The concept of queuing for a restaurant is bitterly divisive. Some people don’t mind lining up for hours (see Hong Kong dim sum restaurant Tim Ho Wan‘s opening in Sydney earlier this year) just to eat, while others will scoff at the idea. In Japan, if you want to rub shoulders with locals and eat at some of the best damn places on the planet, lining up is part of the package.
Kagari in Tokyo’s famous Ginza district has built up a loyal following in recent years. I had just landed on a red eye flight from Hong Kong and already smashed a sushi set nearby at Daiwa Sushi at Tsukiji fish markets in the morning, and had a couple of hours to kill before meeting my friends.
”Why the hell not? I’m here to eat, right?” I thought to myself.
So I arrived at Kagari at about 10.30am, half an hour before opening and there was already five salarymen waiting in line, heads down on their smartphones. How do they even have time in the day to do this?
Ignore the deceptive ”Soba” sign hanging outside the restaurant. It is all about the ramen here. Kagari seemed a place that did not quite belong amongst the glitz and glamour of Ginza, tucked in amongst the designer shops in an indistinct alleyway. There’s a row of vending machines at the entrance of the restaurant, with pedestrians stopping by to buy drinks, looking on at the line with interest and perhaps bemusement.
Finally at 11am, the first eight customers – all men – file into the restaurant in silence.
I had done my research based on a review in the Japan Times. I was ready to order in stuttering Japanese, but no fear, they also have an English menu.
There are two types of broth here: tori-paitan (chicken) and niboshi-shoyu (sardine-based broth), which each come with base ingredients and then you can add other toppings, as you see fit. An egg is a must.
The discipline of Japanese culture in all facets of society is fascinating – here we were, eight strangers sitting at a ramen-ya, firing off our orders one-by-one while the two chefs calmly tended to noodles, broth and more.
Then the ramen bowls began to come out. And the slurping began. A tip for people who go to Japan – work on your slurping game. You don’t want to be THAT person…which I was.
Based on different reviews and blog posts, the toppings served on the day should probably depend on what’s in season. This blogger was served asparagus and baby corn, while the Japan Times got the same bamboo shoot but also a sprig of daikon sprouts. I wish I had been served what Dining Without Borders was dished up – mushrooms and salmon roe.
When it comes to ramen, I am a tonkotsu man, through and through. Think Ryo’s in Sydney, or Tamashi and Ramen Jo in Hong Kong for some legit tonkotsu porn. So this was unchartered territory. The chicken broth at Kagari is delightfully rich and creamy, but eats much lighter than a tonkotsu broth. It smacks of umami, with each ladle of soup more addictive than the last. It’s a wistful reminder of a chicken soup in winter, with dashes of Japanese brilliance. The chicken is succulent and aromatic, with three near identical slices of poultry that are amplified by the incredible broth. The bamboo was also unlike anything I’ve had before and much better than the usual canned stuff.
Following my earlier meal at Tsukiji, I had slowed down somewhat. One-by-one, the locals seated before me started to leave. I finally polish off my bowl and get up to leave, as all the three staff bow their heads in thanks and appreciation. Stepping outside, the line has stretched down the alley onto the main street and snaked around the corner. So get in early, or be prepared to wait.