The best ramen in Kyoto is worth looking high and low for: a bowl of delicious broth flavoured with soy or miso, served with noodles and toppings like sliced pork, boiled eggs and seaweed.
One of the first travel lessons my globetrotting grandfather taught me was to always eat where the locals do. And he was prepared to walk to the ends of the earth to find wherever that was.
My first taste of this lesson came while we were in Amsterdam in the depths of winter with an icy north wind whipping off the canals and piercing my bones. Orange light streaming from the windows of warm looking restaurants lit the pavement, taunting my stomach and teasing my shivering skin.
I begged him to stop, to get out of the cold, to just settle for one of the places near the main square. “Pah!” he said, dismissing my discomfort. “Filled with tourists. We’re on a mission for the good stuff.”
Half an hour of trudging, shivering and hunger pangs later we push inside a packed restaurant that looks like something out of a post-war newsreel. Bare grey walls. White Formica tables with hard wooden chairs, all filled with Dutch people eating the same meal – mashed potatoes and green vegetables with a huge pork sausage cut into segments. And at the back a long counter with a cash register and blackboard with one word repeated over and over – Stamppot.
My grandfather walks up to the lady behind the register, holds up two fingers and hands over a wad of Dutch gilders. We shove into the crowd, find a couple of free seats and wait for our meals to arrive, submerged in a sea of Dutch conversation and merriment. We are the only foreigners in the joint!
When the meal comes it’s absolute heaven – and a few locals smile and wink at us, glad to see we’re enjoying some real Dutch food!
Stumbling onto the best ramen in Kyoto
Fast forward quite a few years and I’m in Kyoto, Japan with Carmen, combing through the backstreets of some nondescript neighbourhood looking for a lunch time meal – and we want ramen!
Ramen is a common meal just about everywhere in Japan with many variations and styles from upmarket restaurants to hole in the wall places serving it up hot and fast. Locals love it – and though there are plenty of places that cater to the hordes of tourists that visit Kyoto’s temples and traditional sites, we wanted something my grandfather would have approved of.
So we followed our noses – and the recommendations of a few guidebooks – and took the underground out to the booksellers district where neighbourhood ramen joints abound.
After following our noses in the backstreets, we found a nondescript place on a street corner that looked like it was closed from the outside. But when we slid the entry door aside, we knew we were in the right place.
Tiny tables, tiny chairs, a long wooden counter and chefs in the kitchen going at it hammer and tongs serving huge bowls of steaming hot ramen to businesspeople in shirtsleeves slurping their noodles with expert style.
No one spoke a word of English. The menu was all in Japanese. And I’m not ashamed to say we were utterly intimidated by the whole thing – until the chefs bellowed out “irasshaimase” in unison to welcome us inside.
Ordering was a breeze. Right at the door was a vending machine, which allowed you to choose your noodle dish by pressing a button (mercifully the button had a picture!) and then you just insert the money into a slot, pass the ticket to the chefs and take a seat.
Quick as a flash we were served our ramen – I went for the rich miso broth ramen while Carmen went for a salty broth. Both were utterly delicious, with tender noodles, perfectly cooked slices of roast pork and broth so good it could make you weep.
By the time we slurped up all the noodles and sipped the broth down to the dregs we could barely fit back through the door as we made our exit.
So was this the best ramen in Kyoto? We needed a comparison, purely in the interests of science…
The train station is a contender for best ramen in Kyoto
The best ramen in Kyoto we found was in an unusual place – the train station.
Kyoto is Japan’s former capital and is filled with stunning buildings, temples and gardens that date back centuries. It’s a place of tradition, gentility and poise. The Kyoto Train Station is the exact opposite of all of that.
Controversial from the moment it was planned, the station is a glass and concrete brutalist monster that takes up a huge chunk of the central city, rising ten stories into the sky with train tracks for bullet trains and local services spitting from its cavernous platforms.
Love it or loathe it (I’m very fond of the brutalist style) the best ramen in the city is said to be found there – so Carmen and I waited til we were very hungry and took the escalator up to the eight floor to check out the restaurant deck.
The top two floors of the train station are devoted to restaurants serving up meals at all times of the day and night to hungry passengers waiting for a train or killing time between services. There’s plenty to choose from – sushi and sashimi and salads, Japanese pancakes called Okonomiyaki, even western style food like steak and chips.
But we were hunting the best ramen in Kyoto, and only ramen would do.
There’s a whole section devoted to ramen of all sizes and styles and our selection was dictated by which one had the higher proportion of locals sitting and slurping. After making our orders through the vending machine, we waited I line till our turn came and took a seat inside the absolutely packed restaurant.
We weren’t disappointed – the ramen was spot on, and we came back the next day to try the neighbouring restaurant. If we had more time I dare say we’d have worked our way through the whole floor!
The best of anything is pretty subjective – but I reckon my grandfather was onto something; if there are lots of local people inside, it’s probably damn good.
There’s only one way to find out though…