Recently our program director, Ed Thanhouser, spent nearly two weeks heading up and down Japan’s main island of Honshu meeting with contacts, exploring new locations, and firming up details for our 2024 Exploration program in Japan! Ed lived in Japan for eight years and he always enjoys returning, especially for Putney programming research trips! Here is his field report brimming with “umami.”

The first thing on my mind whenever I hit Tokyo is always: “LET’S EAT!”

Thankfully, Japan’s infamous “omote-nashi” hospitality was as warm as ever, and restaurants shouted their familiar “IRASHHHYaiiiiii” welcoming me to eat. Sitting down to a bowl of ramen was just as comforting as I remembered, and an explosion of worldwide interest in ramen has lead to some really exciting new trends that I was fortunate enough to try!

Soy-based, miso-based, Tonkotsu, “dry” or “white,” chicken or pork: in Japan, you will find as many different types of ramen as there are ramen shops. One really hot trend, I noticed, isつけ麵 (Tsuke-men) – a style where you get your soup and noodles separately, then dip as you eat. I love it because it concentrates broths and flavors, and lets you take an “as you like it” approach to how “saucy” your noodles are. It’s especially great for hotter months as it can be served either hot or cold, and the weather was still quite warm, especially for October! Several tsuke-men specialty shops showed me just how unique and varied takes on this style are, as no two were really alike. Some were thick and creamy like pasta, sticking beautifully to noodles and toppings, while others were silky, lighter affairs. I gulped them all down with equal gusto.

Indulging the huge breadth of ramen and other culinary delights is a big part of our 2024 Japan programs, so it was with great pleasure that I met a very friendly fellow who is going to partner with us in 2024 to bring our students in Tokyo on a “Ramen Tour” to get an insider’s look on all the nuance of Japan’s most famous noodles. He explained to me that each group gets “mini-bowls” at each shop that he sets up in advance, so that participants taste a huge array without filling up too early. This means that between three shops you might try as many as 12 different styles of ramen!
What’s more, he explained, both the ramen-curious and the deeply ramen-invested will be glad to get some context on so many different flavors, presentations, styles, and ingredients. Exploration Japan groups and Pre-College Tokyo Cuisine and Culture groups will get more than just delicious noodles: these “Ramen Tours” will include slides, videos, and English explanations that go in-depth about both the roots of ramen in ancient China and its subsequent transformation in Japan, as well as the modern-day interpretations. As we swapped stories on our favorite bowls, I couldn’t help but ask for a recommendation near my hotel’s Gotanda neighborhood. He steered me to 麺屋SIGN, which I tried later that night.

In an unassuming concrete nook, I grabbed my ticket from the machine and passed it to the team across the counter, who nodded, hunching over steaming pots. It was a clear, classic, soy forward bowl. I am usually predisposed to western-Japan’s style of thick, creamy tonkotsu, but this was as good a Tokyo-style ramen as I’ve ever had. Beneath the light broth is that ‘strong’ salty flavor that keeps you coming back for one more sip, again and again. Clear and light, with a perfect dribbling of chili oil, the flavors were delicate and the noodles were “just-so” chewy. What a win!

As I made my way from Tokyo to Kanazawa, then to Kyoto, and on to Osaka and northern Hyogo, I sampled a rainbow of ramen in between meetings with our providers, hotels, and contacts. From the thick, creamy white “pai-tan” chicken based bowls of western Japan to spicy, vivid red “dan-dan men,” “chu-ka soba,” and other ramen-adjacent noodles that are en-vogue in cities like Kyoto and Osaka, each new bowl was full of wonderful excitements. I can’t wait for our students to go on Tokyo ramen tours and compare styles throughout the country on a traveling trip! For noodle lovers like me, this is as good as it gets!

Click the links to learn more about our Exploration Japan and Pre-College Tokyo programs.