When it comes to cult followings and sheer gnarliness of food, there is one ramen chain that conquers them all: Ramen Jiro.
Jiro's unique, over-the-top bowls have made it one of Japan's most divisive food phenomenons. In short, Jiro's ramen is everything that Japanese cuisine is famously NOT. It's ridiculously heavy and fatty. It uses cheap, easily-sourced ingredients. The bowls are thrown together hastily, rather than assembled with care. Portion sizes are enormous, and the ramen shops themselves tend to be grimy and dirty. The service experience is deliberately curt, if not overtly rude.
And yet, scores of ramen heads dream of Jiro... The brand is beloved. At each of the 41 Ramen Jiro locations across Japan, there is usually a steady line of customers waiting at the door during all hours of operation. Even Elon Musk and Keanu Reeves are known to be fans.
This week, we're taking a deep dive into the cultural phenomenon of Jiro and exploring how it has pushed the boundaries of what is considered acceptable in Japanese ramen.
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►Before we get into the details, here is Ramen Beast’s Abram Plaut on how Jiro hooked him and made him a fanatic:
I have to admit, Jiro is a style I overlooked for many years when I was first getting deep into ramen eating in Japan. I knew there was something badass about the intensity of the ramen they serve and the down and dirty nature of the shops (I mean, this is a bowl where the soup is so potent almost no one drinks it beyond a few sips). Like a lot of people, though, I kind of felt that all Jiro locations were more or less the same, so I focused my energy on exploring many of the other diverse ramen genres and innovations that Japan has to offer. It was only in the past year or so that I started to dig deeper — and the more I learned, the more intrigued I became. Everything about this shop is unique. You need to know code words to order properly. Somehow the food tastes so much better than it should. The bowls are 2-3 times the size of the average bowl of ramen in Japan, yet remain cheap (always less than 1000 yen, or about $10). And even for someone like me, who has visited thousands of ramen shops, eating at Jiro can be really intimidating — which is something I've learned to love. So far, I've been to 39 of the current 41 Jiro branches, and dozens of the Jiro-inspired shops that serve a Jiro-style bowl. Here are some of the other things that keep me coming back for more:
For most Jiro heads, or Jirorians as they call themselves, patronizing a Ramen Jiro branch becomes a meditative ritual, almost a religious type experience. Each shop has a similar flow, with similar rules. Because the rules are strictly enforced, one learns to enjoy the predictable rhythms of the shop. Generally, there is no talking by the customers at all inside any Jiro branch. There is no wasting time. Each customer knows this, and enjoys the silence (or occasional radio) as they crush their bowl in peace and quickly slip out. The master makes five or six bowls at a time. You have to be ready to show your ticket, take your seat, make your toppings call, take a quick photo of the bowl (if you want to) and then slurp with determination. You're expected to eat quickly. No funny business. Each customer knows exactly how it will play out every time. Each customer leaves fully satisfied every time. Those who don't know the rules learn to fall in line quickly. They have no other choice.
To most people, Jiro style is just Jiro style — they are all the same right? But in reality not only do the branches have vast differences in soup (emulsification level) and noodles (thickness and shape), the toppings vary as well. There are toppings via the ticket machine for 50-100 yen extra at some locations, or free toppings on the 'garlic call,' when the shop master asks each customer how they want their bowl prepared (more on this below). Some of these toppings are fixtures at certain branches, others are limited or seasonal. Combine that with being able to customize each bowl with the standard call options (volume of garlic, vegetables, pork fat, tare drizzle), and you get a wide spectrum of completely different-tasting bowls. Some shops even offer tsukemen, shirunashi (soupless ramen) or special seasonal bowls. Within the 41 Ramen Jiro locations alone, the combinations are seemingly endless — so for Jirorians, this means shops must be visited again and again to really understand the menu and different options.
Nostalgia & Value
It is quite true that one bowl of Jiro can sustain most adults for a full day. The large size is actually way too big for most people, and some shops don’t even allow first-time customers to order it. In fact, regardless of what size ramen you order, if you don't eat all of the noodles you will be told (warned?) by the staff to order a smaller size next time. Leaving noodles uneaten is frowned upon. Repeat offenders apparently get lifetime bans. Also, don't eat Jiro for lunch on the same day that you have dinner plans. The same way a cigar lingers on your tongue the next day, the garlic, fat and MSG-goodness of Jiro can linger on your breath and come out your pores long after it's been consumed. And yet, if you can find that one bowl of Jiro with the perfect toppings in just the right balance for your tastes, it will give you just as much satisfaction as the most refined bowl of ramen anywhere in Japan, made with the most premium ingredients. It's almost magical, like how a really good cheeseburger done right can give you more pleasure than a $200 premium filet mignon.
For many of Tokyo's seniors, the most comforting bowls of ramen are the ones that remind them of their childhood — simple, old school chūka style and shoyu ramen. But to many of Tokyo's middle-aged folks, who grew up in the 80's, 90's and 2000's, the nostalgic bowl which brings them back to their college days is Ramen Jiro. How many foods in the world are extremely intimidating to eat but give you such intense satisfaction and fill you up for an entire day, all while costing less than $10? If any bowl is worthy of being called a 'Ramen Beast,' this one might just be it.
► Ramen Jiro 101
What exactly is Jiro-style ramen?
The Jiro style is characterized visually by its toppings: thick slices of pork charshu, known as Buta, and a large pile of Yasai, or steamed bean sprouts and cabbage. You have the option of four additional free topping options, in various quantities, which you order directly from the master as he's preparing your bowl using a special ordering system that all customers are expected to know (It's not written down in all of the shops; instead it spreads via word of mouth — think Animal style at In-N-Out Burger, but with several additional degrees of complexity. Details below). The extra topping options are: Ninniku (grated garlic) and Abura (pork back fat), additional Yasai and extra tare seasoning known as Karame.
Jiro soup uses a base of pork bone broth, typically made using pork backbone, femur and whatever pork meat is used for the charshu (either belly or shoulder), with some off-cuts of vegetables and garlic/ginger thrown in to bring in some sweetness and eliminate some of the funk the bones produce. Jiro noodles tend to be thick and starchy, made in-house using a special flour called O-shon which originates from Hokkaido. The hydration is quite low, so most locations use a signature Ebisu Seimenki noodle press and cutter to eliminate the hassle of kneading and cutting by hand. Each bowl also gets a generous dollop — or two — of MSG.
All of the Jiro locations follow these fundamentals, but the master of each shop will give it their own twist, such as adjusting the emulsification level of the soup and/or the thickness of the noodles. Sometimes you’ll even see shop-specific toppings (ranging from kimchi, dried shrimp, diced negi, sesame oil seasoning, etc), which might rotate seasonally, enticing Jiro fans for repeat visits.
Bowls come in two sizes, small and large, but don’t let the size names fool you — you need advanced intel to know what you're getting. A small can range from 345 grams to as much as 907 grams depending on location, while a large will often be twice that amount.
With the amount of fat incorporated into the soup, you’re looking at a meal that easily surpasses the daily recommended calorie limit of a typical adult male. Ordering a large and leaving noodles behind is a big no-no and severe offenders can even be hit with a lifetime shop ban, so Jiro is not the shop to try and push your limits...
Ramen Jiro's Origins
Ramen Jiro is the brainchild of chef Yamada Takumi. Master Yamada opened his first ramen shop in 1968 near Tokyo's Toritsu Daigaku station. He openly admits he had never made nor eaten a single bowl of ramen before attempting to start his own shop. But ramen was growing in popularity in Tokyo at that time and ingredients could be gotten for cheap — it struck him as a good business.
Unsurprisingly, though, his initial amateur efforts were so terrible that he was on the verge of quitting until a chef from a neighboring Chinese restaurant came in and graciously taught him the basics of preparing a delicious bowl. What comes next varies depending on accounts... According to some, Yamada received additional inspiration from one of his few regular customers, a guy from Hokkaido who lived in a nearby company dormitory, who urged the chef to make his ramen more distinctive and innovative somehow (could this be the origin of Jiro's use of O-shon flour from Hokkaido?). Whatever the case, in his shop's second iteration, Yamada-san struck upon the porky, salty, thick-noodled template that would become his claim to fame.
But the Jiro legend didn't truly emerge until Yamada was forced by a city development project — Japan's economy was booming in those days, with construction underway virtually everywhere — to relocate his shop to a new space in Mita near Keio University. In the new location, Yamada's customers would be made up almost exclusively of hungry college kids, almost uniformly dudes, who were short on cash — and it was here that he struck gold. Yamada-san is a famously gruff, no-bullshit character, and much of the Jiro brand's identity descends from his personality. Unfussy about his cooking, Yamada began bluntly asking some of his college kid regulars what they wanted more of in their ramen. Quickly, the portions of meat grew larger, the pile of yasai grew into a mountain, and huge spoonfuls of garlic and drizzlings of back fat became popular add-ons. And thanks to his working-class ingredients, his prices remained rock bottom.
Word of Jiro’s monstrous, cost-effective bowls soon began to spread, and lines formed daily of hungry students looking to get their fill. Yamada then took on apprentices to assist with the boom times, and later he granted his disciples permission to open their own Ramen Jiro branch locations when they were ready to venture out on their own.
As expansion began, masters targeted residential areas near Universities, spreading throughout the college communities like Facebook in the early 2000s and ensuring they became long-time regulars of the Jiro brand by the time they graduated.
Jiro Regulars Mutate into Jirorians
During the early days of Jiro, the shop’s popularity spread through word of mouth and via the very occasional television spot when a Tokyo news crew would go investigate this new dirty food phenomenon that had become popular with the youth. In those days, if there wasn’t a location nearby, most eaters wouldn’t think to go out of their way to make a visit. However, the invention of the internet brought forth the next wave in popularity as Jiro-themed blogs, known as “Jirogs,” and forum boards on 2channel, aka 2ch, started getting traffic. Curiosity around Jiro was growing, as Jiro fans began posting photos of their bowls, writing their thoughts on each location, and creating “stamp cards” to showcase which shops they had visited. These hardcore regulars became what is now known within the ramen community as “Jirorians.” The passion of this Jirorian sub-culture added to Ramen Jiro’s lore, and soon Japanese people of various backgrounds began frequenting the shops just to see what the hype was about. Nowadays, it would be damn near impossible to visit a Jiro shop without finding a queue of at least 10-20 hungry patrons waiting silently in line outside.
Next you might be wondering, if it’s so popular, why is it also divisive? Two reasons. First, the atmosphere of the shop and regimented ordering style makes a Jiro location quite intimidating for visitors. Every Jiro master is a soup nazi. A lot of these shops have strict rules, such as no photos (besides the ramen) and no excessive talking (or sometimes no talking at all), which are taken very seriously by the chefs. Once you make your purchase at the ticket machine, you place your ticket on the counter and when your bowl is ready, a staff member will ask “Ninniku iremasuka?” (“Would you like garlic?”) Here is where you make your ‘call’ for free toppings. Hesitate or show confusion about the options available, and you’re sure to be met with a death glare along with an exasperated explanation of the ordering process. Expect everyone else in the shop to regard you just as frostily. And don’t dare think about not finishing your bowl. Once you’re done, which shouldn’t take longer than 5-15 minutes, customers are expected to place their finished bowls atop the counter and wipe their place at the counter with the provided washcloth. Customers are rarely ever “right” and the shop master’s voice is the law of the land. Western ideas of customer service are non-existent at Jiro. The shame that comes with annoying the master or disturbing the shop's flow is especially potent from a Japanese cultural perspective, where almost nothing is more taboo than causing inconvenience to the group through your own unpreparedness.
The second aspect of Jiro that turns many off is the food itself, which doesn't conform with any typical image of Japanese ramen. The incredibly fatty soup, ridiculously thick noodles, and unnecessary amounts of garlic and vegetables turn many devoted ramen enthusiasts and casual eaters away. You either love it or you hate it and there’s rarely any in-between. Some raota (or ramen otaku, aka ramen heads) who aren't fans will even go as far as to insist that Jiro shouldn't be considered ramen at all.
How to Make Your Toppings Call
At every Jiro location, once your bowl of ramen is ready, a shop staff member (usually the master's assistant) will ask you if you would like any of their four free toppings.
Ninniku (ニンニク) = Garlic
Yasai (野菜) = Bean Sprout & Cabbage
Abura (アブラ) = Pork Back Fat
Karame (カラメ) = Tare (an extra dose of the flavoring that goes in the soup)
The staff member will say “Ninniku iremasuka?” and even though they are only saying, “Would you like garlic?”, it means they are asking whether you want any of the following options. Say any of the following to make your pick.
“Sonomama,” which means “as is,” or no extra toppings. This means you will get the standard small mound of veggies with no garlic, back fat or karame.
“[X topping] Sukuname,” or less of topping X. Say the name of a topping, or all four, plus “Sukuname” and you will get a slightly smaller than usual portion of that topping.
“Ninniku, Yasai, Karame” If you simply state the name of a topping, or a combination of toppings, you will get a normal portion size of whatever you called out. For example, if you say “Ninniku, Yasai,” which is a pretty popular call, you’ll get a bowl with a healthy portion of garlic and veggies piled on top.
“[X topping] Mashi,” means extra of topping X. For example, if you call “Niniku Mashi, Yasai, Karame,” you’ll get an extra portion of garlic (which will be A LOT) and standard portions of additional veggies and tare seasoning sauce. Just add “mashi” to any topping and you’ll get extra.
“Zen Mashi,” means an extra portion of all four free toppings.
“[X topping] Mashi Mashi,” means an extra, extra portion of a topping (we’re talking a huge serving size here). Just like the “[X topping] Mashi” call, whenever you say “Mashi Mashi” after a topping name, you’ll get an extra, extra load. So, “Ninniku Abura Mashi Mashi, Yasai Mashi, Karame” would be an extra, extra portion of garlic and pork back fat, extra portion of veggies, and normal serving of the tare seasoning.
“Zen Mashi Mashi” is the ultimate: an extra, extra serving of all four toppings. If it’s your first time at Jiro, do not order this, even if you are incredibly hungry. Jiro locations have been known to excoriate and ban customers who order “Zen Mashi Mashi” and leave bits in the soup. It's a truly insane amount of food, garlic and fat.
►So, we're pretty damned hungry by now. How about you? To close things out, here's Ramen Beast team member Cody Mizuno's thoughts on how he became hooked on Jiro — and will remain so for life.
Addictiveness. My love for Jiro is the closest thing to a drug addiction I can think of in my life. Like an itchy, crack addict begging for a rock, I’ve made a visit to a Jiro or Jiro-inspired shop weekly for as long as I can remember. I grew up in Fuchu, which just so happened to be home to a Jiro location, so in high school I was probably polishing off bowls there twice a week and most times getting a Dai (large). No way I’m ordering a Dai now, but frequent Jiro visits remain a constant in my life. Even while writing this, literally hours after eating a bowl of Jiro for lunch, I’m wondering when my next hit of Jiro will be.
The Ramen Itself. Might sound like a stupid answer, but I just love the simplicity of the ramen at Jiro. Jiro is the regression of modern ramen’s evolution. While other shops insist on using high-end ingredients and finding refined ways to produce umami components without the use of MSG, Jiro blatantly scoops it in by the spoonful while dumping questionable, raw pork bones into the pot minutes before ladeling a bowl for the next waiting customer. That might be a turn-off to some, but I love how little they care about anything except making totally delicious, cheap bowls of ramen.
The Community. Even though I've eaten Jiro hundreds, if not thousands of times, I'm not ready to call myself a 'Jirorian,' because I don’t think I’ve eaten nearly enough bowls, and secondary menu items to deserve the title yet. But I do frequently chat with these guys in Japanese chat rooms and on forum boards. They get a bad rap (dirty otaku types, dismissive obsessives), but the ones I’ve had the pleasure of chatting with have been some of the nicest people in the ramen community. Yes, they are a bit pompous and look down on non-Jiro fans, but they are more than happy to introduce the Jiro lifestyle to novices. My favorite is a guy who started the “Rental Jiro” service where he volunteers his time to take newbies on introductory Jiro tours. There are so many rules and subtle nuances to Jiro — especially for Japanese people who will pick up on everything — that it is really intimidating for some people. I love this story. Just the fact that such a service exists shows you how deep Jiro culture runs, and it's nice that there’s a guy out there who's willing to help people make their first Jiro bowl a memorable one.
- Edited by Patrick Brzeski, produced collectively by the Ramen Beast team.