It's hardly news that ramen is trending worldwide right now, and the past year provided plenty of fresh evidence suggesting Japan's favourite fast food is becoming an integral part of global food culture. For starters, the latest edition of the Tokyo Michelin Guide lists around 20 noodle shops in its Bib Gourmand category for noteworthy, reasonably priced restaurants, and the government's Cool Japan fund just invested a whopping ¥700 million into the Hakata-born Ippudo chain, giving a nice boost to the company's efforts to expand in Europe and the US. The fact that trendy New Yorkers have been slurping ramen for years has certainly also helped in moving the dish beyond the novelty category overseas.
Nevertheless, Tokyo remains the world's ramen capital, and the past year once again made us stand up and take notice of the unbeatable level of noodle innovation going on in this city. We sent out our famed ramen hunters to scour the streets for the very best of 2014, and here's what they came back with: 20 shops, ranging from newcomers to true classics, all worth visiting as part of a city-wide ramen tour to start the new year in delicious fashion.
The top 20 shops of 2014
'Veggie soba' goes in a new direction
The second outpost of Kojimachi's super-popular 'veggie ramen' pioneer Soranoiro stays firmly on the path of light and healthy noodle concoctions. The highlights here include dishes like shio-niboshi (dried sardine- and salt-based soup) soba, mushroom and vegetable soba, and a rare meat version called Sora no Nikusoba. The 'shroom-and-veg one is probably their most popular choice, and for good reason: the pork-based soup is topped with curiosities like cream, onion and potato puré, in addition to the mushrooms of course, and makes for an interesting combination with the flat noodles that also contain a hint of mushroom powder.
The additive-free king of Sugamo
This shop is known in Sugamo as 'that place with the long queue'. Eliminating additives entirely, their powerful shoyu soup brings together chicken and seafood broth for an aromatic, fresh taste that's further enhanced by the thin homemade noodles. The Shoyu Soba here even incorporates black truffles, while the curious Roast Tomato Shio-Soba adds a touch of international class that just may have been what swayed Michelin's reviewers to include Tsuta in the 2015 Bib Gourmand section.
Head to Ikejiri for luxury wontonmen
Located near the Ikejiri-Ohashi intersection on Yamate-dori, Yakumo has garnered a reputation for serving some of the best wontonmen in all of Tokyo. The clear soup is made from a mix of meat, dried shrimp, mackerel and konbu seaweed, and comes with three choices of stock: a soy sauce-based 'black' dashi, sweet 'white' one, or a mixture of the two. Once you've selected your base, go straight for Yakumo's excellent wontonmen, a blissful bowl of plump wonton dumplings, golden broth and al dente noodles. The steamy kurodashi tokusei wontonmen (special wonton noodles in black dashi broth), topped with firm, honeyed chashu pork slices, is also highly recommended.
Tori-soba the way it's meant to be
This shop immediately found a following when it opened in January 2013 in the very competitive Takadanobaba area, and showed absolutely no signs of slowing down in 2014. On the menu are Oigatsuo Chuka Soba, with kelp and bonito stock mixed into a chicken base; and Tori-Soba, with a soup made from generous portions of chicken meat and bones. The unique feature of the Oigatsuo is its strong bonito-flavoured, soy sauce-based soup, while the Tori is distinguished by its flavour- and fragrance-packed soup.
Koganei's night-time hideout
Higashi-Koganei's Kujira remains the best representative of the chintan (clear soup) trend in the city, combining wavy noodles and a seafood-based soup with added meat and shiitake mushrooms, and also including basic toppings like thin menma and chashu pork for a good balance of fatty and meaty flavours. The late-night opening hours (until 1am) are another big plus.
The Nagoya favourite lands in Shinjuku
Never heard about 'Taiwanese maze-soba' ('mixed noodles')? Neither have many Taiwanese people – this dish is actually a Nagoya-born corruption of Taiwan-style ramen, first developed by the Hanabi noodle shop and now a soul food staple in Japan's manufacturing capital. The dish took Tokyo by storm in 2014, and Hanabi was fittingly at the forefront of the trend. Head over before opening time to avoid the queues, and get ready to stir that bowl like you mean it.
Orthodox shoyu way out west
After completing his noodle apprenticeship at Kichijoji's now-closed Rakuraku, the owner here set up shop out in Chofu, serving his innovative chuka soba to a steady stream of both locals and faraway visitors. The double soup here is made with duck and seafood, and seasoned to perfection with a punchy, soy sauce-based tare sauce. Toppings are kept simple – think chashu pork, menma and green onion – while the thin noodles are nicely firm and chewy.
Okinawan salt is the difference
Keeping University of Tokyo students ticking with tsukemen and newly popular maze-soba, the folks at Orion take pride in their shio soup made with rock salt from Okinawa's Ishigaki, the owner's self-professed second home. The white, cloudy soup gets its peculiar taste from dried fish powder and aosa seaweed, and combines nicely with the thick, almost creamy noodles and the fatty slices of chashu pork. If there was such a thing as 'tropical ramen', this is what it'd taste like.
Shoyu ramen as an art form
Stroll down the shopping arcade on the east side of Gakugei-Daigaku Station and you'll soon find this unpretentious noodle shop famed for its shoyu ramen, served in a sweet, chicken-based soup seasoned with konbu seaweed. This masterful concoction, made with branded bird from Tottori and Shizuoka's Gotenba, practically demands to be paired with high-quality noodles, and Bigiya's whole-wheat, medium-thick offerings fit the bill.
Salt blenders and flying fish
You'll have to walk a good 20 minutes from Machida Station to reach this award-winning noodle house that really would deserve a more accessible location. Shinka does salt-based ramen with aplomb, cooking up a flavourful, brand chicken-based soup seasoned with 'flying fish' from Nagasaki and finished off with six (!) kinds of salt. Combined with medium-thick straight noodles, this is a masterpiece worth making the trip for.
Thin, straight and victorious
A tiny joint found far out in Itabashi, Hajime's nine seats are practically always filled with noodle-lovers appreciative of the outstanding shio ramen, served in a golden yellow, chicken-based soup spiced up with seafood and combined with thin straight noodles from Mikawaya Seimen, the famed Higashi-Kurume manufacturer. Although delicious chicken fat tends to rise to the surface of the soup, this is no greasy nightmare: in fact, friends of crisp salt concoctions are in for a treat. Take note of the toppings, too: fatty, aromatic chashu, chicken meatballs, leek and bamboo shoots make for a fresh mix.
Sapporo miso ramen, recreated in Tokyo
For Sapporo-style miso ramen out in Edogawa, you can't go wrong at this eatery, owned by a young fellow who still boasts more than a decade of soup-mixing experience. The delectably greasy soup stays hot for ages under the layer of lard on top, so be careful when digging into this punchy mixture laced with ample amounts of garlic and ground ginger. Those worried about their waistline might want to choose the 'light' option, which still maintains most of the original flavour.
Fine tonkotsu, tweaked to your tastes
Look out for the red lantern and huge noren curtain to find this renowned shop dealing exclusively in super-thick tonkotsu soup, an extremely simple but incredibly flavourful concoction made with nothing but domestic pork bones and water. The standard dish can be customised endlessly at no extra cost, so go ahead and set your preferred level of noodle firmness, soup thickness, toppings and so on.
Tsukemen praised by the masters
There's practically always a queue for the tsukemen at Kameari's Michi, and it sure ain't due to some passing fad: this is an orthodox, greasy variety combining tonkotsu and seafood soups to great effect. Despite the high fat content, the soup tastes mild, almost sweet, and gives off a refined, time-honoured air. The dipping noodles are thick and fluffy, and can be ordered in quantities of up to 400g. Toppings range from the standard (egg, chashu pork) to the peculiar (look out for the 'daily specials'), so go ahead and mix freely. This is a dish every tsukemen enthusiast should try at least once.
Healthy tonkotsu? Try it and believe it
Earning an enthusiastic following quickly after setting up shop in the autumn of 2013, Rokutsuki really broke into the spotlight in 2014 with its rare additive-free tonkotsu soup, a thick mixture that goes down effortlessly. First-timers will want to go for the Tokusei Ramen, topped with asparagus, okra, baby corn and other veggies that make for a nice combo with the creamy soup. Don't be surprised if you find yourself slurping until the very last drop.
A reborn son of Jiro
This Jiro offshoot by Shin-Daita Station underwent a full-scale revolution in spring 2014, getting a new owner, switching to extra-thick noodles that look like udon at first glance, and adding an extra 'Shin' ('New') to the name. The essentials remain the same, however: fatty, soy sauce-based broth, huge chunks of chashu pork and an enormous pile of sautéed cabbage on top.
Tsukemen is not dead in Osaki
Osaki's tsukemen champion Rokurinsha was forced into de facto exile in 2014, with their old location now closed for good in order to calm the nerves of neighbours fed up with the constant queues outside the shop. This newly opened outpost continues on the tried-and-tested path of pork- and seafood-based 'double soup' dipping noodles, a now-common style said to have been pioneered here. The creamy soup goes perfectly with the extra-thick noodles, made exclusively from domestic wheat, and the dried fish powder topping brings out additional marine flavours.
Try a Fukushima speciality
There aren't many joints in Tokyo serving Shirakawa-style ramen from Fukushima, so this Oimachi shop can count on a steady stream of fans seeking out their fix of traditional, soy sauce-based chuka soba that's so well-loved up in Tohoku. Served in a fatty soup made with chicken broth, the flat noodles are apparently just like those favoured by Shirakawa folk. For an alternative, try the seafood-flavoured Shina Soba, a fresh mixture with an interestingly deep aftertaste.
Experimental noodling in Ichigaya
You'll always find something new at this eternally popular Ichigaya shop, which mixes things up with innovative toppings and flavours practically every month. Past favourites include pasta-like veggie tsukemen, while the topping selection has seen guest appearances by tomatoes, zucchini and yams. Still, the pork- and seafood-based soup stays the same, regardless of season.
Lose the additives up in Jujo
Going against the standard custom of hard-nosed gyokai-tonkotsu (seafood and pork-based soup) shops, this Higashi-Jujo eatery is an MSG-free zone. The rich soup is made from a seafood stock of dried mackerel and sardines added to a base of venison, whole chicken, and pork bones. The smooth, hand-made noodles slide across the tongue, and the perfectly cooked chashu pork, served with a just-right soft-boiled egg, lays the finishing touch on this superb dish. Even as shops offering 'double soups' are on the increase in the city, this one maintains a unique presence.