Japan’s Wildly Popular Ramen Isolation Booth Restaurant Has Come to America

What it’s like to to eat a meal out while never interacting with another human being

By Jamie Feldmar

Published on November 1, 2016

A pair of anonymous hands serves a bowl of Ichiran ramen.

I call the Japanese ramen restaurant Ichiran "Egg Hands." It's not that "Ichiran" is particularly hard to say, it's that Egg Hands is what I remember most clearly about the first time I ate there.

Let me paint the scene: It’s 2 a.m. in Tokyo. My friend Leah had just arrived from New York, her circadian rhythms flipped completely upside-down, and she was hungry. I had been in the country for a week but now was operating on Leah time and at zombie-level efficiency. Leah needed food, and Ichiran was open, so out we went. It was late, and the streets were weirdly empty, with snoozing drunken salarymen sprawled on the sidewalks after missing the last train home. We wandered the eerie city for a while and eventually found the subterranean ramen shop.

Ichiran was founded in Fukuoka in 1960, and it only makes one type of ramen: pork-rich tonkotsu. Beyond that, Ichiran is known for what they call “low-interaction dining,” in which diners seat themselves in individual ramen booths, fill out ticket orders, and receive food from anonymous hands through a curtain-covered window. In other words, it’s possible—encouraged, actually—to eat an entire meal there without seeing or speaking to another human being.

I've written about the rituals of food culture Japan, and how these ways of doing things are often developed in the service of creating the best eating and drinking experience possible. At Ichiran, the low-interaction setup is designed partially to enhance the experience—there's a lot of cheerful messaging in their materials about "focusing on your personalized ramen" in your little booth. But it's also to reduce the stigma of being alone.

In Japan, the shame of losing face is a major motivator to behave in certain socially acceptable ways. Ichiran customers, nestled safely in their own ramen booths, get a break from the face-preserving pressures of modern life—safely ensconced in a steamy isolation booth, you are free to act without fear or shame. And if you are an American visiting Japan, Ichiran provides a safe space for you to not know what the hell you are doing without embarrassing yourself.

The formula has proved popular: Ichiran currently operates almost 60 locations in Japan. And now, as of last month, it also runs a restaurant in Brooklyn.

Ichiran's ramen

Back in Tokyo, Leah and I were delirious, hungry, and completely unsure of how to proceed. We punched some random buttons on the machine. After a few failed attempts, we managed to successfully figure out where sit down in neighboring booths, and pulled back the partition dividing us (this is a little-discussed aspect of the Ichiran experience— you can actually share your booth with another person, should you so desire). We filled out our papers, mercifully in English, indicating how rich we'd like our broth and how firm we'd like our noodles. And then, moments later, a pair of disembodied hands emerged from the curtain before us, holding a bowl containing a single egg, in its shell, and a tiny packet of salt.

We stared at the egg. We didn’t know what to do with it. Was it cooked? It felt heavy. The ramen was still MIA. Did they go together, or was this just a random egg, emerging from the abyss, a cryptic message from the universe? We had no one to ask, obviously.

Eventually a bowl of ramen appeared from the same (or were they?) anonymous hands, and we cracked the egg—soft-boiled, it turned out—into the broth, where it bobbed around and eventually sank.

The ramen was good. Not great, but rich and salty in the way you want 2 a.m. ramen to be, with a fiery blob of housemade chile paste to wake us up. We left unsure if we did anything right, but we remember our confusing meal there fondly, and we’ve taken to referring to Ichiran as Egg Hands ever since.

Now, after several stalled attempts, Ichiran has finally expanded its operations to America, landing in a distinctly unglamorous stretch of Brooklyn’s industrial Bushwick neighborhood. Their massive space is part-restaurant, part noodle factory, and will act as commissary if and when the chain is able to expand in New York, as the company hopes it will. A year to the day after our meal in Tokyo, Leah and I decided to pay a visit.

The two seating styles at Ichiran Brooklyn: group tables and isolation booths.

Things were different from the moment we walked in: unlike in Japan, the restaurant here is split into two distinct rooms: one communal dining area with regular tables, the other the same partitioned-booth setup we encountered in Tokyo. There was an actual human host to greet and seat us, even as we entered the solo booth room (which also has an electronic seating chart, but it’s just for looks), and a cheerful cashier stationed near the door. The ramen booths themselves were wider and airier, and though the bamboo curtain remained, a waiter bent down to talk to me at one point, revealing his entire smiling face.

Some spects remained the same, however: the menu is virtually identical, and you still fill out a little paper ticket to customize your bowl. Waiters are summoned with a call button, and food is delivered through the curtain. The ramen itself looked and tasted almost the same as it did in Tokyo—if anything, it actually tasted better in Brooklyn. But there was one glaring difference that Leah and I could not move past: no egg hands.

“We haven’t found the right chicken to lay the right egg,” said our waiter, peeking out from beneath the curtain. “We actually have a guy in Japan dedicated specifically to finding eggs, and he’s been running tests for three months. We can’t find the perfect ones just yet. It’s something we’re working on.”

On our way out, we struck up a conversation with the manager (something that would literally never happen at Ichiran in Japan), a native New Yorker who trained at Ichiran’s headquarters in Fukuoka. We told her about our night in Tokyo and our memory of the mysterious egg hands. She laughed at us. “The egg is actually a palate cleanser. You’re supposed to eat it with the salt before the ramen arrives,” she said. We stared at her, dumbstruck. “Right now we’re not sure if we’re going to be able to get Americans to crack their own egg,” she continued. “But we hope to have them here soon.”

As a foreigner in Japan, part of the pleasure of Ichiran is in not knowing what you're doing, then doing it anyway. Even as you're bumbling around, it's okay, because Ichiran is designed as a safe space to be alone, and what you do when you're alone can't be that embarrassing. But in Brooklyn, low-interaction dining gives way to medium-interaction dining—a necessary adjustment to suit the American audience, maybe, but one that feels inherently at odds with the very thing that made Ichiran so special and weird to begin with.

I don’t know if I’ll be back to the Brooklyn Egg Hands—it feels a little too interpersonal for me. I think I’ll have to wait until they find the right chickens, or I’ll bring my own egg.

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