Unlike Japanese restaurants in the U.S., where you can typically get everything from sushi to fried fish to steak, restaurants in Japan tend to specialize in a particular style of food. There are a great many styles - here’s a few of the most popular

  • sushi - raw seafood on rice balls or wrapped in seaweed
  • sashimi - raw seafood, without the rice balls
  • teppan yaki - Benihana-style steak and shrimp
  • tonkatsu - deep fried pork cutlets
  • shabu shabu - meat and vegetable soup that you make at your table
  • suki yaki - meat and vegetables cooked in broth at your table
  • yaki niku - ‘Korean style barbecue’ - you broil the meat at your table
  • soba and udon - Japanese noodles
  • ramen - Chinese noodles

The guidebooks say that rice is the staple food of Japan. Maybe so, but at lunchtime noodles are king. The Japanese take their noodles seriously, drawing fine distinctions of quality between noodle shops that are apparently identical to the Western eye and palate.

There are 3 basic kinds of noodles served in Japan:

  • Soba - flat noodles similar to linguini but made of buckwheat
  • Udon - fat, soft noodles
  • Ramen - thin to very thin noodles

Soba and udon are considered to be indigenous to Japan; ramen is a Chinese import. One way you can tell the difference is that ramen shops almost always write ‘ramen’ using katakana, whereas soba / udon shops invariably write ‘soba’ and ‘udon’ in hiragana on their restaurant sign.

Ramen is definitely considered lower-class fare in Japan. A company executive will never take you to a ramen restaurant for lunch, but will have no qualms taking you to a good quality soba / udon restaurant.

Ramen shops are typically small, noisy, run-down, and inexpensive. The menu usually consists of many varieties of ramen noodle soup, fried noodles, fried rice, fried chicken, gyoza (chinese dumplings), and beer.

There are 3 main categories of ramen soup broth:

  • shoyu, or soy sauce based
  • miso
  • kyushu-style, with pork soup stock

In the Tokyo area, where I’ve spent most of my time in Japan, kyushu style ramen is rare but well worth looking for. It is an almost milky white and has an incredibly rich flavor. Miso ramen is far more common and is also often delicious, especially miso ramen with slices of pork and vegetables. I’ve never developed a taste for shoyu ramen - the high level of salt tends to make me feel as if my head is coming off.

Ramen soup is served in enormous bowls - I haven’t actually measured the amount, but I would guess that a typical bowl is about a liter of soup, noodles, and toppings. It is a full meal and then some.

The packaged ramen noodles you can buy here in the U.S. do not do justice to ramen. In Japan you can also buy instant ramen, but the quality is far higher. It typically comes in a shrink wrapped styrofoam bowl, with anywhere from 2 to 4 packets of dried toppings and flavorings, or liquid broth additive. Some of the packaged ramen rivals restaurant ramen for flavor.

Soba and udon can be served either as soup or, more elegantly, as plain noodles with a soy based dipping sauce. The noodles are served on little tatami (rice straw) mats in lacquered frames. Noodles served this way are usually accompanied by a side dish such as tempura. Soba noodle soup is also often served with tempura either on the side or resting on top of the soup.

Soba / udon restaurants are often quite elegant, with traditional low tables and tatami mat rooms. One that I went to recently had a small pond and waterfall in the middle of the main room, with a stream that apparently ran directly outside to the garden. The tables were arranged on three sides around the pond.

Sake or beer is the usual accompaniment to soba, though sake is usually not a good idea at lunch time.

All Japanese noodles, whether served fresh or in soup, are eaten with chopsticks. This sounds challenging, but in fact chopsticks are the easiest and most efficient way to eat noodles. Were it not for the fact that it would mark me out as an eccentric, I would bring chopsticks with me to Italian restaurants. The advantage of chopsticks is that you can pick up the exact number of noodles that you want. Forks tend to be less precise, so you can end up with a large wad of noodles on your fork and have to start over.

Chopsticks work well with both ramen and soba, both of which have a somewhat rough texture that serves as traction for the chopstick. Udon is a different matter entirely. Udon noodles have a slick sheen of oil on them, particularly in broth, and have a very soft texture. The slickness means that the chopstick has very little to grab onto, and the softness means that you can’t grab the noodle too tightly or it will simply break in half, leaving you with twice the number of slippery noodles to deal with. There is, in short, a learning curve required to adequately handle udon noodles.

There are risks involved in eating noodle soup with chopsticks. Without a certain amount of attention any noodle, not just udon, can slip off the chopstick, landing with a messy and occasionally painful splash in the hot broth. You can often recognize novice noodle eaters by the splash marks on their shirts in the afternoon.

The other risk is what I call ‘noodle oscillation’. To understand this you have to think about how it is you eat noodles with chopsticks. Basically you pick up the desired amount of noodles in the chopsticks, and then place the chopsticks at your lips and slurp - quietly if you are a foreigner and very noisily if you are a polite Japanese. Whether quietly or noisily, the result is that the noodles are drawn with some rapidity into the mouth. As the ends of the noodles approach the sticks they begin to oscillate in a direction perpendicular to the line of the chopsticks. Though I haven’t worked out the mathematics of this, the rate of oscillation seems to be in an inverse-square relationship with the distance from noodle-end to the chopstick. In any case, the rate of oscillation can become high enough that a spray of broth is expelled from the surface of the noodle, creating a line of broth approximately 1" wide from your left shirt pocket to your forehead.

Long after I wrote this little piece I happened to watch a Japanese movie made in the 1980’s called Tampopo . If you get a chance to rent this, it’s definitely worthwhile. It is a very funny movie about a Japanese truck driver, a kind of Clint Eastwood / spaghetti western character, who encounters a widow struggling to make ends meet at her Ramen shop. The truck driver takes the widow under his wing and trains her in the fine art of ramen. Along the way there are satires on “the zen of ramen”, noodle slurping, machismo, ramen fetishism and a whole lot more. – Main.DaleBrayden - 18 Aug 2003