This unofficial ramen club is full of strange rules. But you’ll still want to join

Travel News from Stuff - 18-09-2023

Cody Mizuno thinks he’s eaten about 1000 bowls of ramen in his lifetime. That’s the equivalent of one ramen a day for three years.

news image

He is certain he’s eaten these bowls at more than 800 different ramen shops across Japan, because he’s kept records. He’s taken photos. He’s jotted down notes. He’s written reviews.

news image

Such is the life of the “ramen otaku”.

get quote or book now in New Zealand

Mizuno is a self-confessed ramen nerd. The Tokyo resident is obsessed with this noodle soup to the point where it’s become his life. If Jiro dreams of sushi, as per the famous documentary, then Cody Mizuno dreams of ramen.

It all began when Mizuno discovered the Japanese food review website Tabelog, and read through its annual list of the top 100 ramen shops in Japan, a list curated by the top “gourmet hunters”, or food obsessives, in the country.

“A few of the shops were close to where I was living at the time,” he explains as we stand on a street corner in Tokyo’s Roppongi district, in a queue to eat at the area’s most famous ramen joint. “And after I ate at four of them, I kind of wanted to finish the rest. I have that collector mentality.

“So I ate at all 100. And after eating at all 100, you start getting this over-confidence. Like, do these reviewers really know what they’re talking about? Why don’t I eat at the other ramen shops and start doing my own reviews, my own predictions for what would be in the top 100 the following year?”

Mizuno started posting his adventures on Instagram, using the handle , and a star was born. He has more than 20,000 followers. He correctly predicted that Ginza Hachigo, a ramen shop in Tokyo’s Ginza district, would be the next such establishment to be awarded a Michelin star.

Even in the ramen otaku community – and there is a community, a group of Japanese ramen obsessives who amass huge followings on social media, and whose reviews can make or break a new ramen shop – Mizuno is a big deal.

Now he’s showing me the ropes, because “ramenguidejapan” isn’t just a handle, it’s a career.

Mizuno works as a lawyer, having studied in the US. He also works as an influencer, blogging about his ramen adventures. And, he leads tours of Tokyo for those who want to delve into the world of the ramen otaku.

First thing you need: the right venue. Tokyo is home to an estimated 10,000 ramen shops, a phenomenal number of peddlers of this cherished and delicious soup. To the uninitiated, most of that ramen will seem pretty good. To Mizuno and his ilk, however, there are huge differences in quality, in expertise, in enjoyment.

Our choice for lunch today is Iruca Tokyo, number 15 on Tabelog’s list. This shop is known for its delicate, complex soup, Mizuno explains, a mix of four separate broths made with chicken, pork, prawn, and shellfish. Its secret is the blend of animal-based umami compounds with non-animal-based umami – in this case, the meaty broth spiked with soy sauce and porcini duxelles.

The queue to get in is long – we’re standing on the street for at least an hour, which provides plenty of opportunity to dive into the nuances of ramen otaku culture.

There’s a language to it, you soon find, particularly if you follow a lot of these guys on Instagram. You don’t eat a bowl of ramen, you “crush” it.

You have to take specific photos, too: of the ramen as it’s presented to you; of the soup in a spoon, to see its consistency; of the noodles raised in the air, to check their width, their density. And a shot of your bowl at the end, so you can anoint yourself with the hashtag: #cleanbowlclub.

Finally, we’re invited in to Iruca, and a steaming bowl of broth and noodles, pork and chicken chashu, egg and porcini is placed in front of each of us.

Ramen wasn’t always this way. This adaptation of Chinese noodle soups began as simple fare. It’s only in the past 20 years that it’s gone gourmet, elevated to such heady spaces.

And the taste? Mind-blowing. Utterly delicious. A umami bomb, so deeply savoury and yet so delicate and elegant.

I’m ready to join the otaku ranks.

Cody Mizuno hosts ramen tours of Tokyo with the tour company Plan Japan. See:

OMO5 Tokyo Otsuka is an excellent, mid-priced hotel in a part of the city with the greatest concentration of ramen shops. Rooms from JPY$7273 (NZ$83) a night. See:

Flying generates carbon emissions. To reduce your impact, consider other ways of travelling, amalgamate your trips, and when you need to fly, consider offsetting emissions.

Citing “stuff”