An Introduction to Ramen: The Basics & The Best We Found in Japan!

What I love most about ramen is that it’s exactly whatever you want it to be. With so many diverse elements in one bowl, it really has something for anyone. Unless you’ve been living under an entire pile of rocks, ramen is now a full-on sensation here in Japan.

It’s elevated itself from humble origins as a drunken street food all the way up to a Michelin recognized cuisine. But not all ramen is create equal, & with over 10,000 ramen shops in Tokyo alone, it can be a challenge sorting out the hidden gems from the tourist traps.

Here’s my simple guide to Ramen across Japan.

Ramen Prep Check-List:

When I was traveling Japan this year I decided to take a master class in ramen. I watched countless videos, read at least 10 long-form blog posts and even went so far as to download some special apps made by actual ramen masters. Here are the top 3 ramen resources I felt helped me learn the most:

  1. YouTube Video: What Owning a Ramen Restaurant in Japan is Like

    A great introduction to the life of a Ramen owner. I felt this video gave me a great introduction to how seriously the Japanese take ramen (working over 11 hours per day!) and made me appreciate the bowl in front of me a bit more.

  2. App: Ramen Beast

    This app was totally crucial for my time traveling Tokyo. It works a lot like Yelp but the reviews are coming from ramen masters themselves. It provides a nifty map outlining all the best ramen in your area!

  3. Ramen Course: Free blog series

    If you manage to read the entire series you’ll pretty much be able to quit your job and start a shop of your own. Reading time is around 3-4 hours but totally worth it if you want to impress your friends!

Best Ramen Shop in Osaka: Tenchijin Ramen

Osaka was the first stop of my journey through Japan. At the time I was naive enough to think that walking into the first ramen shop I saw would be a great idea. Boy was I wrong. In my experience, there are really two kinds of ramen: the “fast food” kind designed for a quick bite or drunken snack and the “craft” kind where the owner truly cares about the ingredients/ process.

After hours of desperate searching for the craft quality ramen I’d heard of so much about back at home I finally stumbled upon Tenchijin while browsing Google Maps. Turns out the best ramen happened to be just steps from my Airbnb.

When I stepped inside I was glad to see I was the only tourist, always a great sign. Just 5 minutes after handing the owner my ticket I had a piping hot bowl of Tonkotsu ramen, tantalizing every sense:

Love at first sight: I was head over heals in love with what I’d call the best ramen in Osaka

Tonkotsu ramen is a traditional dish originating from Fukuoka, and is typically made by boiling pork bones for hours until they impart the essence of pork flavor to the broth. I’d had Tonkotsu before but never like this. The broth was sublime, perfectly seasoned just enough to showcase the core pork flavor while giving an added dimension by adding a complex black oil. Honestly, I still have no idea what the oil actually was but it gave the broth a slight sweet aftertaste that complimented the aggressive pork undertones.

Thanks to the elegant broth and wonderfully tender pork, I give Tenchijin Ramen a solid 8/10. I did knock a couple points as I did feel a bit exhausted by the end of the bowl, the heavy broth does get a bit repetitive by the end. I found I enjoyed it much more after adding the provided pickle ginger.

Tenchijin Ramen Score: 8/10

Best Ramen Shop in Kyoto: Kyoto Gogyo

After a great ramen experience in Osaka we hopped on a budget bus up to Kyoto, on the hunt for the next great bowl. I had marked at least 8 shops that I’d wanted to try during our week long stay in the city and, after lots of commitment (…and antacid pills) I managed to try every single one before we left. So trust me when I tell you, the absolute best ramen in all of Kyoto is Kyoto Gogyo.

Now, the shop does have a 4/5 on TripAdvisor which I consider to be a bit low but don’t let it put you off. Most poor reviews are regarding price but I felt the asking price (around $12USD per bowl) was more than fair for the absolutely mind-blowing flavor presented to me.

Ya see, Kyoto Gogyo is no average ramen shop, they intentionally burn the miso added to their ramen. This gives the ramen an endlessly complex flavor profile the likes of which I’d never seen before. Seriously, every single bite felt like a new experience hinting at a larger story just waiting to be told. And just look at how damn sexy this bowl looks with the charred miso forming black swirls throughout:

Black swirls of pure heaven from Gogyo Ramen in Kyoto

On top of the nearly flawless broth they tacked on a tasty egg and perfectly chewy noodles. The only thing I wasn’t super hyped about was the pork which was a tad dry/chewy for my taste. For this reason, I’m giving Gogyo Ramen an 8.5/10 because yes, the broth is just that good.

Kyoto Gogyo Score: 8.5/10

Best Ramen Shop in Tokyo: Fuunji

This is it. The best ramen we had on our whole trip. But there’s a plot twist! The best ramen of our whole trip wasn’t ramen at all…it was a special type of “dipping ramen” or Tsukemen as it’s formally called. The main difference is, rather than giving you a pre-made bowl of noodles/meat/broth etc. Tsukemen is basically a massive plate of thick ‘spaghetti style’ noodles meant for dipping into a small bowl of concentrated broth.

This thing isn’t just a flavor bomb, it’s a flavor atom bomb. I can’t even put to words how rich, dynamic, meaty, oily, complex & just pure FLAVOR-PACKED the broth is at Fuunji. Truly, no picture will ever do it justice, but here’s Tamara posing with the golden god-broth:

Forget the noodles, the best ramen in Tokyo is all about the broth

The situation we had at Fuunji was unique. I’d heard of the place through the Ramen Beast app linked above. They’d given it a good rating of 4.5/5 which I’d only seen a few times before so my expectations were high. I got the “standard ramen” while Tamara decided to take a chance on the Tsukemen, a bit tired of so much ramen as any sane person would be.

I took my first bite of the standard ramen and was…unimpressed. Pretty ‘meh’, decently well made but nothing special. After a few more bites I notice Tamara looking at me. She finally says “Dude, you’re going to want this one. Trust me.”

Before this experience I’d always thought of Tsukemen as an afterthought. We trade bowls and I take a quick bite. Instantly, my pupils dilate, my pulse quickens, and I’m taken on a bullet train to another dimension. One where flavor has no boundaries but the limits of our imagination. Ok, aside from the hyperbole, it was absolutely elegant. Each bite was a new experience, an adventure in taste.

For me, a good ramen is one that unfolds like a story in front of you. One that can be endlessly explored, that can be something different with each bite. This Tsukemen nailed it for me and exposed me to just how dynamic a broth really can be when done right. Plus, the atmosphere of the shop doesn’t hurt. Wooden walls, cramped seating and an effortlessly friendly shop owner seal the deal making Fuunji my favorite ramen shop in Tokyo.

A truly authentic atmosphere in Fuunji, Tokyo

I later found out that Fuunji is indeed famous for their Tsukemen, so Tamara gets some bonus points on this one. Without her happenstance decision I would have written this place off entirely. Because of the other-worldly Tsukemen and authentic atmosphere, Fuunji gets a 9/10 from me.

Fuunji Score: 9/10

Runner-Up Best Ramen Shop in Tokyo: Kikanbo

Kikanbo is an up-and-coming shop in a fairly empty neighborhood of Tokyo. I’d actually heard of it before arriving to Tokyo from the YouTube video linked above. So imagine my excitement when I realized the very shop I’d seen on YouTube just days before happened to be right next to my hotel! So excited in fact, I literally power-walked to Kikanbo top speed right after arriving to Tokyo, desperate to experience it’s famously spicy ramen before they closed for the evening.

Luckily my abnormally long legs got me there just in time, one of the last people to order before closing time. Let’s talk atmosphere: stepping into Kikanbo is an immediate transportation. Black walls covered with demonic wood-carved masks. Aggressive, endless primal drum beats fill the room, creating a deep unease as though something huge were chasing after me in the distance (I later found out this type of music is called Taiko. Check it out. Now). The atmosphere alone gives this place a 8/10.

Now there’s the presentation. This just has to be the best looking bowl of ramen I’ve ever seen. Rather than droll on about it here’s a shot I got immediately after it landed:

Can a bowl of red liquid and meat get more sexy? I think not.

So, I’m sitting on a small stool squeezed between two local Japanese men, Taiko drums blaring all around me, black walls compressing my senses into the bowl of lava-broth in front of me. I reach for the spoon covered in badass Japanese scripture, bring the broth to my lips and sip…

aaaaaand… I’m… underwhelmed. I can hear your confusion from here, so let me elaborate. The broth was just…boring. It was a standard tonkotsu style pork broth with a hint of miso & seafood stock. Done well but, ultimately, totally forgettable. Based on the rich color of this thing I was expecting something more dynamic, something as thrilling as the atmosphere surrounding me. But it was a miss, tasting nearly identical to countless other ramen shops I’d been in before, only spicier.

So, I’m a bit understandably sad by this point. I keep sipping a bit, chew a few overly-stiff noodles and finally reach for a piece of pork. That’s when everything comes together. The pork in this bowl of ramen is perhaps the best piece of meat I’ve ever had. It instantly melts in my mouth spreading a charred umami around my tongue. It’s love.

I continue to plow through the pork until it’s gone and am left with the un-broth. I try to make it through the whole thing, it was $13 after all, but I just can’t. The broth is so rich & filled with fat, you’d have to be literally starving to eat it all without getting some kind of indigestion.

So, at the end of it all, this was the first and only ramen I did not finish in my time in Japan. But for the transformative atmosphere and life-affirming pork, I give Kikanbo an 8/10.

Kikanbo Score: 8/10

Alright, I think this ought to cover it. I tried at least 20 different ramen shops throughout my 4 weeks in Japan and the above are the 4 that stayed with me on the plane ride back home. If you have any questions or totally disagree with me, let me know in the comments below!