Ramen (ラーメン) is a noodle soup dish that was originally imported from China and has become one of the most popular dishes in Japan in recent decades. Ramen are inexpensive and widely available, two factors that also make them an ideal option for budget travelers. Ramen restaurants, or ramen-ya, can be found in virtually every corner of the country and produce countless regional variations of this common noodle dish.
Popular ramen types
Ramen are typically categorized according to their soup base, although variations that combine the different bases are not uncommon. The main types of soup are:
Shoyu (醤油, Soy Sauce)
Shoyu ramen soup is a clear, brown broth flavored with soy sauce (shoyu). The soup is usually made of chicken broth but often contains other meats such as pork, beef or fish depending on the region. Shoyu ramen is the most common type of ramen and is usually what is served when the menu does not specify a specific type of soup.
Shio (塩, Salt)
Shio ramen soup is a light, clear broth seasoned with salt. It is typically made from chicken broth, but may also be flavored with other meats such as pork.
Miso (味噌, Soybean Paste)
Miso ramen soup is flavored with soybean paste (miso), resulting in a thick, brown soup with a rich, complex flavor. The style originated in Hokkaido where the long cold winters spurred the need for a heartier type of ramen soup, but it has spread to the point where it can be found pretty much anywhere in Japan.
Tonkotsu (豚骨, Pork Bone)
Particularly popular around Kyushu, tonkotsu ramen is made of pork bones which have been boiled down until they dissolve into a cloudy white broth. The thick, creamy soup is also often flavored with chicken broth and pork fat.
The second key aspect of ramen are the noodles, which are made of wheat and come in many different types. Typical Ramen noodles are long and elastic, but countless varieties exist that vary from thin and straight to thick and wavy. Some ramen-ya allow you to customize your noodle order to some extent such as by allowing you to select a thickness (thin, regular or thick) or doneness (regular or firm).
Below is a list of toppings that are commonly served with ramen:
Chashu Fatty slices of roasted or braised pork. Chashu is a very common topping, and standard bowls of ramen usually come with one or two slices of it. Most ramen-ya also serve Chashumen (chashu ramen) which is a ramen dish with additional pieces of chashu. Kakuni (braised pork belly) is served instead of chashu at some restaurants.
Menma Preserved bamboo shoots with a salty flavor
Negi Chopped or shredded leeks or green onions. Karanegi is a spicy variation of shredded leeks mixed with chili oil. Negi is a ramen standard, while karanegi is often seen with miso ramen.
Moyashi Raw or cooked bean sprouts add sweetness and crunch. Served on all types of ramen.
Tamago Hard boiled, soft boiled, raw and marinated eggs are all popular toppings on any type of ramen.
Seaweed Various types of seaweed such as wakame and nori are commonly added to all types of ramen.
Kamaboko Slices of steamed fish cake. One type of kamaboko that is commonly served on ramen is naruto (or narutomaki), a sawtooth edged, white fish cake with a red or pink spiral design on it.
Corn Canned corn is often paired with butter and served on miso or shio ramen.
Butter A thick pat of butter adds creaminess and depth. Typically added to miso or shio ramen.
Though ramen can be considered a one dish meal, many ramen-ya also serve a selection of side dishes in addition to their noodles. The offerings vary from shop to shop but virtually all ramen-ya serve gyoza (potstickers). These Chinese style, pan fried dumplings come five or six to an order and are eaten after being dipped in a mixture of soy sauce, vinegar and rayu (hot chili oil), all of which are usually available on the table and combined according to your taste. And of course, nothing complements a steaming hot bowl of ramen like an ice cold beer.
Some shops also offer set deals that include ramen, gyoza and sometimes other dishes such as fried rice or drinks. These sets are sometimes sold at a slightly discounted price compared to ordering everything separately.
Where to find ramen
The best place to eat ramen is at specialized ramen restaurants, the aforementioned ramen-ya, which are commonly found around busy locations such as train stations, entertainment districts and along busy roads. Ramen-ya are usually sit-down restaurants with a counter and some tables, although smaller ones may only have a single counter. In busier locations, some ramen-ya may only offer standing counter space.
Ramen are also often featured on the menus of other restaurants that serve a wider range of dishes such as common eateries found at tourist sites, izakaya, family restaurants and food stalls. Hot ramen dishes can also be purchased around the clock at convenience stores and at some vending machines.
How to order
Typical ramen-ya tend to follow the procedures described on our dining out page, with the additional note that it is fairly common for ramen-ya to use the vending machine method for ordering and paying. In these cases you should purchase meal tickets at the machine near the entrance before being seated.
How to eat
Ramen are eaten with chopsticks which are usually available at the table. A Chinese style spoon is often provided as well to help with small toppings and for drinking the soup. It is also alright to lift up the bowl to drink the soup directly from the bowl.
Ramen noodles get soggy quickly and should be eaten immediately after they are served. As with other noodle dishes in Japan, a slurping sound is made when eating ramen. The slurping enhances the flavors and helps cool down the piping hot noodles as they enter your mouth. At the end of the meal, it is alright to leave some unfinished soup in the bowl. You do not need to drink the whole bowl to be polite, although it is considered a compliment to the chef to do so.
The Ramen Museum introduces the history of ramen and features about a dozen ramen stores with regional flavors from across Japan in a setting of Tokyo in the 1950s, the time when ramen gained popularity. Visitors can sample small servings of the various types of ramen.
This museum follows the history of instant noodles with interactive exhibits, modern art and hands on experiences. For a small fee you can design your own cup noodles or make ramen noodles from scratch (reservations required). There is also a food court serving noodle dishes from around the world.
Ramen are also available in many different regional varieties, some of which have become extremely popular and may be found nationwide. A few of the best known regional varieties include:
Hailing from the very center of Hokkaido, Asahikawa Ramen are known for their oily, shoyu based soup. They includes thin, wavy noodles, which are typically topped with green onions, chashu, menma, and egg. Shops serving Asahikawa Ramen can be found throughout Asahikawa.
Sapporo's famous miso ramen are thick and hearty. They usually features fat, robust noodles and are often topped with filling Hokkaido specialties such as creamy butter and sweet corn. Miso Ramen are among the most popular regional ramen varieties and have become a mainstay at ramen-ya all over the country.
From Fukushima Prefecture, Kitakata Ramen feature a light shoyu soup typically flavored with pork bones, chicken stock and dried sardines, and are filled with wide, flat noodles that are chewy and wavy. Kitakata Ramen are usually topped with green onions, menma, and generous amounts of chashu.
Tokyo style ramen typically features medium thick, wavy noodles in a shoyu soup flavored with dashi fish stock. Tokyo Ramen are served nationwide and have become popular to the point that they are essentially the stereotypical shoyu ramen.
Ramen from Onomichi utilize a shoyu soup flavored with dashi fish stock, which is usually made from local seafood caught in the Seto Inland Sea. Onomichi Ramen noodles are typically thin, straight and firm and the dish is often served topped with green onions, chashu, menma, and a bit of pork lard for flavoring.
Hakata Ramen feature thin noodles in a thick, creamy tonkotsu soup, usually topped with chashu. The best place to enjoy Hakata Ramen is at one of the food stalls in Fukuoka, but they can now also be found at specialty ramen-ya nationwide.
Although called soba, Okinawa Soba are more similar to ramen. The thick, wavy noodles are served in a bowl of shio soup and topped with various items such as green onions, kamaboko and fresh ginger. If topped with soft broiled pork, the dish is called Soki Soba, but there are other varieties too.
Ramen are also available in several prepared forms that are quick and easy to make at home or in your hotel room. A wide range of instant ramen products are sold in cups and packets at supermarket, convenience store and some vending machines. The simplest require only the addition of hot water, which is sometimes supplied at the store or machine where they are sold. Hotels in Japan almost always provide hot water on their rooms, making these types of instant ramen an easy, hot meal choice for tourists, as well.
There are also various types of fresh ramen and ramen toppings sold at Japanese grocery stores. These are fast and easy to make too, but require a little more time to prepare than the instant varieties as the noodles do not come precooked. In addition to boiling the noodles, you must also make the soup from the concentrated soup base included with the noodles and your desired toppings. Despite this extra bit of effort, these products make it possible to enjoy restaurant quality ramen conveniently at your own home.