Ikebukuro – ignored, ashamed, malcontent. On most tourists’ to-do list, Ikebukuro ranks next to last (the lowest one being the unlimited number of McDonald’s so-called restaurants) and has little to offer to your average visitor. There are nothing but chain stores, more stores, your arcades and camera shops, suit companies and sub-par pizza shops. The supposed jewel of Ikebukuro, Sunshine City, collects a large number of foreign brand name stores that will do little to excite even the most consumer-hungry westerner. When a shopping district’s biggest attraction is its Burger King, you know that your time may well be better spent elsewhere.
This isn’t to say that Ikebukuro has nothing to offer – darker elements will find plenty of their special brand of enjoyment here. Once a former hub of Yakuza activity, Ikebukuro features a thriving sex market, gaggles of pachinko parlors, and a sense of despair that can only be created by the number of homeless wandering between the metal clanks and cherub-skinned hostesses. It is a ironic situation for these forlorn souls – living by the very institutions that had filled their greatest fantasies but took everything they had away from them. However, these ominous individuals do not scare away the crowds and long lines waiting patiently every morning for the pachinko stores to open, many of them young and clearly still in school. Gambling in Japan is a fruitless enterprise – the odds are worse than Vegas and the costs substantially higher. There’s not even a roller coaster around to fill the void of dumping hours of wages into a hyperactive neon version of plinko. And yet, with so many reasons to avoid places like this, it is as if the mere brainless activity of throwing balls offers some sense of security, a place of comfort, away from the hum and drum of daily life, adding brightness and colors to an otherwise black-and-white suit, concrete city. And despite all this, tucked away in seemingly random buildings next to unrelated stores and dodgy characters, lies some of the finest ramen shops in Tokyo.
A group of individuals as hungry for ear-crushing cacophony and cigarettes will no doubt require and equally suitable meal to go along side their downward destruction. What this entails are late night eateries that feature the fattiest and the juiciest, the savory and the salty, and above all, the cheapest eats. These restaurants have little to do with community – their aim is to satisfy in ten minutes or less. Besides, one can only spend but so many hours of the day to gamble or cozy up with a wage girl. To that effect these tiny establishments challenge conventional wisdom and rotate customers like an assembly line – buy your ticket, sit down, eat, and go. Anymore than that and you risk ruining the entire operation. Talking is kept to a minimum, and the joy of the food to come kept in confined ecstasy. Nothing exemplifies this more than a certain ramen shop that holds a cult-like status with its regulars. Ramen Jiro not only caters to this aesthetic, but embodies it in whole, enough to drive people from all walks to take the Jiro challenge.
As I walk down the street where Ramen Jiro is located, I take a moment to reflect on my surroundings and what I had just encountered. I had walked by occupied cardboard coffins and a man who had all but removed his pants entirely scratching his belly incessantly. In a town as strict on image as it is on discipline, a grown man with no regard to standing butt naked on the sidewalk is a resounding bitch slap across Japan’s infamous modesty. The street was littered with ramen shops, some with fanciful signs and traditionally designed interiors, offering all variety of ramen and desires before you even step within their door. The only marker that would indicate the presence of Ramen Jiro, besides the 20-person, male-dominated line waiting outside, is a dimly lit yellow sign with “Ramen Jiro” written across it in Japanese. The interior leaves little to be desired, only an assortment of former patrons leaving their business cards tacked along the walls. Patiently I wait in line for almost 20 minutes before arriving at the familiar ticket vending machine, but presented with only a few real options – little ramen, big ramen, with pork, without pork, 700￥ or 900￥. I continue to wait and warily look upon the ramen that I expect to receive – a large bowl, with a mountainous pile of vegetables inversely reflecting the depth of the bowl. Things began to heat up inside, with so little wiggle room and no A/C. I already began sweating, and I began to worry about eating such a hot meal on such a hot night. Most people seem to be able to finish their bowls, but several unfortunate people leave half of what they received, feverishly wiping their foreheads with tissue. Before I can decide if that is in good or bad form, I finally get a chance to sit down and eagerly give my ticket to the server.
What is set before me is a familiar site – a scene of Mt. Fuji, as envisioned using the medium of bean sprouts, lettuce, crushed garlic, and broth. All around this massive pile of stuff is a moat of light brown soup, with white globs floating on top. I had seen someone order extra fat in their bowl; I wasn’t interested nor had the constitution to order extra fat just yet. I puzzle it out in my mind how to approach this dish, and begin to pick at the vegetables until I could make a suitable pool to begin dunking the vegetables and even beginning to try some of the ramen noodles deep within. I swirl the large pile of garlic into the pool, grab some noodles, and swallow. The taste is immediate – salty, savory, brothy. This soup has been sitting in a deep vat of pork meat for quite some time makes no illusions about it. The noodles slip about uncontrollably, as they are thick and resemble something closer to udon than the stereotypical spring-coiled thin yellow noodles of Cup Noodle infamy. There’s only a slight hint of ginger underneath it all. I wonder where it comes from? Out of the corner of my eye, I see in the lone fridge bottles of ginger ale but no one drinking it. Is this perhaps a secret ingredient? Steam begins to fume out of the bowl and covers my face as I continue to dig and chew my way through the mountain. This is ramen, good ramen, but undeniably a depraved ramen. My coronaries were tightening ever so slightly with each greedy gulp of noodle and soup. Eventually I came upon a cheap cut of stew pork, carefully held together by a thick white sheet of fat. Eating around it, the brown meat fell apart like silk strings. And in this order, I stuck with this method as I carried out my attempts to finish the ramen.
I had finally reached half way through the bowl. My head was throbbing and I was sweating uncontrollably at this point. The combination of close-quarters eating, an unending steam bath for my face, and the disastrously hot soup coursing through my body, it had my glands pleading for a cold breeze of any sort. The un-iced water they provided was of little relief to me. And I was beginning to feel full. What was the appeal of this? Why were people willing to wait more than a half-hour for a torturous battle with a bowl that could one day end up on the “told-you-so” side of a heart attack? And why would you even dare smoke a cigarette after doing this kind of damage to your body? What were people getting out of this? I didn’t know, but I didn’t care. It was the taste, the decadence of the pork fat greedily sticking to each noodle, the almost absurd amount of garbage packed into a single dish. But it wasn’t an offensive bowl of ramen – they stayed within the bounds of traditional ramen and kept it simple and hearty. I don’t think I felt any sort of nostalgia or sense of home while eating, but maybe in its excess and savory flavor comes a deeper feeling of safety and satisfaction that something of this magnitude can provide. We gouge into the bowl, knowing full well on the other end we come out alive and free, safe from the frigid outside world, sharing a silent appreciation with those sitting around us, and most importantly, enjoying a well made dish. You test your own gastronomic limits, and your body happily accepts what could be a monumental mistake, but it doesn’t matter, because your vixen of a tongue is lasciviously engrossed in being covered in fatty brown stew. Fettered to her every will, that next bite is only in anticipation of the tastes to come.
And then I was staring at an empty bowl, with only a tiny pool of brown soup sitting at the bottom. I got up and grabbed a yogurt milk from the convenience store, went to a bar, and proceeded to drink the night away.
Ramen Jiro, 2-27-17 South Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku