Tokyo Station is so much more than a train station. Inside is a maze of underground passages (or "streets") filled with retail shops, restaurants, cafes, and izakayas. In fact, Tokyo Station is quite a destination in itself. Inside the station is an area called Ichibangai (First Avenue), directly connected to the Yaesu exit, that makes up 3 floors of retail and restaurants that can keep an afternoon busy. Hanging out at a train station? Why, yes, it is possible at Tokyo Station. It is true when people say that there is nothing the Japanese have not thought of creating and doing.
*Tokyo Ramen Street*
Basement floor, South Street
Basement floor, South Street
On the basement level of Ichibangai is Tokyo Ramen Street where 8 renowned ramen shops congregate. The line of people standing and waiting outside Rokurinsha is perpetual and judging from this it is no secret that one of the best tsukemen (dipping ramen) in Tokyo can be found here. Once you get to Tokyo Ramen Street inside the station, Rokurinsha is really easy to spot-- you only have to look for the shop with the longest line of people to know that you are at the right place. This makes it pretty useful if you don't read Japanese and are not sure which shop is Rokurinsha. Word is that the owner of Rokurinsha previously operated the store in a neighborhood and because of the perpetual line that wrapped around the block, complaints from neighboring shops arose. As a result, the owner relocated Rokurinsha to Tokyo Ramen Street inside Tokyo Station's Ichibangai.
Rokurinsha opens as early as 7:30am for breakfast until 10:00am and reopening the rest of the day from 11:00am to 10:30pm. We get there just before 8:00am and despite the day being early, there is already a line for us to join. The line moves quick and we hardly feel like we are waiting much at all. People go in, slurp up the tsukemen, and then leave to go about their day, commute, and work in Tokyo. The system at Rokurinsha is like other ramen shops in Japan. We order, pay, and get our ramen tickets from the vending machine located at the entrance of the shop. An employee takes your ticket and hands it to the kitchen.
Tsukemen is a form of dipping ramen; the noodles and broth are served in separate bowls. The noodles are dipped into the broth and then slurped into the mouth. Because it is used for dipping and not so much for drinking straight up from a spoon, the broth for tsukemen has a more intense flavor than when the broth and noodle are served together in a bowl like the other variations of ramen. Rokurinsha's tsukemen is certainly not less than perfect. The thick noodles are al dente with the right amount of chewy texture. The noodles are boiled just long enough to achieve this right level, not any less nor more. The dipping broth has depth in flavor and with the complex burst of flavors there is a very slight zesty hint.
In the corner is a table with a pot of the dipping broth if anyone wants more. There is also a separate pot of warm water in the corner and a popular way to end the meal is to ladle some warm water into your bowl of remaining dipping broth to dilute it for drinking as soup. After having one of the best tsukemen here at Rokurinsha, we are afraid that our future tsukemen meals will have a hard time matching up. Who knew that we could eat something so great at a train station and that meal turns out to be the best in its kind that we've had? In Japan it is possible.
Also located on Tokyo Ramen Street is the shop that goes by Menya Shichisai by day and Edoama by evening. Shoyu ramen (soy sauce flavored) is served during the day and miso ramen in the evening. Like any ramen shop, customers order, pay, and get the ramen tickets from the vending machine at the entrance of the shop. An employee of the shop readily takes the ramen tickets and hands it to the kitchen. We visit for a late breakfast when shoyu ramen is being served. The chashu pork is tender and the optional addition of the tamago (egg) is skillfully made with the orange yolk soft and runny. The broth is very well balanced between its savory and light flavors, just perfect to start a cold December morning.
Another section of Ichibangai at Tokyo Station is dedicated to izakaya restaurants. These drinking establishments serve a variety of food in small portions meant to complement the drinks and long conversations with your dining companions. Visit any izakaya in Tokyo and you will experience a part of life that is prevalent in the Japanese culture. Start with some sake, biru (beer), or shochu (distilled alcoholic beverage) and you are off to a great time. Order some food to share and take your time to eat your way through the food on your table. Izakaya restaurants are where casual moments come to stay.
We decide on sake and take our time through a plate of ika (squid) sashimi, a small bowl of konnyaku (Japanese root jelly) and tofu stew, and a serving of fried octopus legs.
The most unforgettable item is the beautifully sliced and presented whole fish sashimi-style. Just between the two of us, we have no difficulty in finishing every slice of fish on the plate and then dreaming more of it after. The next time someone says Tokyo is an expensive city, we get to say But we just had a plate of whole fish sashimi-style at an izakaya for only ¥780 (~US$8.30)!
Catching a train is certainly not the only reason one needs to go to Tokyo Station.