Japanese ramen is one of my favorite foods and Fukuoka is arguably Japan’s top ramen city. I lived there for two years and enjoyed countless bowls of the local tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen from many a local ramen place, but when most people around Japan think of Fukuoka ramen, they think of Ichiran.
Famous as much for its ordering procedure and privacy-focused seating arrangements as for the high quality of food, Ichiran has outlets all over Japan, but the chain calls Fukuoka home. I’ve only ever eaten in the Hakata station branch of Ichiran in Fukuoka, but I was a fairly frequent visitor as I worked in the adjacent bus station building. It was probably the most expensive ramen shop in the area, and certainly came with the longest wait, but every few weeks, I just had to have my fix.
The first thing you notice when you set foot in the Hakata Station branch will have to wait a bit, since you will almost certainly be standing outside in line for a while. Once you do make it through the doors, you will notice the rest of the line. You may also notice the following board:
That is a seating chart. The characters along the sides are seat numbers and the lit up blue character means empty. When one lights up, the eyes of the person at the front of the line do the same. If you came with a group, I’d suggest taking whatever seat lights up and not worrying about sitting together; otherwise you may be waiting a while. But I’m getting ahead of myself—as we’re talking about Japan here, at some point in line you will pass a vending machine.
The machine is pretty self-explanatory and after paying you will be left with a receipt to hand your waiter once you are seated. Eventually, you will find yourself at the head of the line and before you know it, you will be allowed past the curtain and into your booth.
As you can see, each booth is equipped with a water dispenser, some cups, a pen, ordering forms and a call button. It is also has dividers on either side, so other customers don’t disturb your dining experience. The booths are even blocked off from the wait staff in the front, with just enough space for them to reach in and take your order form and deliver your food. You never have to look at another person and can give your full concentration to the soup.
On the order form, which is generally also available in English, you can basically customize your bowl of ramen. It includes options for the flavor strength, the richness, the tenderness of the noodles and the amounts of green onions, garlic, pork and the secret red-pepper-based sauce. Once you’ve made your selections, you push the call button and hand the anonymous waiter your form. Then you wait a few minutes until this shows up:
As one of the most famous ramen chains in all of Japan, Ichiran is quite expensive, but it’s worth trying at least once. The main drawback for me is the lack of gyoza (fried dumplings); for those you will have to go elsewhere, like Fukuoka’s second most famous chain Ippudou, which makes some of the best gyouza I’ve ever had.
If you find yourself in Fukuoka, I recommend visiting Ichiran for the unique dining experience as much as the soup and Ippudou for the gyouza. Personally, I would also make numerous visits to various other local ramen places, but I’m sure you can tell I have a bit of an obsession with the Japanese version of noodle soup. Even if you don’t make it to Fukuoka and are limited to Tokyo, Osaka or any other major Japanese city, I would seek out the local branch of Ichiran at least once.