On Sunday I was wandering around Shibuya replacing all of the various computer chords and headphones Demolition Derby boy had destroyed during his ill-fated school ski trip when I happened upon a snaking line of Japanese. It appeared to lead to a restaurant although the Japanese characters were unreadable to me. Usually a line leads to good food. Not overly hungry and sans the rest of the family, I decided to join the bunch anticipating a worthy find to add to my Tokyo restaurant tour.
As I entered the line, I noticed it actually led down a narrow staircase and not to the restaurant above. Usually a line at lunchtime means food so I stayed put. At that moment, three young men came up the narrow staircase expressing that whatever was down the hole was “spicy.” HMMM- “spicy” could refer to food or other more sordid details. With this bit of information, I closely examined the crowd. Mixed. Two younger, female teenagers in front of me, a business man behind, but primarily equally distributed between men and women. This ruled out hard-core porn in my mind.
As we got close to the bottom of the stairs, the corridor turned right. The girls in front of me picked up a laminated card. It showed hands pointing and passing forth money and tickets underneath a window. They flipped through nonchalantly and placed it back in the holder. I couldn’t understand the drawings and decided the best approach was a close tail on the girls in front. I’d do whatever they did. Years of study at the feet of the Pink Panther taught me my craft.
We rounded the last corner to the actual entrance. Now I’d know if this was a restaurant, a pachinko parlor, or a house of ill repute. The girls entered with me attached to their backpacks. Just inside the door were two vending machines in a small entry way. I watched as the girls selected food (thank GOD) from the machine, paid, and got a ticket. When it was my turn, I realized the only choice on the menu at this restaurant was a single bowl of ramen. One bowl of ramen. That’s it. Damn this bowl of ramen must be good. The choices in addition to this one bowl of ramen were an egg, extra onions, a side of rice, a side of extra noodles, and two or three other small sides. I pushed several buttons in Japanese until my change came out.
As if this were a Willy Wonka tour, out popped a Japanese gentleman with a clip board. He handed the girls the clip board and they proceeded to circle several items on a paper. I had been observing these girls carefully from my position on one of their backpacks and had decided they were middle of the roaders- somewhat conservative Japanese teenagers- and if I copied exactly what they ordered I would get a safe version of whatever was being served next. It was my turn. He turned to me. The only white person in the place.
“Eigo?” Which means English. I must admit I was surprised to offered an English menu.
“Hai” My favorite word in Japanese. It means “yes” and is pronounced like “Hi.” Americans like to yell it sharply- like the seagulls in “Saving Nemo.” The Japanese find this curious.
This paper allowed me to choose how I would prefer my ramen- spicy, firm, extra onions, with or without meat, fatty broth etc. He handed me the paper. The three of us were ushered in to yet another small room with 4 chairs.
The girls and I sat on chairs facing 2 curtained entrances and a panel with lights all blinking. I assumed this was a seating chart. It was my turn. I had no idea where to go since I couldn’t follow his words. He said “10” in Japanese. A Blessing! I can count to 10- but that’s as high as I can go. I opened the curtain and saw cubicle library seating?
I sat down at my “spot”- by myself. This was obviously not a place for the romantically inclined. I evaluated my position. A table top, partitions between me and the people on either side, water glasses and water tap for self-service, and a small window in front of me where I could see the legs of the kitchen workers. A food peep show.
I had no idea what to do next. I had to cheat off the man next to me. I leaned back and gazed shiftily in his cube. The man had his ticket and sheet at the window. I followed suit. Soon legs appeared, hands snatched up my sheet and disappeared. Then, this appeared. And the curtain slammed shut. Like in prison.
I ate my ramen, by myself, in solitary confinement, in my cubicle, alone, listening to the slurps of the other patrons and the sounds of the mystery kitchen crew. When I left, the line was even longer. And there ends my food peep show. Don’t go for the conversation.
Post-Script: The laminated card explained how to order additional items after the bamboo shutters had been slammed shut since there are not wait staff. The ramen was good -not my favorite in Tokyo- but worthy of a repeat. Obviously a favorite of the locals. I’m currently assimilating a list of my favorite ramen spots and this one will be on the list for those of you planning a trip to Tokyo.