Every once and a while, circumstances demand that I eat ramen outside of Takadanobaba. There are certainly many, many, many delicious shops demanding to be tried all over Tokyo, and I can't always be near home base to mark an X on the map everytime the urge for ramen strikes. Hence, "Beyond Baba."
Unfortunately, my first bowl of ramen outside of my immediate geographical parameters was a huge disappointment. I hated almost everything about this bowl of ramen, even though all signs pointed to the fact that I should have loved it. I knew I was going to be in Shibuya and picked it out ahead of time after a brief survey, thinking that I was in the mood for some old school Hakata-style tonkotsu.
Ichiran (One Orchid), is located in the basement of a multi-use building right in the heart of the commercial sprawl / urban clusterfuck of central Shibuya, not far from Tower Records. First of all, I should have known something was up from that fact alone - in all these years, I have never been to a ramen shop in a basement. The next wave of confusion came when the door opened to what seemed to be a dead end with a ramen ticket vending machine and nothing else. After a moment, I realized that there was another interior black door leading to the store itself.
After purchasing my ticket for plain ramen, I was confronted with one of the most unpleasant ramen-related sights I have witnessed. Inside the shop, the patrons were lined up at the counter, but between each patron was a small partition about two feet tall, effectively separating each person from the next, making it impossible to see the face of the person sitting next to you. To make matters worse, there is a bamboo curtain between the counter and the cooking area, with just enough space at the bottom to slide tickets in one direction and ramen bowls in the other.
To my knowledge, although ramen is often stereotyped as a food for dudes, and is not particularly high class, there isn't a very strong social stigma attached to it, so I'm not really sure why Ichiran would go to such lengths to make the act of ordering and eating a bowl of noodles a secretive experience. I suppose in the busy crush of Tokyo, especially Shibuya, being able to find a refuge where you can escape the pulse of humanity for a few minutes might be a draw, but it seemed excessive. I felt like a machine who had been slotted in to consume before getting back to work as a drone. If anything, the whole process feels more socially isolating rather than a respite of any kind.
One of the "appeals" of Ichiran is the degree to which you can customize your ramen. You are given a slip of paper to select options such as pork / no pork, thickness of soup, spiciness of soup, extra toppings, firmness of noodles, and so forth. Ramen is of course, for the most part a naturally customizeable food, and therein lies part of its appeal. While always essentially the same dish, every shop's ramen is different from every other shop's, much like a slice of New York pizza. Further changes can be made at a standard ramen shop by simply asking the cook or waiter for "extra firm" noodles, "no roast pork", "extra bamboo" or whatever. But Ichiran takes it too far. Each individual is locked into his booth, unable to see or be seen, and is able to tailor that experience to his individual taste - total fulfillment through total isolation. Since there is no talk between customers and no talk between customers and staff, the store is essentially silent but for the piped in music.
I should probably say something about the ramen itself. It was totally bland, forgettable, Hakata style ramen. White broth, thin white noodles, green onions. No takana (spicy pickeld greens), no kikurage (wood-ear mushroom slices), no beni shôga (pickled ginger). The noodles themselves were a bit more al dente than I like, which is in line with the classic Hakata style), but they mostly just tasted cheap and mass produced, set to be churned out to the masses one pod person at a time. The whole experience made me feel depressed, isolated, administrated, compartmentalized, and processed. I would never recommend Ichiran to anyone.