The gateway to Saitama, 'Akihabara for women', one of Tokyo's most desirable places to live (!?) – Ikebukuro is all these things, but it's also one of the most heavily contested 'ramen battlegrounds' in the city. We once again sent out our famed ramen hunters to scour the streets for the very best bowls the area has to offer, and here's what they came back with: 15 outstanding shops to slurp through.
The top 15 joints
The king of tsukemen
Observant ramen fiends will have heard the name Taishoken – the group even sells instant noodles in convenience stores. This, however, is the original, formerly run by late Taishoken founder Kazuo Yamagishi, known as the inventor of tsukemen as well as 'godfather of the Tokyo ramen scene'. His signature dish is the Morisoba (¥700): lauded by its fans, this one skirts recent trends like thick, fatty-tasting soup, expressing a smooth taste popular with slurpers of all ages.
No MSG here
Disguising as a wooden 'western' cottage, the suspiciously named Drill-Man serves slick homemade noodles, crafted with domestic flour. We recommend going for the tsukemen (‘Tsukesoba’, ¥800), which can be upgraded to a larger size at no extra cost. The MSG-free soup is made from seafood and pork broth, offering a moderately rich flavour, while the tender chashu pork adds depth to the taste.
Chicken soup goodness on Rikkyo-dori
Opened in 2013, Shinagawa's main offering is simple chuka soba, which they say aims for a 'classic taste that doesn't get caught up in trends'. The soup is a blend of seafood and meat, including pork and carefully selected hinai-jidori chicken, and goes extremely well with the delicate, refined taste and smooth texture of the homemade medium-thin noodles. The simple toppings include chashu pork slices, green onions, and bamboo shoots.
Hidden hideout on the west side
Tucked away on a back street on the west side of Ikebukuro Station, this discreet shop offers a homely atmosphere. The Chuka Soba (from ¥700) is made of seafood and pork stock, offering a rich taste enhanced by fresh yuzu and chewy noodles – very easy to finish. Choose the Tokusei Soba ('special noodles') for the right to add toppings like soft-boiled egg, roast pork chashu, bamboo shoots and fine strips of leek, all delicately prepared.
For a Hawaiian breeze
A ramen-ya that looks more like a Hawaiian café, Hulu-Lu relies on a chicken and veg base, while the homemade noodles are reportedly made with Hawaiian water (!). Despite its oily appearance, the shop's signature Shoyu Soba tastes rather mild – thanks to the fragrant green onion and fresh yuzu on top. The thin whole-wheat noodles are also a nice match for the soup. Side choices include a Hawaiian-style spam rice ball, which mixes harmoniously with the soup.
Fine and flavourful chicken soup
Slipping into an alley on Meiji-dori and walking across the ward office, you'll find this joint serving chicken stock with chewy noodles. The standard choices here are white soup ramen ('Paitan', ¥700) and spicy 'red chicken' ramen (¥740), while offbeat concoctions like oyster and curry ramen occasionally pop up on the menu as well. If you're really hungry, order the hearty chicken rice (¥300) on the side.
The valedictorian of tsukemen
Mamiana is easy to find at dinner time: there's practically always a queue in front of the shop. Even in Ikebukuro, known as the 'holy ground' of tsukemen, it stands out as a top contender. The addictive triple soup, made with pork, chicken and fish, is served with an ample helping of thick and chewy whole-wheat noodles, while toppings include tender chashu pork, bamboo shoots, naruto (pasted fish) and green onion.
Look out for the newcomer
A courageous challenger that joined the Ikebukuro ramen war in 2014, Rokkando won popularity as soon as it opened. This café-style shop banks on simplicity, with the seafood-based soup made completely without additives and MSG. Their health-conscious dishes are available in shoyu (soy sauce) and shio (salt) versions – both nicely balanced – and come with a number of flavourful toppings. The popular Shio Green-men (¥850) is a quirky creation, with euglena kneaded into the chewy noodles, giving them a distinct green colour.
Rikkyo's miniature star
Located right behind Rikkyo University, Growth only has room for seven at the counter, but the master makes sure to prepare his very best ramen for each visitor. Three regular choices are available: tsukemen (¥730), ramen (¥730) and maze-men ('mix noodles', ¥690). The ramen features a rich, meat-based soup with thick and chewy noodles and toppings like soft-boiled egg, bamboo shoots and chunky chashu, while the tsukemen is equally heavy-set but still decently balanced.
Yotsuya's favourite branches out
Born in Takadanobaba and now operating out of Yotsuya, the popular Ganko chain also has a branch in Ikebukuro. The sophisticated flavours found here are loved by ramen fans and professionals alike, so you know you're getting quality stuff. In addition to the standard shoyu (¥700), strong shoyu (¥750) and shio (¥700) options, you can choose the extra-salty and thick 'Demon' (akuma) ramen. The Ganko folk also regularly come up with new creations, announced on the shop's official blog.
Recommended for salt aficionados
With an eye-catching signboard that looks like something pulled off a festival stall, Kuwabara is easy to find. The shop serves nothing but shio-soba (salt ramen), available in varieties like shio-wonton, shio tsukemen and shio-abura-soba (ramen without soup), plus occasional daily specials. For the indecisive slurper, we recommend the regular shio-soba (¥700), which comes with a fine and fresh golden soup, powered by ample chicken fat.
No soup? No problem
Also operating a branch in Ebisu, this joint is famous for its abura-soba (ramen without soup), made with a dense but MSG-free fish stock. Sit down at the L-shaped counter and choose from standard ramen, tsukemen or the above-mentioned signature dish – or go for a monthly special, the most eye-popping of which is the Niboshi-Jiro Ramen. For some extra fun, try the popular squid ink curry (¥300) on the side.
Stuffed with deep-fried pork and chicken
One of the many Musashi tsukemen shops in Tokyo, Niten mixes fish stock with studiously boiled chicken and pork soup for a double dash worth the trip. The signature offering here is the Niten Tsukemen (¥1,000), served with chewy, medium-thick noodles, soft-boiled egg, deep-fried pork and chicken – an addictive combination.
The miso representative
Located right in the middle of the 'ramen battleground', Hanada has managed to maintain its queue mystique. Although the yellowish storefront and free toppings of garlic and veg bring Jiro and its followers to mind, this one is actually a completely different animal: the creamy miso-based soup can be had with either ramen or tsukemen, while a spicy version is also available. The rich but smooth soup combines nicely with the curly noodles.
Kawagoe's tsukemen legend
A pioneer of dense fish stock and the self-proclaimed king of Saitama tsukemen, Ganja’s only Tokyo branch is hidden away in the Tobu Hope Center basement arcade. Choose from rich or light versions of the soup, both nice fits for the house-made flat noodles, and enjoy the power of the tender, chunky chashu toppings.