How Do Ramen Shops Work? (How Do I Not Look Too Foolish?)
A typical ramen shop will be a small room on a single floor, perhaps 15’ x 30’, with an L-shaped counter. Typically two employees working behind the counter. Large cauldrons of soup boiling furiously and separate pots for noodles and sometimes veggies. Some ramen shops will have tables but most are just counters with stools. There will be either a cash register or a ticket machine somewhere in the room. Ramen shops on major streets, in big malls and near train stations are generally open from late morning until 11 PM or midnight. Many ramen shops that are not on main drags (and some that are) are open in two phases: lunch and dinner. The lunch hours might be from 11:00 AM-2:00 PM, and then they reopen for dinner from 5:00 PM-11:00 PM. Most ramen shops are also closed one day a week, and that could be any day of the week. Don’t just assume that any ramen shop is always open, use the links elsewhere on this site.
Keep in mind that for shops such as Ramen Jiro, people will frequently start lining up before the doors open. The sign for “open for business” looks like this: 営業中. For places that have lines outside, and therefore presumably there is no dawdling inside, what I have found is that the average wait is 3-5 minutes per person that you see on line. Remember that in some places the line starts inside the store and then goes outside.
If the place has a menu outside, or pictures, now is the time to look at them. Many tourists think all restaurants in Japan have plastic models of the food in the window. However very few “real” ramen shops have these plastic models. Much more frequently they will have a signboard on the ground outside with pictures of the different ramen dishes.
Many ramen shops are small. Getting up and sitting down repeatedly is bad form. Since most places are counter-only, if you are a party of two, there is a chance you will not be able to sit together. Most places will not want you to wait until two adjacent seats are open, and one person sitting in-between two other open seats will not always move over to let two people sit down together. He or she may not realize that you are two people or even pay any attention to you at all.
Assume that no one but you will speak English – yes it is true that most Japanese study English in high school, the polite ones will try their English if they have no choice but it frequently does not go well. Ramen shops are generally “eat-and-get-out-type-places”.
Many ramen shops will serve you a glass of water for free, and if they have drinks such as tea, beer, soda or sake then you can order them. If a shop does not sell tea then you can bring your own (generally). Some shops will not refill your water glass, instead there will be a water dispenser machine somewhere in the room and you are expected to refill your glass yourself. Or there may be pitchers on the counter near each seat. Tissues are also a good thing to bring as ramen shops generally do not provide napkins, and they may not even provide tissues. Paper is relatively cheap in Japan. Also understand that many ramen shops may not have bathrooms, and if they do, they may not be a bathroom that you want to use.
Before you sit down (preferably before you even enter), understand how to order and pay. If you see a ticket machine, that’s how you do both. How to work the ticket machine? – see the Jiro link, the instructions will largely be the same for all ramen shops. If you purchased a ticket when you came in, then put it on the raised counter in front of you or hand it to the shop staff who come over. For ramen shops other than Jiro, this is typically the time when you will be asked questions about the broth (what flavor), noodles (how well-done).
Once you see (or are assigned to) a seat, figure out where to put any belongings you have. Most ramen counters have shelves down below, around knee level, where you can put small bags. Frequently you will find manga magazines and sometimes pornography there. Feel free to read them if you like. Don’t put your stuff somewhere where other people can trip over it or the guy next to you will step on it as he exits. The stools are sometimes very close together, and are also sometimes bolted to the floor, so you may not have a lot of room. Now that you have sat down, watch what others do when they order and when they leave. Watch other patrons when they leave to see if the shop expects customers to put their bowls on the raised counter when they leave. (This information will also typically be on a sign in Japanese on the counter itself.) If there is a wet washcloth on the raised counter, you should use it to wipe the counter when you go.
If a ramen shop has menus, they will typically tell you what toppings come with the ramen. Unfortunately, for shops that don't have menus, there is no "standard set of toppings" that all ramen comes with. Pork, menma, beansprouts are all common, but there's no guarantee that you will or will not get a particular item in your ramen. Look on the menu for a section "Toppings" (トッピングス) and then use the Japanese words in the Glossary section above to see what's there. Sometimes you will have to buy the toppings at the machine you bought the ramen ticket from. I.e. if you wanted ramen with extra menma, you would buy one ramen ticket and one menma ticket.
To slurp or not to slurp, I have no opinion. Use Google. Almost every ramen shop I've been to has had people slurping in it, and similarly almost every ramen shop has had people in it who don't slurp. Listen to others while you are waiting, if in doubt don't do it. No one will be offended. Don't blow your nose in the shop, just like any other restaurant. Most are no smoking too.
One additional note: people with food allergies or dietary restrictions (pork, MSG, fish, dairy, wheat flour, nuts, etc.) need to be careful in ramen shops. Although awareness of food allergies is increasing in Japan, ramen shop workers will typically speak little to no English and will not really understand food allergies all that well, nor will they have the time or desire to be educated on-the-spot. They will frequently be unable to tell you all the ingredients that go into their ramen, nor will they typically adjust the recipe or the ingredients, even if you have a note in Japanese or a Japanese speaker with you, telling them about your allergy. It's unfortunate but that's the way it is.
When you leave, a kind "gochiso sama!" (I'm a satisfied customer!) would be appreciated, assuming you enjoyed it. "Arigatou" (Thank you) is also a good thing to say.