TOKYO, Nov 5 — Most visitors to Japan will tell you that there are two sides to this beautiful country. One is modern, fast-paced, almost fantastical: this is the land of shinkansen (bullet trains), vending machines that sell everything from surgical masks to sushi-shaped socks, and Doraemon. The other side is traditional: Shinto shrines, kabuki performances and centuries-old activities such as hanami (cherry blossom viewing during spring).
But there is a third side, concealed from most outsiders.
Not far from the Shinjuku Gyoen gardens and the gourmand’s haven inside the Isetan basement food hall is a sort of underworld hidden in plain sight: Kabukicho, Tokyo’s red-light district.
Its name comes from a proposed-but-never-built kabuki theatre in the late-1940. Locals, however, simply call the neighbourhood Nemuranai-machi or “the town that never sleeps.”
For Kabukicho truly never sleeps, especially during the late night hours with its thriving mizu shobai (Japanese for “water trade”) entertainment industry. Thousands of night clubs and bars can be found here, sharing space with rabu hoteru (or “love hotels” where couples — even married ones — frequent to engage in private intimacy), kyabakura (“hostess clubs” where female staff entertain groups of salarymen with drinks and attention) and hosotu kurabu (“host clubs” where female patrons pay for male company).
Walking down the streets of Kabukicho — which are very safe, given the police patrolling them and dozens of closed-circuit cameras — you will unavoidably be inundated with unsolicited offers from part-time promoters drawing patrons into their clubs.
But the most enticing draw may not be the night life but what folks here eat — ramen, the noodles of choice for late nights and early mornings.
Following Kabukicho’s 24-hour schedule, many ramen shops (or ramen-ya) here are open 24 hours or till the wee hours of the morning at least. They serve the post-clubbing and post-drinking crowds who need something hearty and greasy (and quick) to fill their bellies and soak up all the alcohol.
Of course, many diners continue their drinking while slurping their noodles so that last benefit may not quite pan out.
Nagi Golden Gai Honkan, so named for its location within the drinking quarter of Kabukicho, may well have the most ambience. The narrow alleys of Golden Gai are lined with time-worn shophouses — formerly brothels, now transformed into bars. Mostly bars: on the second floor of one of these shophouses you can find some of the most aromatic (some would argue stinkiest) of ramen broths made from niboshi (dried baby sardines).
Past the entrance, up a steep staircase, you first pay for your ramen via the usual ticket vending machine. After passing your ticket order to the staff, you actually walk back down to wait for them to call you — via a tube (how very old school!) — once your noodles are ready.
Why the complicated procedure? When the shop has only 10 stools wrapped around a narrow counter, space is at a premium. In Japan, do as the Japanese do.
Everyone orders the Special Ramen, and you should too. Two types of hand-made noodles — one long and curly; the other cut into thin, flat squares — are served with ajitsuke tamago (seasoned soft-boiled eggs), sliced chashu (braised marinated pork belly), nori seaweed, crunchy menma (fermented bamboo shoots) and chopped scallions.
The thick and chewy noodles are perfect vessels for carrying the creamy, viscous broth so full of smoky and umami flavours. Probably the best hangover cure in town.
It’s customary to add some condiments such as vinegar flavoured with dried baby sardines or shichimi togarashi (seven-spice powder). The house blend of the latter can even be bought as a souvenir to bring home.
Whether you’re sipping on complimentary ice water between slurps or throwing back another beer (the other hangover cure, recommended by drinking enthusiasts, naturally), don’t forget to say “Gochisousama!” when you’re done to thank the cooks for that incredibly delicious bowl.
A bit claustrophobic? You may prefer Tonchin Shinjuku which, compared to the cramped quarters of Nagi Golden Gai, is very spacious. No rubbing elbows with your neighbours here.
The 19-seater ramen-ya has a wide open kitchen so diners can see all the action. But don’t let the more comfortable surroundings fool you though; this is still a serious ramen spot.
Tonchin Shinjuku offers tonkotsu-based ramen and tsukemen (dipping noodles), balancing the pork bone broth with either premium shoyu (soy sauce) or miso. Another option blends the tonkotsu broth with fish broth, adding a fishy brininess that pairs well with the creamy pork flavours of the original soup.
While you wait and watch the cooks in action, tossing the strainers of noodles to rid them of excess cooking water, side orders of crispy-skinned gyoza and tori karaage (fried chicken) will keep your booze-induced hunger at bay. It all hits the spot, especially the spicy menma that is a nice textural contrast to the curly, katame (firm) noodles.
It might still be late night when you stroll out of the ramen-ya or the sun might already be rising. Either way, there will be a smile on your face from the noodles and the broth and the knowledge that — at least in Kabukicho — you can have tasty ramen, any time.
Nagi Golden Gai Honkan
2F, 1-1-10, Kabukicho,Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan
Open 24 hours
1-11-10 Kabukicho, Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan
Open daily 11am-4am