Ramen secrets: Inside the Tokyo ramen scene

Guided by a local ramen head, we hit the streets of Tokyo in pursuit of the best bowls.
Tokyo ramen shop interior with ramen chef in the kitchen and restaurant sign

Menson Range ramen shop in Tokyo

Menson Range

Cody Mizuno is excited about one of the Japanese capital’s emerging ramen trends: fresh fish-based ramen. The one we’re about to visit is called Madai Ramen Mengyo, which translates to “fresh fish”, and the soup here is made with luxurious fresh snapper or sea bream (the two names are used interchangeably in Japan), rather than the usual dried fish, or dashi, that characterises most Japanese fish-based broths.

We duck inside a small shop lined with a narrow wooden counter along one side, punch in our orders on the push-button machine and are soon presented with a fragrant – verging on pungent – bowl of glistening, slightly opaque snapper soup, filled with textured handmade noodles and topped with blush-pink folds of pork. The chewy noodles and featherlight pork are delicious but the soup’s fishiness is a little overwhelming to me, though a few curls of pickled ginger help to cut through the intensity.

“It’s a strong flavour but it’s very nostalgic for Japanese people because it’s something we grew up eating at New Year,” explains Mizuno. Would I have chosen to eat it if I’d been searching out ramen shops myself? Perhaps not. But what a delight to be trying the full rainbow of ramen options with someone who knows it better than almost anyone.

Mizuno runs the website Ramen Guide Japan, as well as ramen tours around Tokyo ramen joints, and the guy knows his noodles. He first became interested in ramen in 2018 when he made a pledge to try every one of the top 100 ramen shops listed on Tabelog, Japan’s famous restaurant-ranking website.

“I started in August and by December I’d cleared all 100,” he says with a laugh. A friend who’d joined him on the mission bowed out (“He found the ramen he enjoyed so he felt he was done”) but Mizuno was hooked. “It was this way of going to these places around Japan that I’d never otherwise explore and experiencing them via ramen,” he says.

Menson Range

Now, he estimates he’s visited around 900 Tokyo ramen shops and eaten more than 1000 bowls of ramen since mid-2018. A typical day might involve ramen for both lunch and dinner. On weekends he often heads to Tokyo’s outskirts to chase bowls that have caught his interest. “If I’m paying 2000 yen for a train fare then it makes sense to hit as many shops as possible, so those are the days I might do three or four bowls,” he says.

What does Mizuno believe makes the perfect ramen? “It’s all about the balance of the bowl,” he says. “You don’t want it to be too salty or too sweet or too umami-enriched. You also want harmony between the soup, the noodles and the toppings.” For example, he says, a rich, creamy tonkotsu-style ramen needs a thick, robust noodle that won’t get lost in the intensity of the soup. A lighter chicken-based soup is better paired with a thinner, more delicate noodle. “There’s also no reason to be putting A5 wagyu toppings on your ramen if you’re not using beef bone broth. The delicate flavours of the wagyu would be overwhelmed by a creamy pork soup,” he says. “It’s about being able to make sure the customer enjoys the whole bowl, not just its individual components.”

As with so many things in Japan, ramen is so much more than just a food. For true ramen heads it’s a whole world, and you could spend the rest of your life digging into its variants and subcultures. There are the “machi chuka” fans, who are dedicated to visiting old-school Chinese-style ramen houses that have been run by the same family for 50 or 60 years (Japanese ramen was essentially adapted from Chinese noodle dishes from the early 20th century). There are the “Jirorians” who see themselves as the unofficial behaviour gatekeepers of the capital’s famous “Jiro” ramen shops, which have complicated etiquette guidelines designed to encourage their customers to eat their ramen quickly and in silence to maximise turnover.

Fierce debate rages over whether ramen is authentic if the master doesn’t make their own soup in-house, but rather buys it from a central soup kitchen or makes it from a soup base, and of course there’s endless tussling over the validity of what might be called the “novelty ramens”, such as an infamous ramen made with pineapple, and a blue ramen. “I don’t like to speak down on it because the master is very sensitive to criticism,” says Mizuno diplomatically of the blue ramen, whose soup is the rather unsettling colour of blue jelly beans, purportedly from spirulina. “Psychologically, in my head, I kept thinking of Blue Hawaii syrup, which threw my palate right off. I didn’t really enjoy that bowl.”

But whether it’s bone-based, balanced or even blue, Mizuno doesn’t predict a day when he’ll ever lose that rush of excitement when he lifts his spoon to a brand new bowl he hasn’t tried before. To mix things up he’s tried ploughing his way through Tokyo’s top burgers, top unagi restaurants and top curry spots and while he’s had some good times, ramen has his heart. “Ramen’s great because it’s so accessible and so cheap,” Mizuno says. “But more importantly – I just really, really love ramen.”

Menson Rage


Ramen Break Beats

DJ-turned-ramen chef, Yanase-san is producing some of the most sought-after bowls in Tokyo, so much so that you’ll need to show up as early as 8am to get your name on their sign-up sheet. both the shoyu (soy-based) and shio (salt-based) versions are phenomenal, but the shio is the favourite among regulars

Ramen-Ya Toybox

For an out-of-this-world shoyu ramen experience make your way to Toy Box out in the Minowa district of Tokyo, which uses the Mizudori method for its broth, meaning it’s only made of chicken and water. That’s then combined with a decadent “chiyu” (rendered chicken oil) and a vibrant shoyu tare (sauce) for one of the most delicious soups you’ll have in the city.

Ramen Break Beats

Menson Rage

Michelin-recognised as Bib Gourmand, Menson Rage is a popular shoyu ramen shop out towards West Tokyo. The shoyu offering uses “Shamo”, a breed of chicken known primarily for cock fighting in Southeast Asia, but which actually produces incredibly flavourful broths. If you’re looking to try something unique, try its “Maze Soba” which is a decadent bowl of soupless ramen.


Mukan is one of the newest ramen shops in Tokyo, but has created quite the buzz with its oyster broth-based ramen. Serving only four guests in 30-minute dining slots, it’s great for an intimate dinner. Reservations are only available the night before on the restaurant’s Twitter account.

Tsukemen Michi

Tsukemen, if you’ve never had it before, is what Mizuno likes to call “deconstructed ramen”, where the noodles and soup are served separately. It was invented in the early ’70s and has since become a staple ramen style. For a comforting, rich and creamy tsukemen, look no further than Michi. Tsukemen soup can be a bit intense so the idea is to adjust the strength of the flavour varying how long you dip your noodles in the soup. Be sure to grab the crème brûlée as well for a delicious dessert.


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