, but if you get the thin pork, you get a boiled egg," the employee said.
"I'll have the thin pork!" I told him. I really like boiled egg in my ramen.
"How would you like the bamboo shoots?" he asked.
"What styles are there?" I asked back.
"You can get two thick slices or four thin slices," he answered.
I'm really not a fan of bamboo shoots, only because they can be tough. I figured thinner meant easier to bite through, so I went ahead and chose the thin slices.
"So that's one Genten with thin pork and thin bamboo shoots. Is that right?"
"That'll be it," I told him. He smiled and bowed politely, as he yelled the order to the men behind the counter.
"Hai yo!" They said, having heard the order.
I loved the feeling of camaraderie the employees seemed to have with each other. Some ramen shops are rather rough and gruff, where senior employees often correct or scold the underlings. Here, it was all smiles. As I waited for my bowl of ramen, not knowing what to expect, my eyes started looking around the place, looking at everything. The counters were clean, and the entire place had this modern look and feel to it, from the light fixtures, to the counter, to the spotless kitchen in the back, with shining silver pots and staff wearing spotless uniforms. Sitting there at the counter, I feel that so much had been prepared to make me feel like a welcomed guest.
The bowl finally arrives, and immediately, the familiar smell from two days ago fills my nostrils once again. I look at the bowl, and I'm immediately captivated.
One of the first things I like to do when trying out a bowl of ramen is to try the soup.
For me, the soup is the end-all, be-all of a bowl of ramen.
Genten has this clear, sweet, tangy, meaty, indescribable taste.
I take the first strands of noodles and put them into my mouth. As I slurp the noodles up, they bring up with them the soup. I feed the rest of them into my mouth and begin to chew; the noodles had this firm, easy to bite through texture.
Aside from the pork, Genten comes with green onions. I'm not a huge fan of bamboo shoots, but the ones at this place are juicy and tender. And oh my god! This is the "thin" slice of pork? This thing is HUGE! If this is the "thin" one, I wonder what the normal one looks like!
As I slurp up some green onions along with my noodles, I notice that they are fresh and crunchy. I do believe that these are the freshest, most crunchiest green onions I've ever had on ramen.
But the thing that finally did it was the BBQ pork.
I took the gi-normous slab of BBQ pork with my chopsticks, brought it to my mouth and took my first bite.
I closed my eyes and enjoyed the music that was on; I was in heaven.
The pork, while firm enough to be held with chopsticks, melts in your mouth.
I always leave the boiled egg alone until I'm about half done with my noodles. I'm the kind of guy that likes to leave parts of the food I like for last.
As I continue chowing down on my noodles, the receding soup line little by little reveals the words "Jinrui Minna Menrui (人類みんな麺類): Human Beings Everybody Noodles."
That is when I first learned the name of this shop.
The Engrish makes no sense, but I think the Japanese is trying to say "All humans are, at heart, just noodles. We're all just noodles," is what I think the creators of this name were going for.
The Engrish on the menu makes even less sense, so I don't even try.
So I finish off my pork, finish my bamboo shoots, finish my noodles, pick up my bowl and drink down the remaining soup.
There I stood, looking at the empty bowl, contemplating what had just happened.
I remember thinking "I've got to try this again, and next time, with the bigger slab of meat. I want to try all the other soups too."
I was hooked.
I gathered my belongings and got ready to leave.
The staff kindly helped me out of my chair and helped me to the door where another friendly staff member worked the cash register.
I walked out of that shop one happy, satisfied man.
I looked back down the road, the sky now black, the road and surrounding buildings bathed in orange light, to see the line of customers waiting to have their ramen experience.
Those people, they must know this place is good. That is why they wait there patiently.
And now, Jinrui Minna Menrui has become what is currently my most favorite ramen shop to date.
If ramen were a religion, then this is my church.
This happened three or four years ago, I can't remember when.
But I still go back, and, whenever I can, I try to take my friends there. So far, every single one of them has told me they enjoyed it.
Let me tell you, when I first started going out for ramen, I was a tonkotsu ramen guy. (Tonkotsu is pork bone broth, one of the major types of ramen soups.) But after Jinrui, let me just say that I've been made a believer in shoyu. (Soy sauce-based broth.)
And that is the story of how I discovered my most favorite ramen shop in the world.
I may yet taste better, and I've tasted others, but so far, nothing has beat this taste, at least for me.
Different people prefer different broths, but for now, I've got to say, shoyu is my favorite.
Their benchmark bowl is the "Genten." You can say this is their Goldilocks bowl which isn't too salty or too mild, but juuuuust right. The broth is slightly dark, but yet clear and transparent.When I go to Jinrui, I usually get this one.
Their "Macro" bowl is a mild bowl that uses less soy sauce and more of their broth, which is supposed to be made with fish and clam broth, lightly seasoned with soy sauce. The broth is yellow and clear.
Their "Micro" bowl is their super salty soy bowl. As you can tell by the soup color, it's dark with soy sauce. Personally, this is my least favorite bowl.
All bowls are 800 yen each, and well worth it. (900 yen for a large)
With all bowls, you have the option of choosing either a large slab of BBQ pork, or a thinner slice accompanied by a boiled egg. You also get the choose between two thick slices of bamboo shoot, or four thinner slices.
You can get more noodles, and/or another boiled egg, but that costs extra. (150 yen for an extra serving of noodles, 100 for more bamboo shoots or more onions, 50 yen for an additional boiled egg.)
There are other things on their menu, though I've only tried their potstickers. Those are some of the best I've had too. Their dipping sauce comes with those fresh green onions I was talking about earlier.
What's In a Ramen?
To those of you who aren't already familiar with ramen, here are some of the finer points. There are so many factors in a bowl of ramen that can be adjusted here and there to taste, and each ramen shop prides themselves on their soup, selection of noodles, toppings, spices, oils, meats, etc.
This is what makes it or breaks it for me. Everything else comes after this. The best ramen shops are the ones where the ramen keepers take the time to refine their recipe in order to come up with what they think is the best broth, or "dashi" possible. What kind of ramen bowl you're having is determined by the soup used to make it.
The major genres of soup/broth are:
Tonkotsu (豚骨) - Pork Bone Broth
Shoyu (醤油) - Soy Sauce
Miso (味噌) - Fermented Bean Paste
Torigara (鶏ガラ) - Chicken Bone
Gyokairui (魚介類) - Fish/Clam Based
Sometimes, shop keepers will create their own specialized soup which combines two or more of the above. For example, it is not uncommon to hear of "tonkotsu shio ramen." Or "torigara shoyu."
The broth can be thick as mud with fat, or as thin as water. Each shop has their own style. Thicker broths are said to be "kotteri", while thinner broths are said to be "assari."
The tonkotsu and miso soup examples above look a bit "kotteri," whereas the shio, torigara and gyokairui examples can be said to be "assari."
Broths can be white and opaque, or they can be transparent and clear. The white, milky opaque types are known as "paitan," which is the Chinese pronunciation of the characters "白湯," meaning "white soup." The clear types are known as "chintan," which comes from the Chinese pronunciation of the characters "清湯," meaning "clear soup." The character "清" means "clear" or "pure," and the character "湯" can mean "hot water," or "soup."
The tonkotsu soup above is a good example of a paitan, and the shio and gyokairui soups are good examples of chintan.
But ramen broths are not limited to these traditional broths. There are new styles of ramen being tried, for example, "curry ramen" and "tomato ramen." I've actually had some tomato ramen that wasn't that bad.
This is "Ramen Taro's" tomato ramen, topped with pork, fresh tomato, daikon shoots and cheese.
There isn't just one type of ramen noodles, and every shop will have their own. Some noodles are thick, other noodles are thin. Some noodles are squiggly, others straight. Some noodles are hard, others are soft, and some shops offer you the option of choosing how hard you want your noodles. As with noodles, tastes differ. Some people want their noodles soft. Others want them firm. And still others want their noodles as hard as wire, earning these kinds of noodles the name "wire noodles," or "harigane" (針金).
Squiggly/curly and straight noodles together.
Sometimes shops just order noodles pre-made from other shops that specialize in noodle production. Other times, the noodles will be made in-house. How noodles are handled in a shop will depend on the taste of the shop keeper.
Each type of noodles behaves differently with different broths, so the shop keeper has to make sure he has chosen the right kind of noodles that go with the broth he is serving. In general, most people don't want their noodles to get soggy quickly, and it is preferred that the noodles bring up some of the soup with them as you slurp them up.
There are traditional toppings, though actually, almost anything can work. It will all depend on the taste of the ramen shop owner. Common toppings for ramen are:
Chashu (From Chinese pronunciation of 叉燒 - char siu) - Chinese-style BBQ Pork
Menma (麺麻 or 麺碼) - Marinated and sliced bamboo shoots
Negi (葱) - Sliced green onions
Ajitama (味玉) - Marinated Boiled Egg
Moyashi (萌やし) - Bean Sprouts
Other possible toppings can include pot stickers (餃子, gyoza), fish cake (蒲鉾), butter, corn, sausages, daikon sprouts, seaweed and others.
Ramen topped with seaweed, a boiled egg, daikon sprouts, pot stickers and pork.
"Butter corn ramen"
Shoyu ramen topped with western-style roast, chopped green spring onion, bamboo shoots and clams.
So, as you can see, there is more to ramen than just pouring hot water in a Styrofoam cup, or even boiling a block of freeze-dried noodles for three minutes.
Ramen is an artform; a craft that must be learnt and mastered, and that one must learn to appreciate.
What kind of soup do you like? Do you prefer it clear or milky? Thick or thin? What toppings do you like?
Go out and venture the world of ramen!
Somewhere out there, there is a ramen made especially for you!