Tag Archives: Ikebukuro

Binks’ Sake

Once again my plans to waste the evening doing something more or less productive were thwarted by an impromptu invitation for a sake tasting event. Opportunism kicked in immediately. As for this post, it is published a week later than the actual occurrence. I really need to get it out now in order to be able to focus on other things, such as Juhannus.

Considering the tickets for a large tasting event offering 450 different brands of nihonshu from all over Japan normally cost ¥3500, free tickets were gladly accepted and put to good use. With a fellowship comprising of 6 Finnish trainees we made our way to Ikebukuro to Sunshine City, and ventured deeper into the labyrinth until we found the designated tasting area. We were all given small sake cups with a nice smiley face drawn on the inner bottom. Whether inner bottom is a universal concept or only exists in my imagination is a matter of debate.

I smile for your sake!

Liquor & Guessing

The layout of the tasting hall was incredibly plain, yet practical and very efficient. Long tables housing dozens of bottles of sake each were laid out by region around the exhibition area. We were given pamphlets naming all regions and sakes. Unfortunately, even with our combined efforts we only managed to decipher the readings for about 20% of the text offered to us.

Tasting factory

Near the entrance, a young attendant overheard us speaking demonic and made a vague attempt to help us, enthusiastically pointing at Kyushu bottle number 2 while yelling “zwanzig!” in my face. Clearly he had lost his mind. Later on, I attempted to gain insight to which of the sakes were supposed to be better than the rest. I asked one of the most connoisseur-like (read: tipsy) looking people and he pointed me to a sake brand from Yamagata prefecture, called the Juuyondai (十四代), one of the few names I could actually read. Unfortunately, as it genuinely was one of the more famous brands at the show, all the bottles were empty.

As with all self-respecting wine tastings, there were spit buckets available. Unfortunately, using those equals immediate relinquishment of Finnish citizenship, so we needed to stomach all the content we tried. This wasn’t too hard as the instrument used to measure sake into the cup was a pipette.

It's super effective!

No matter how hard I tried finding subtle taste differences between brands or even regions, a task that became more an more difficult upon ingesting a significant amount of alcohol, the only thing I could be certain of at the end of the journey was that they were all, in-fact, sake. I need more practice. After having had our share and tried everything we collectively could, we decided to continue the evening at a nearby izakaya. Kokutou umeshu was involved. Fin.



Entries have been a little rich in gaming and ramen stories lately, so let’s start with something else; noodles will follow soon enough. With Golden Week nearing its end, I proceeded to do something extravagant on Saturday, and went out to a Sakurahouse Fiesta in Ikebukuro in order to socialize. It was about time as well. Nothing makes you realize you’ve been deprived from civilization too long like putting cooked sausages in a coffee mug due to all other dishes being unavailable. Or biting off a chunk of butter for cooking purposes with your teeth because the knife was almost out of reach. These are fictional examples and I definitely, definitely didn’t behave that way.

The problem with going to meet lots of new people is that I tire quickly. I’m fortunate enough to have lots of good friends, and while they are not here with me at the moment, I tend to get slightly complacent. To quote the great Peter Cook, I’m very bad at being interested in people. And if the new people I meet happen to be uninteresting, I have a very hard time concealing my boredom. Booze does help though.

Despite all my fears, the evening proved quite a pleasant one. The earthquake was a major topic of discussion, as were different nationalities and awkward gaijin situations in Japan. As a bonus achievement, I was able to communicate in Japanese extremely efficiently after eight beers, much like speaking Italian only requires a moustache. I returned home before the last train and was in high enough spirits to buy a box of half-priced sushi at the station Seiyu and enjoy some midnight fishy goodness.

Ota ja Nauti

By accident, I woke up at 5 in the morning on Sunday, the only goddamn day when the Tsukiji fish market is closed. Then Murphy did something, and my internet connection went down as well. Around 9 I finally stopped caring about the router and walked to the station to enjoy the sunny weather accompanied by some curry bread and one of those awful cold canned black coffee things. There was “best” written on the can, but it must have been for irony.

The weather was perfect for cycling, and thus lunch was had at Tetsuya Ramen near Koenji station. I had been passing the shop on my way home from work for three months now, and it had lately become very difficult to refrain from stepping in, so it was ultimately a good thing to get that over with. I don’t really even know what I ordered. Somethingsomething tonkotsu was the name on the ticket dispenser, but weirdly enough the broth tasted more like fish, making me immediately think that something had gone wrong during the ordering process.

Mother's Day Lunch

Unlike Kiraboshi, though, the broth had a pleasant fishy taste. The noodles were really nice and chewy and the neatly placed chashuu slices were excellent as well. The ajitamago (egg) cost extra, rendering the meal as a whole relatively expensive at ¥1290. A serving of rice would have been available for free, but rice is not exactly a rarity in these parts of the world, so I passed. By the end of the meal, the intense saltiness of the broth had began slightly bothering me, but I was satisfied on the whole. This won’t mark my last trip to Tetsuya, as the renowned shop offers several other types of broth (miso, shoyu) that I need to get to try later.


Suddenly, Ramen – Part I

I began compiling this post originally in mid-February, but never managed to properly finish it before something quite unexpected happened. This led to other things triumphing over the enjoyability of swallowing  wheat flour in different forms as a writing topic. By now I’ve managed to lengthen the original ramen compendium so much that offering it as one wall of text would be nothing short of disrespectful towards the readers.

This first post will concern the disappointments I’ve experienced when visiting a couple of the most highly touted noodle shops on the web. The shops weren’t on the web though, only the touting.

Ramen Jiro ラーメン二郎

Ramen Jiro, originally located next to Keio University in Tokyo, is an institution. It’s a place that I have planned visiting since I first began preparing a trip to Japan circa 2004, and if I opened, the ancient notepad file would still say something along the lines of “Jiro: Epic ramen place, gotta visit.” Right. Instead, 7 years later, it crushed my dreams. I’ll admit that I didn’t go to the original ramen shop in Mita yet, something I’ll have to do in order to confirm my doubts about the franchise and reach the ultimate status of food critic critic.

The one and only Ramen Jiro Mita Honten

My point is, that each and every ramen connoisseur (I hate writing that word because it feels wrong) whose report I have read so far have blogged about the Jiro experience as some kind of holy grail. In addition to fully explaining the eating procedures and acting like the go-to besserwissers in the field of gaijin ramen eating, they have without exception emphasized two things that I cannot agree on in a million years:

-The serving is huge and eating it is a challenge -> take it slow -> it’s like a marathon -> you might die

-The experience is beyond precedent -> best ramen ever -> worth the half hour + queue,  etc.

The bear is right. Listen to the bear.


I will hereby debunk these exaggerations accordingly, starting with size. On my first trip, I went to Ramen Jiro Ikebukuro, hungry enough to eat a side of cow. I was starving at that point, and while the queue at the Ikebukuro shop was manageable, I still had to wait about 20 minutes before being able to enter the premises. That made me both angry and frustrated, leading me to contemplate ordering the 大 (large) serving, which, according to different sources, would be retarded. I was losing confidence in the normal size being able to satisfy my hunger but eventually put my trust in random internet writers and decided the standard size would probably be large enough.

Although I did order it with W 豚, or double pork, arguably the only positive aspect of the evening. Double pork, for the only time in Japanese history, adhered to the idea that there was actually meat in the food. I would estimate a good couple hundred grams of pork meat. No chashuu, just plain, boring, non-fat pork. I’d rather have fat than pork in there but actually being able to experience eating meat, as opposed to just being teased by the idea of seeing five grams of meat in the bowl, was a novel experience in a ramen shop. I also ordered the にんいくましまし (extra extra garlic) which basically meant that people in the same car on the train were not going to be very happy that night. Or the next morning.

Picture shamelessly stolen off a Japanese site until I can find mine

When I finally received the bowl, it became apparent that the serving was large for ramen shop standards, but calling it a challenge is a travesty; it’s an offense to ramen as food, to challenges as a concept and to me as a binge eater. I rolled my sleeves up, dug in and about 15 minutes later the bowl was on the counter, the table wiped clean and a tall gaijin sneaked out of the door full, but disappointed. I understand that the bowl might be tough to finish for a Japanese high school girl, but if eating is such an ordeal for self-proclaimed “ramen lovers” , I can only suggest for them to avoid Jiro altogether. Or eating, for that matter.

Off to the second point, taste. Boring. Just. Really. Boring. The broth was not up to par with some other とんこつ pork bone broths I’ve had, the garlic made everything taste like garlic, which was not necessarily bad, the pork was non-fat and bland and the noodles simply too thick to taste like anything. I knew beforehand that the thickness of the noodles could prove to be my demise as I don’t really get the point of udon or other tasteless wheat products.

The entire experience could best be summed up as nothing special.


Because of the elongated timeline during which this blog post has been written and in contrary to a paragraph further up, I did manage to go to Jiro Honten in Mita later on. さすが三田本店, it was slightly better than Ikebukuro. I once again ordered the double pork version but this time only a regular amount of garlic and あぶらましまし (extra extra fat) instead. I know the general expectations of Jiro shops never circle around cleanliness or hygiene, but I still failed to appreciate the fact that my bowl was overflowing with broth and fat in such a ludicrous way that my hands were dripping once I had moved the bowl down from the counter and to the table. They could probably use larger bowls.

The broth was tastier at Honten, which could be partly caused by the extra fat I ordered, the やさい (vegetable topping) did not only consist of sprouts but also included cabbage, and the pork was really fatty and tastier in general. Compiled thoughts about the Honten: The price is right and the food is enjoyable, but most of the hype is unnecessary and the 40 minute queue is hardly worth it more than once. The previous review still stands.


Another interesting and supposedly unique ramen experience was Tukumo in Ebisu, a ramen store renowned for their cheese ramen. Allow me to explain the premise: Cheese is my muse. Cheese is what keeps me happy in this world. Also, the left side of my brain is cheese, though the doctor may have made that one up. I made the doctor up. Lost my train of thought there, back to the story.

Anyway, in Japan, cheese is a rare commodity and by consequence, I’m constantly suffering from cheese busoku. I was delighted when I heard that there is a place bold enough to combine cheese and noodles into some kind of master dish that can shatter palates and destroy the minds of the weak. Imagine my disappointment when the cheese was only there for show and the miso-based broth tasted like nothing. The extra toppings (chashuu and aji tamago) did their best to compensate for flavor but were quite overpriced. For those who absolutely want cheese in their ramen, it’s either Tukumo or DIY, though.

Cheese? In my Ramen? It's more likely than you think!

While the above reviews may seem harsh and an unnecessary attack on two renowned ramen shops, I can assure that they are still both worth visiting, if only once. They merely do not live up to the hype in my books. And because the hype, especially concerning Jiro, goes to preposterous heights, I had to exaggerate accordingly the other way. Some internationally less known and better alternatives will be presented in Part II.