Shop Etiquette: How to Eat Ramen Like a Tokyo Local
Japanese ramen is perhaps the world’s most accessible gourmet food. On any given day, in any given district of Tokyo, you can get a bowl of ramen made from locally sourced ingredients of world-beating quality, prepared with immaculate care by a chef who has quite literally devoted his life to mastering his craft — all for about 850 yen ($7.50).
But like all of Japan’s wonders, there are countless codes of conduct and subtle efforts of mutual support that sustain the ramen world’s delicate ecosystem. On the part of the patron, there is a deep culture of paying respect to the chef for his generous pursuit of mastery over profit-seeking.
Follow these basic etiquette tips to eat ramen like a local and make sure you’re showing appreciation rather than disturbing the scene’s harmony and flow.
Yes, this is a lot of unspoken rules, but we’re confident you’ll find that it was all very much worth it.
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1) THE LINEUP
Many of Japan's top ramen shops attract long lines at the door every day (the wait to get into Tomita, for example, is often two hours). If you're with a group, queue up with your whole party present — having one person save a place is decidedly not cool — and try to do so quietly.
You'll probably have noticed from the hush on the local subways that the Japanese are very sensitive to noise pollution. This is especially true in residential neighborhoods, where many of the best ramen shops are located. Some of Tokyo's most famous ramen shops have been forced to close down because they became so popular that their lines caused noise complaints from neighbors. Nobody wants that to happen. Do your part.
2) IF YOU’RE WITH A GROUP
When you get inside the shop, indicate to the staff how many people are in your party and wait to be pointed you to your seats. If you are three or more and the shop only has counter seating (as most do), expect your group to be broken up as seats become available. Alas, there's nothing you can do about this unless you want to create an awkward scene. Just roll with it and try not to mess with the shop's flow. You can discuss how amazing your meal was when you reconvene afterwards.
When you order, you will either speak directly to the staff or buy a ticket from a vending machine located near the entrance. If the staff are staring at you and you have no idea what to do, just say “osusume?” (recommended dish?). If you're ordering at the vending machine, the top-left-corner button is usually the shop's standard recommended bowl. Final note: Over 99% of all ramen shops in Japan are cash only. If you whip out a credit card, you will be met with nervous laughter.
4) ONE SEAT, ONE BOWL
Unless you are eight years old or younger, all customers are expected to order at least one bowl of ramen. It's considered rude if you just order a drink while you'll friends eat — you'll be perceived as wasting seat real estate and snubbing the chef.
It is completely acceptable to take photos of your food (although there are a handful of shops in Japan that have no photo policies). That said, Japanese people are generally very sensitive about having their own photo taken by strangers. If you start snapping photos of the ramen master cooking, or (god forbid) other random customers, expect to be reprimanded. If you want to take photos of anything inside the shop other than your bowl, you should politely ask for clearance.
This rule is important — and it’s often overlooked by newbies. Many ramen shops have various toppings and sauces on the counter. Unless you are a regular customer, do not add any of the toppings until you’ve eaten some of the bowl as it is served. It’s a slap in the face to the chef to immediately alter the creation without first trying it as it was intended. It's customary to begin by tasting a few spoonfuls of the soup — think of it as nosing your whisky or wine. Once you've sampled at least some, feel free to season as you like.
7) TO SLURP OR NOT TO SLURP?
This rule is widely known but still misunderstood. If you do not slurp you are not being rude. If you do slurp, it's totally normal but does not necessarily indicate that you think the food is especially delicious. Basically, you can slurp all you want or you can eat your ramen in silence — it’s all-good either way. But slurping does help the noodles act as a vessel for better transporting the soup from the bowl to your mouth. It also cools the noodles down as you inhale the goodness. Above all, slurping lets you enjoy your noodles quickly and freely without having to worry about whether you are eating like a pig. You don't need to overthink it; there is no rude way to eat ramen. If you want to drink the soup straight from the bowl, by all means indulge. Just enjoy the bowl and you are doing it right. And don't worry if you can't finish all of the soup.
8) THIS IS FAST FOOD
In Japan, ramen shops are fast food restaurants. Given the quality of the ingredients and the mastery of the preparation, this is fucking insane — but yes, ramen is considered fast food! But that also means no dawdling. You eat your ramen in a timely manner and exit. If you're taking your time and chatting with your friends or lingering after you’ve finished, the master will eventually give you the stink eye — you're holding up the line and wasting his seat space. Also, don't get up to go to the bathroom after your bowl has been served. Ramen is fresh and must be eaten immediately. If you leave it sitting for some reason, the noodles will go soft and you're again subtly dissing the master. Other no brainers: no takeout and no to-go. And definitely no cell phone calls inside the shop.
9) THE EXIT
Once you've finished your bowl and are ready to leave, make eye contact with the master or a member of the staff and say "gochi-sō-sama-deshita" (a traditional phrase meaning "thank you for the meal"). If the shop is small and only has one or two staff, it is often expected that you place your bowl (and all eating utensils) up on the counter so it can be cleared easily. If there happens to be a wet rag on the counter, give the countertop a customary wipe-down for the next customer. If the shop supplies tissues, check to see if there is a separate trash bin for used tissues. Some shops will get a little miffed if you leave used tissues on the counter. Finally, as you exit, close the door completely as you give one final slight nod to the master and make your escape.
Yes! You did it.