Tokyo’s Long Lines Lead to Magic (and Life-Changing Ramen)

On an impromptu trip to Tokyo, without a single reservation in hand, food writer Helen Rosner explores the Japanese art of standing in line.

Tokyo’s Long Lines Lead to Magic (and Life-Changing Ramen)

Good things come to those who wait . . . in line in Tokyo.

Illustration by Andrew Joyce

“I realized this morning,” said my friend Leah, “that this is who I am, here in Tokyo. I am a person who waits.” We were, at that moment, 23rd and 24th in line at Fuunji Ramen, surrounded front and back by locals and tourists, part of a neat queue that snaked out the restaurant’s entrance to the curb, where it broke for the tarmac only to pick up again in the grassy park across the street. Every few minutes, the noren curtain hanging in front of the door would twitch, discharging bodies into the Tokyo dusk, and we would steadily shuffle forward. To pass the time in this line, Leah was telling me about another: her wait the previous morning at Sushi Dai, the legendary morning omakase restaurant and sushi bar at the Tsukiji fish market, where even showing up at 3 a.m. may not be enough lead time to guarantee a first-round seat when the restaurant opens for breakfast at 5:00.

I am not a person who likes to wait for things. At home in New York, if a friend suggests a meal at one of those tremendously cool restaurants that doesn’t take reservations, I’ll agree only if we eat geriatrically early or owlishly late. I politely reject any brunch plans that involve putting our names on a list and then hovering on the sidewalk for two hours. I’ve never queued up for a cupcake or a cronut. And it’s not just food. At amusement parks, I always pay extra to access fast-pass lines. Once, in Barcelona, facing down a 50-minute rope-and-stanchioned time sink to buy tickets to enter the Sagrada Família basilica, I whipped out my phone and bought them online, ignoring the financial ravages of data roaming. It’s impatience, I suppose, but also a sort of brutal rationality: On one hand, there’s the value of my time, and on the other, there’s the value of whatever’s at the end of the line. The latter never really seemed worth that much of the former.

Leah and I were at Fuunji to eat tsukemen, the specialty of the tiny restaurant. The place is presided over by a wiry ramen master rocking a blond, boy-band coif, who dances around behind the counter, boiling and draining and plating his food with the percussive flamboyance of a flair bartender. Tsukemen is a type of ramen in which the cold, cooked noodles are served separately, on a plate, with a bowl of broth on the side—a dish meant to be eaten with precision, in deliberately constructed bites of noodles dipped in the broth, then slurped up.

Queuing is a big deal in Japan, a physical exercise of the principles of discipline and etiquette that are drilled into every schoolchild and reinforced for every adult.

When, at last, we were waved over to a pair of seats, we bent hungrily over our bowls, slurping and semi-eavesdropping on the still-waiting people pressed into the narrow space behind us. “This guy is supposed to be the real deal,” an American man said to his wife. A knot of Australian bros on a stag weekend read snippets of TripAdvisor reviews out loud to one another to psych themselves up: “We waited outside for 30 to 40 minutes in the rain in the early phase of a typhoon in order to eat at Fuunji. Then, we spent 10 more minutes hovering over diners inside, waiting for them to surrender their stools.” After our own tsukemen experience, another American in line caught my eye as we were leaving: “Is it worth it?” I didn’t answer, not really knowing how. Sure, it was great, but was it an-hour-of-my-life great? At least we hadn’t waited in the rain.

When I ate at Fuunji, I’d been in town for barely 24 hours, most of them spent disoriented and cranky and jet-lagged. I’m a plan-ahead kind of traveler, Tokyo is a plan-ahead kind of city, and despite my guesses and pleading, my editor refused to break the rules and give me any sort of early heads-up on where she was sending me. The whole point of this assignment is not to plan ahead. So I had one day’s notice that I was being sent to Tokyo, a day marked by feverish crowd-sourcing of tips and recommendations—and virtually every restaurant, every bar, every museum and tour that my friends sent my way required either a two-month lead time or a two-hour wait in line.

Queuing is a big deal in Japan, a physical exercise of the principles of discipline and etiquette that are drilled into every schoolchild and reinforced for every adult. People line up, without apparent impatience, not only at ramen restaurants and store cash registers, but to board subway trains, nab a taxi at a stand, and enter elevators. After the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake—an event so tectonically powerful that it shifted the entire main island of Japan eight feet eastward and spat up a towering tsunami that ravaged the country’s northeast—the world watched in awe as millions of affected Japanese refrained almost entirely from looting, and instead waited in calm, orderly lines to receive supplies, sometimes for 12 hours or more. Next to that, how can my aversion to a queue mean anything at all? I realized that⎯like Leah, like everyone else in Tokyo—like it or not, I was going to have to become a person who waits.

In the dim light of sunrise, I stood for an hour to get sushi at a tiny Tsukiji restaurant whose name I couldn’t figure out. On the top floor of a department store, I waited for a table for one to open up at a hushed, jam-packed tonkatsu restaurant. I waited for ramen—for a lot of ramen, and especially for one particular bowl, at Ginza Kagari, a tiny counter in the labyrinth of the Ginza subway station. There, I spent an hour behind a slow-moving line of fewer than a dozen people, only to be told politely by a porter that the restaurant would run out of broth with the patron before me. I came back even earlier the next day and waited again, for nearly two hours this time, mostly standing still, occasionally shuffling forward. I watched harried commuters power-walk by, I listened to the murmured Japanese flirtations of the young couple in front of me, I read a few chapters of a novel on my phone, until at last I made it inside.

At the end of all those waits was, invariably, magnificence: The most jewel-like sashimi. The lightest pork cutlets. The richest, deepest, most exquisite ramen broth I’ve ever had.

There’s a phrase in Japanese for places like this⎯gyouretsu no dekiru mise: “restaurants that have very long lines.” The lines are often self-fulfilling prophecies: The wait isn’t part of the cost, as I’d always considered it; to a Japanese person, it’s part of the value. When presented with two vendors selling effectively identical products, the Japanese choose whichever one has the longer line in front of it. Making it through a long line is a praiseworthy feat of endurance, and long queues for one thing or another are always in the news. Some retailers even try to game the system, hiring line-wait professionals to pose as sincerely dedicated consumers, equal parts priming the pump and angling for headlines. These faux queuers also have a Japanese term to describe them⎯sakura, the word for “cherry blossoms.” They’re adornment, they make things look good, and they really bring in the crowds.


Illustration by Andrew Joyce

I was in Tokyo for the very end of actual sakura season, when the city’s abundant cherry trees bedeck the streets with a riot of pink. In anticipation, I’d packed a Canon A-1, a petite brick of a camera from the late ’70s that shoots 35mm film and runs about 50 bucks at a used camera store. I hadn’t photographed that way in years, and as I committed myself ever more deeply to my new practice of patience, shooting on film became a pleasing part of it. A 40-year-old camera has no LCD screen with instant preview—I couldn’t know which vignettes of Tokyo I was successfully capturing, and which would be preserved only in memory. Unlike enjoying the seemingly infinite capacity of a DSLR with a 128-gigabyte memory card, when you shoot film, you can only shoot so much. Each frame is precious, which means you need to make it worth it. You need to wait for the shot.

That’s what I was doing when the strangest, most wondrous, most ineffably Tokyo part of my time there happened. I was sitting on the stone parapet of a bridge over a canal in Nakameguro, a crushingly lovely neighborhood on Tokyo’s southwest side, waiting for the sun to hit a cherry tree. Sakura season was running a week or so ahead of schedule, and this was one of the only trees in the city still in bloom. It was almost surreally pink, so voluptuously top-heavy with blossoms it looked about to tumble over. The tree was surrounded by gawkers: selfie-taking platoons of teenagers, designer-decked Instagram couples taking turns posing for elaborately serious portraits, and one or two visitors who, like me, had fled the city’s packed tourist epicenters for a little bit of quiet. I would be leaving Tokyo the next day, and I was on my last roll of film.

Every great city is magical, a unique alchemy of climate and culture, of the past and the future. But in Tokyo I found a magic of extremes.

When I first rounded a corner and saw the tree, it was darkened by the early-afternoon shadow of a nearby office building. I decided to wait. And then—well, the only way to explain it is to say that a wizard appeared. Tall, rail thin, European featured, with a long gray beard and white hair flowing halfway down his back, wearing a floor-length leather robe. No, a coat—and an acoustic guitar case? And . . . a film crew? A knot of white men, one carrying a boom mic, one with a massive video camera hefted on his shoulder, one worriedly holding a clipboard. There was a brief ripple of interest among the selfie takers, but after a moment they all returned to contemplating the tree. The wizard stopped directly in front of the tree, and the cameraman fiddled with his lenses to get the right shot. The sound guy, waiting for his cue, leaned against the bridge next to me.

“Who is that?” I asked him, assuming he would understand English.

“That,” he said, in a mildly conspiratorial tone, “is Björn Andrésen. He’s very famous here.” We both turned our heads to look at the crowd of selfie takers and their utter lack of interest in Björn Andrésen.

“He’s also famous in Sweden,” he added.

Andrésen, my phone informed me a few moments later, is a musician and actor, most famous for, as a young teenager, playing the ethereally beautiful Tadzio in Luchino Visconti’s exquisite and absurd 1971 film Death in Venice, which I have seen probably half a dozen times. Hidden behind his beard and his age, Andrésen showed not a trace of his adolescent self, a being so classically luminous he was tapped to play the human embodiment of beauty as a moral virtue. As a young man, Andrésen came to resent being rewarded for his beauty, and rebelled against a conventional Hollywood path. I suppose outgrowing your old self is also a sort of waiting, just a longer one than usual. Andrésen and the documentary crew had arrived just as the tree was fully bathed in sunlight, and even though I’d been waiting to photograph the tree, I spent the last of my frames trying to capture these people standing in front of it.

Tokyo is a magical place. I knew this going in, even though I’d never been there before. Every great city is magical, a unique alchemy of climate and culture, of the past and the future. But in Tokyo I found a magic of extremes. It’s a fast, crowded, chaotic place, surging and staccato—until it’s not. You’ll turn a corner onto a side street, or the minute hand on your watch will tick over the hour, and suddenly all that urgent density falls away. The city is a pattern of movement and stillness, sounds and silences.

What I found, as I let myself relax into being a person who waits, is that even if you’re standing near roaring traffic—or in a subway station during the crush of rush hour, or in the riot of a department store—inside the act of waiting, there’s a form of quiet. As my days in Tokyo passed by, I felt myself undergo an almost physical change: In the scurrying chaos of a dense megacity, my restlessness retreated, my breath slowed. I could feel something else emerging inside me, a blanket unrolling over a rumpled bed, a calmness that was neither contentment nor boredom. Patience was its own emotion.

When I got home, I took my Ziploc bag of tightly wound rolls of film to one of the few remaining places in New York that processes them.

“We’ll call you when it’s ready,” shrugged the man behind the counter, when I asked how long it would take. “Can’t go any faster than it goes. You’ll just have to wait.”

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