Kyushu Jangara ramen in Akihabara

Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

The engine of Tokyo runs on ramen fuel. Stand on any Tokyo street corner and listen carefully. You’ll probably be able to hear the slurp of savory noodles quickly downed for breakfast, lunch and dinner in the thousands of ramen joints scattered across this vast megalopolis. One of my favorite joints is the Kyushu Jangara honten, main shop, in Akihabara just across the alleyway from a maid café.

Kyushu Jangara serves a tonkotsu-style ramen with a broth richly flavored by slow-simmered pork belly with the bones still attached. They add complexity to this mother stock with additional flavor notes from a chicken stock and a vegetable stock. Originally from Kyushu, tonkotsu is one of  the most popular ramen broth styles which also include shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce) and miso broths.

The signature bowl here is the 1000-yen zembu-iri (the whole kit and kaboodle), which means toppings of menma bamboo, meltingly tender pork belly, pork shoulder chashu, a hard-boiled egg, a spoonful of spicy tarako, slivers of tree ear mushrooms, and a handful of green scallion tops. The men noodles are as thin as capellini, angel hair pasta, and properly al dente. If you would like more noodles after you’ve slurped down the first batch, you can order another serving for 150 yen.

An array of condiments can be employed to fine tune your bowl: white sesame seeds, white pepper, crushed garlic, or roasted garlic chips. Fiddle as you like.

The shop also offers a few side dishes to go with your noodles. The vinegared cabbage, for 100 yen, turns out to be a quite tasty coleslaw.

And the “dry curry,” for 150 yen, is a tasty addition for the ravenous.

Seating is elbow to elbow at the counter or shoe-horned into a small chair at one of the three tiny tables. No one minds though.

The restaurant gets its name from the Kyushu jangara shamisen, a popular type of banjo, a soundtrack of which twangs out a constant stream of tunes to slurp by.

To find the Kyushu Jangara shop, head out of the maze of Akihabara station at the west exit toward Laox and Onoden. Cross the main street, Chuo Dori, with the tracks overhead. Turn right and walk along Chuo Dori about 4 blocks. You’ll find a Apple Mac store on the corner. Turn left and about 50 meters down this side street you’ll find the shop on the left. Look for the queue of people waiting to get a seat.

3-11-16 Sotokanda, Chiyoda-ku. Open daily  10:30am to 11:30pm. Except Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays when they open one hour earlier at 9:30am.

Ramen at Chez Muta

Thursday, February 12th, 2009


Every week night for more than 40 years now except national holidays, of course, Muta-san starts unpacking his restaurant. Around 6p.m., he wheels it into place in front of Musashi Sakai station, removes the shutters on the narrow counter that seats six elbow-to-elbow patrons, sets out the well-worn stools, hooks up the portable gas burners, and starts unloading the boxes of noodles, chashu pork, hard-boiled eggs, menma bamboo shoots, and the huge pot of soup broth from his black van.

Muta owns and operates a yatai. Those meals-on-wheels wagons are very popular across Japan. Fukuoka City is renowned for its river front yatai row in the Nakasu district which features a cornucopia of cuisines including Italian pastas, Mexican tacos, Chinese gyoza, Korean chijimi pancakes, and Japanese oden, but the vast majority sell ramen, as does Muta.

Over the years, his wooden yatai’s dull brick-red paint has mostly flaked off. The counter has roughened to a dark driftwood grey. Muta sets out the condiments: a plastic container of moyashi bean sprouts marinated in fiery chili pepper and a shaker of black pepper. He unrolls the rattan “walls” that will rest against your back as you eat at the counter, and drapes them with clear plastic sheeting to block out the wind and cold. Once he turns on the old TV set perched in the corner, hangs up the noren, and switches on the tattered red lantern hanging outside, he’s open for business.

muta-making-ramenAs any self-respecting ramen man would do, Muta makes his own men noodles. They plump up nicely in the shoyu-based broth while still retaining an al dente chewiness. For 500 yen, you can have plain ramen, which includes two slices of tender chashu pork, some menma, sliced naganegi onion, and daikon sprouts. Or for an extra 100 yen you can have a hard-boiled egg added, or extra menma, or a dollop of garlic paste. The carnivorous can have an extra helping of chashu for a couple hundred yen more. 

Patrons enter with a “domo domo” greeting as they squeeze in at the counter. Some customers drop in every day. One cheerful matron has taken up residence at the far end of the short counter. A couple of nights ago, when I stopped in around 10:30 p.m., she was there dozing with her arms crossed and her chin tucked against her chest. Eventually she looked up and asked Muta, “How many cups of sake have I had?” Muta held up three fingers, “Three, so far.”customer-at-counter

“Give me one more then,” she said. 

When there are no orders to fill, Muta will sit down and light up a cigarette, or take a sip of milk from a thermos he keeps under the counter. “I don’t drink alcohol,” he says.

On the snowy screen of the television, talk show hosts were discussing different types of edible Japanese mushrooms. The matron grinned at me, showing her two widely-spaced lower teeth. “Do you sometimes have a banshaku?” she asked. I admitted I sometimes have a banshaku  “nightcap”—a glass or two of wine in the evening.

And I told her I really liked the taste of Muta’s ramen.mutas-ramen

“You know,” she mused, “this ramen has a light taste. That ramen shop a block away, the one that was on TV, it’s too greasy.”

“It’s too heavy,” she stated taking a sip of saké. “I could eat Muta’s ramen everyday.” She thought about that statement for a moment. “And I do.”

Nodding toward TV screen, she said, “Those mushrooms look delicious.”

“Yes, they do, don’t they,” said Muta.


Muta opens around 8 p.m., and usually closes up shop around 2 a.m. Musahi Sakai station is about 20 minutes from Shinjuku, on the Chuo line heading west toward Tachikawa.

Takara soba at Houka

Tuesday, January 6th, 2009


Ramen is a passionate subject. Movies have been made about it; museums devoted to it; and it’s the most popular food in the country. Strange, then, that so few people know about “abura soba.” If you directly translate it as “oil noodles,” you wouldn’t want to know about it, but a 650-yen bowl of Houka’s “Takara” abura soba should be required for any student of the ramen way.

 The origins of this dish are lost somewhere between legend and lies. Legend says it was invented some years ago down the tracks in the next town, but Houka and the four other joints around Higashi Koganei station claim bragging rights. Not really a variation on ramen, abura soba is a new take on hot noodles in a bowl. The dish uses the same “men,” noodles, as ramen but instead of a broth about a cupful of rich savory sauce moistens the noodles. The recipe for this sauce mixture is closely guarded by each establishment.

 After repeated research at the Houka counter, this is what I can tell you: first, two shot-glass-sized ladlefuls of a dark meaty liquid (secret) are poured into the ramen bowl. Next come two shots of soup stock (secret) and a shot of oil (secret). Then the hot noodles are introduced and turned to coat them thoroughly. An assistant adds some menma, a bit of kamaboko, a slice of chashu pork, a handful of daikon sprouts, and a dollop of closely diced green onions to top it off. This assembly takes about fifteen seconds from start to finish, then the steaming bowl is set before you. Adding a dash or two of vinegar from the table gives it, I think, the final bit of zing.

 There is no décor at Houka to speak of— red scuffed linoleum flooring. A long crowded counter. Six tables always full. Flaming black iron woks. As much chilled hoji-cha as you can drink and six guys in white, working at full speed, with their constant chorus of roughly shouted orders, “Rashai!” and “Arigashta!”

 A friend back from Osaka recently saw a sign in a local ramen shop proudly announcing Koganei-style abura soba. It seems some pilgrims have already made their way to Higashi Koganei.

 You’ll find Houka, which is closed on Mondays, at the south exit of Higashi Koganei station (20 minutes from Shinjuku on Chuo line).