Ichiran Ramen is often towards the top of a tourist's "Japan things to do" list. But is this famous pork bone ramen chain a tourist trap? Let's weigh in!
Ichiran Ramen - A Little Background
Like a lot of pork bone (tonkotsu) ramen heavyweights, Ichiran hails from Fukuoka City, Fukuoka prefecture, Japan. It got it start as a humble food stall in the 1960s.
Fast forward to present day - Ichiran has 80 restaurants worldwide and is one of the most recognized ramen brands out there.
Their massive flagship tower in Fukuoka is a testament to this success.
But let's dive right in. Is Ichiran Ramen a tourist trap?
Guilty of Three Things
I (Frank from 5 AM Ramen) have fond memories of eating Ichiran growing up. But I'm going to put aside my emotional connection to them.
This said, if anything, Ichiran is accused of these 3 things:
1) Creating a theme park-like environment
2) Mass producing its ramen
3) Charging more than other ramen restaurants
These 3 things naturally lead to a greater number of tourists.
But these 3 things are at the heart of a thriving business:
1) The theme park-like environment is what makes Ichiran fun
2) The mass production of ramen allows them to scale and serve more people
3) They simply charge more because they can
You can't knock them for having a successful business model. If anything, the capitalist in me admires what Ichiran Ramen has achieved.
But let's look at these three points in more detail.
For those unaware, Ichiran uniquely has ramen booths. In each of them, staff serve ramen to individual customers through little windows with bamboo-woven curtains.
Customers even get to fill out order sheets to design their ramen. This is all undoubtedly fun and exciting...and "tourist friendly". But it wasn't all set up just for tourists.
Ichiran has been doing this from the beginning, well before Japan tourism took off. They were creative and were rewarded for this along the way.
When I visited the Irish Whiskey Museum in Dublin, I knew what I was getting into. Tourists often gravitate towards proven, worry-free activities. This describes Ichiran.
Factory Like Production?
Maybe you're thinking "ok, that's all well and good. What about the ramen quality and taste?" This ties into the second point...mass production.
Anytime you scale and mass produce, there's a risk of diminishing quality. For example, not all staff at Japan Ichiran restaurants will assemble ramen the same way. This is despite everything being formulaically prepared in a central kitchen ahead of time.
Case in point - the ramen I've enjoyed at Ichiran's flagship tower in Fukuoka is significantly better than branches I've eaten at in Tokyo. I would recommend visiting their flagship tower, or least one of their Fukuoka branches.
But when the quality is there, Ichiran serves a tasty bowl. The soup boasts a pork bone richness that's packed with flavor. Alongside this, a soy sauce seasoning adds tanginess and sweetness. Their famed signature red sauce also adds some heat.
"Best in Japan?" Hmm...
But is it the best ramen in Japan, like some claim? Let's put it this way - I don't think many think that Wendy's or Shake Shack serve the best craft burgers.
There are a ridiculous amount of amazing, non-chain ramen restaurants in Fukuoka. Furthermore, many of them serve ramen that's more affordable than Ichiran.
Lastly, some outside of Japan think of traditional ramen as pork bone (tonkotsu) ramen (like what Ichiran serves). But tonkotsu is just one of many ramen categories...which is further divided into subcategories.
In other words, you're really missing out if you're only eating one style (Ichiran) of tonkotsu ramen. The world of ramen can involve endless exploration - take it from me!
In summary, Ichiran provides a dynamic, tasty and tourist-friendly ramen experience. But this does come at a higher price. You'll have to decide for yourself what this means.
I personally don't eat at Ichiran that often anymore. But when I do, I have to admit I enjoy myself.