Slurp up a bowl of tonkotsu ramen in a booth of your own.
Japan offers a dizzying variety of ramen, each with its own regional spin, but one of the quirkiest eating experiences began in Fukuoka’s Hakata district, an area known for its tonkotsu ramen. Famous for being one of the nation’s top three ramen styles, tonkotsu uses porkbone to create a rich, creamy broth. Into the broth goes a tangle of thin, fast-boiling noodles, which were supposedly created to appease Hakata’s hangry kiddos. Of course, no ramen would be complete without a couple tasty pork slices—and Hakata residents also like to add other toppings, like green on- ion and bright red slivers of pickled ginger.
Ah, but flavour isn’t the only thing that distinguishes Hakata ramen from its regional cousins. The district is also home to a peculiar solo eating experience, which isolates diners in tiny booths to cut out annoying distractions, like server interaction or superfluous conversations with friends. These booths look a lot like partitioned seating for examinations or ballot casting, which is why this style is often called “exam ramen” or “voting booth ramen.” Think of it as the opposite of the izakaya experience, which encourages guests to dive into many dishes with a raucous group of friends. Instead, “voting booth ramen” allows you to focus on the flavours of one particular dish, made to order according to your own specifications.
Here’s how it’s done. First, purchase a meal ticket from a vending machine in the hallway. Once you have your ticket, head inside to your next step: seat selection. In high-tech restaurants, you select your seat based on a large electronic grid indicating which seats are available. If there’s no grid, go ahead and select any available seat. The dark wood cubicles are situated in a row, with a simple stool at each station, and a curtain between you and the servers. If you didn’t specify your ingredients at the vending machine, you can “vote” for your favourite ingredients at your seat by circling your preferences on a sheet of paper. You can specify everything from fat content to the consistency of the noodles. Once you’ve finished, press the staff call button. A server will roll up the divider and collect your order quickly and quietly.
While you wait for your bowl to arrive, help yourself to your individual waterspout (which, sadly, does not double as a beer dispenser). When the food arrives, enjoy your meal in peace, with no sound in the restaurant except the symphony of slurping. If you finish your noodles before the broth, no worries—you can order kaedama, a second serving of noodles, for about 100 yen. Voting booth style ramen is perfect for customers looking to quietly lose themselves in a bowl full of comfort food after a long and harried day working and commuting in tight spaces with limited privacy.
Make sure you know the ramen DOs and DON’Ts
HOW TO RAMEN-VOTE LIKE A PRO
Maybe you’re already a ramen expert, having been overcome by “ramenia.” But if not, here are some tips to eat like a champ, especially when you’re on your own without a wingman.
DO ask for an English menu
Almost no ramen topping is unheard of—a shot of tequila, anyone?—so you’ll want to know what you’re in for.