Helping ourselves to better service

Helping ourselves to better service

One of the most famous ramen chains in Japan, Ichiran, produces some of the richest and tastiest pork bone soup in the country.

But that's only my second-favourite thing about it. My favourite thing is that at Ichiran, you can enjoy an entire meal without ever having to speak to another human being.

This comes in very handy if, like me, you speak Japanese about as well as a cat speaks French. Or if, like some Japanese people, you just don't feel like talking to anyone that day.

Even before you step into Ichiran, you order and pay for your noodles - about $10 - at a ticket machine outside the door.

Inside the restaurant, you find a seat by consulting a screen that shows which places are occupied. All the seats are individual booths around a counter, separated from one another by screens and curtains and from the counter by a sliding panel.

Once you settle in, you fill in a form specifying your ramen preferences in detail, from the thickness of the soup to the springiness of the noodles and the variety of the toppings.

Then you slide the form under the panel in front of you, wait five minutes, and voila - a pair of hands delivers a steaming bowl of ramen from behind the panel.

Ichiran is just one of the many selfservice restaurants I now visit frequently in Tokyo. Most have a similar ticketing machine system: At fast-food restaurants, the software lets you choose set meals, upsize them and change the side dishes, while at some bars, you order beer and snacks from the machines, take the tickets to the counter, and then go back to collect the food from the counter when it's ready.

All the machines accept cash and some even allow you to pay with stored-value transport cards, the Japanese equivalent of an EZ-link card.

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