I had tried udon noddles and loved them, now it was time to try ramen, another well known noodle dish in Japan. Ichiran is a chain restaurant that specializes in one very popular regional variety of ramen, from the Hakata area of Fukuoka. They have locations in a number of prefectures across Japan, including Hiroshima. Hiroshima's branch of Ichiran is conveniently located along the covered Hondori shopping arcade, in the section closest to Peace Park and opposite the Sun Mall shopping center. Its bold red and black logo is plastered proudly above the entrance and the staircase leading inside lures crowds of people when lunchtime hits.
Ichiran isn't your typical 'sit-down, order at the table, chat to the people around you' kind of place. It's quite the opposite actually. At the top of the staircase you'll find yourself in a small foyer with what looks like a vending machine displaying pictures of different foods and their respective prices. Insert your money, choose what takes your fancy and you're good to go. The machine will spit out a little paper ticket - this is your meal ticket. Before heading inside to the dining area, take a look at the electronic seating board to get an idea of where the available seats are. Then, meal ticket in hand, dive in.
A little different to a regular dining experience, at Ichiran, diners are seated at individual wooden carrels. Once you take a seat on your little red stool you'll notice that there's a piece of paper and a pen in front of you. This is the form you fill out to customize your ramen. For someone who knows no Japanese, this will definitely be a challenge I'm not sure if English versions of the form were available like at the Ichiran's Roppongi branch, but the one presented to me was written entirely in Japanese.
Usually (if there are no pictures to which I can motion at when ordering), I would ask nearby customer, or one of the waiters, for a little help. But set up at Ichiran means that you can't really see other customers, let alone the staff. So with nothing to lose, I grabbed the pen and circled at random a sequence of characters in front of me, fingers crossed and hopeful that I hadn't just ordered some horrendous combination which would rule my ramen inedible.
A hand poked through the opening at the front of my carrel and took my meal ticket and order form, returning within a few minutes with a steaming bowl of noodles and soup. The hand then pulled down a wooden mat to cover the opening and I was left alone in the carrel. Just me and my ramen.
Ichiran's idea behind the carrels is that if people are seated in an enclosed space, they will more easily be able to concentrate on enjoying the flavor of the food in front of them. It also makes the whole dining process rather efficient. Without any distractions of seeing people come in and go out, or seeing food being brought out, you tend to eat a lot faster and you do notice a lot about the flavors which make up your dish. Ramen is a type of wheat noodle, usually served in a meat-based broth and accompanied with soy sauce and/or chili. Ramen can be served with anything from spring onions to pork, eggs to seaweed. At Ichiran (providing you can make sense of the customization sheet) you can play around with a range of different flavor combinations.
After trying ramen, I can definitely say that I appreciate the flavor and the effort which goes into making it... but at the end of the day, I think I'm an udon girl. That said, dining at a place like Ichiran is definitely worth the experience, especially if you're visiting from a Western country and you are keen to get a glimpse of a unique Japanese dining experience.