There I sat perched on a stool in Ganko Ramen, looking straight through the wall to an overgrown back lot, with trucks whizzing just a few meters behind my back. The strains of Roky Erikson's "Don't Shake Me Lucifer" were playing on infinite repeat in my head. It proved to be a good soundtrack for eating ramen by a man with as unique and crazy a vision as Roky.
Ganko, tucked into a narrow strip of building right where Meiji-dôri, Shinmejiro-dôri, and the Kanda river meet, is one of the smallest ramen shops I've been to since, well, the last time I went to a Ganko Ramen shop, which was quite the adventure. Where to even begin with Ganko? With dozens of shops all over Tokyo (and the country) tracing their lineage back to a single original shop and legendary master, Ganko is a bit like the underground Ramen Jirô. While Jirô has become an internationally recognized name attracting thousands of fans, followers, and imitators, Ganko keeps a relatively low profile, known mostly to hardcore ramen freaks. There was even a period where the Nishiwaseda shop was a member's only club!
That's not really a surprise, since when Ichijô Yasuyuki opened his first Tokyo shop in 1982, it lacked a sign, a name, and any indication whatsoever it was a ramen shop. Housed in a small black building just west of the Waseda tram station, the shop was marked only with a single cow's bone dangling by the door, which remains the shop's trademark. Even the name Ganko (Stubborn) didn't exist at that point - customers just started referring to the shop as such, and the name stuck. Ichijô figured that if he left the shop unmarked, only the most hardcore ramen fans would find it, and find it they did. While many Ganko branches are clearly marked, some, like the Nishiwaseda branch make finding the door to the shop part of the fun.
Ichijô Yasuyuki cooked his first bowl of ramen as a third-grader, trying to imitate the recipe his father would make at home after returning from the war in Manchuria. After setting out from home, he worked as a masseur and weight-lifter (allegedly rising to 5th in the world!) before returning to his ramen roots. Allegedly his great moment of revelation came while eating kids' snacks flavored with beef consomme, thinking to add beef bones to the soup, which still today is generally made with pork, chicken, seafood, and vegetables, but no beef.
Ichijô himself ran the Waseda shop for almost 20 years, until 2001, when he turned it over to one of his disciples. Over the two decades, former students and customers had gone on to open shops around the country, always paying tribute to Ichijô with the single bone, and calling him iemoto, the word used to refer to the traditional head of a painting or flower-arranging school. Another Ganko tradition is a monthly "akuma (devil) ramen" day, when each shop's master cook prepares a new soup variety, which can be anything from oxtail ramen, to banana ramen, to crab ramen, or even snail or strawberry ramen.
Since 2001, the original shop has closed, and Ichijô opened the uber-hidden Nishiwaseda shop before moving on to open more and more branches; he was most recently seen at the Ikebukuro shop, but seems to have moved on again in 2008, with whereabouts currently unknown. The Takadobashi shop is the closest geographically to the location of the original, so apparently it's still something of a pilgrimage site for Ganko devotees.
Inside the shop, there's not much of an inside. Tiny stools are tucked under a narrow counter, with no real rear wall to speak of; you sit with your back exposed to the rush of traffic down Shinmejirô-dôri. The space behind the counter is just as narrow, with the cook making periodic trips out to back door into the empty lot behind the shop presumably to throw away or retrieve ingredients.
And then there's the ramen itself. Although there is a substantial degree of variation in the menu between each Ganko branch, the standard remains a thin yet complex and pungent shôyû (soy sauce) broth served with extra thin yellow noodles. Ganko fans usually describe the soup as "shoppai" (sour), which I don't know if I agree with, but there is a certain unplaceable tangy sweetness to it. Ganko is also a "chaccha-kei" shop, which refers to the action of shaking chunks of suspended pork fat atop the soup before serving, like at Sengoku Jiman or in Niigata-style Tsubame-Sanjô ramen. You can request "assari" (light), "chûkan" (medium), or "kotteri" (thick), depending on how much you value your blood vessels.
In addition to the basic shôyû, this Ganko also offers shio (salt) ramen, which you can order flavored with shrimp or shiso (perilla leaf), which I am definitely trying next time. Other toppings are standard sliced scallions, nori seaweed, soft menma bamboo, and perhaps the craziest egg I have ever had. Most soft-boiled eggs have a firmish white and a soft or gooey yolk, but when I picked up this egg, the whole thing started jiggling - the cook somehow managed to boil it so that only the thinnest outer layer was firm, with the white still liquid, and melting into soup and mouth. Amazing.
At first sip, Ganko doesn't seem so special, but god help me, I couldn't stop slurping by the end. Maybe the trademark "sour" flavor is just powdered meth - it works for noodle cooks in Thailand! The soup is light despite the floating fat, and the thin noodles go down easy. For the most intense and fully-blown Ganko experience, you should visit the Nishiwaseda shop, but Takadobashi Ganko did not disappoint. Go deep and you'll be rewarded!