Published by Sushi on Friday, March 21, 2008 at 11:37 PM.
Today I had the 極新味 (Kiwami Shin Aji) Ramen (pictured above) at 一風堂 (Ippudo) which cost 1300 yen (roughly US$13).
If that doesn't sound expensive for ramen, it is. A $13 ramen is similar to a $13 burger, except ramen is never sold in hotel restaurants or boutique-y cafes. Ramen is almost exclusively sold in ramen restaurants, and the normal cost is between $5 and $7.
If that sounds too expensive for ramen, it isn't, and you might be eating too much instant noodles.
When I got to the restaurant, as is always the case during lunch time, there was a line. No problem; there was ample seating outside and electric heaters to keep customers warm. As soon as I arrived, a waitress came outside, greeted me, and asked me how many in my party. This made me comfortable in knowing that I'm not being forgotten and my place in line was set. The wait was short, about ten minutes (ramen in Japan is a fast, high turnaround food like sandwiches in the US).
The decor of the restaurant was tastefully done in warm wood and bamboo, modern but not over the top. Jazz was the BGM, slightly better than the normal elevator music and much better than the slightly out of tune TV blaring in the corner. There was a place where you can put your coat and bags, rare for a ramen restaurant in Japan (where space is a premium).
The Kiwami Shin Aji Ramen is their flagship ramen, and only 50 are available everyday. The more common red and white ramen cost around $8, which is still pricey for ramen. When I ordered the ramen, they brought out the place setting with the oversized spoon and an information pamphlet. The pamphlet had instructions on how to eat the ramen deliciously, where they got all the ingredients, and why they made some of the design choices. As I was combing through the pamphlet, the ramen arrived.
Couple minutes later, as I was sipping the noodles and broth, they brought out the rice and nube, which is a gelatinous cube of flavor that can be added to the broth. The delay felt peculiar at first, but in retrospect it makes sense. No one starts with the rice first, and if they brought it out with the ramen, it will go cold before most people touch it. As for the nube, they state explicitly in the pamphlet that they want you to try the ramen with and without the nube.
So how did it taste? Different. It was definitely unlike most other ramen I've had in Japan. It tasted good, but it wasn't spectacular. Is it worth trying? Yes. Is it worth $13? Probably not.
But one thing Ippudo did have down was the ramen experience. From the moment I stepped in the restaurant to the moment I stepped out, everything was well designed. They grok that they aren't just selling ramen, they're selling the ramen experience. You eat with your mouth, your eyes, and your mind. That's why your grandma's apple pie tastes better than the one you can get at IHOP. How good food tastes is not only a function of the food itself, but the atmosphere and the service.
Apple understands that they are selling a personal computer experience. That's why their computer doesn't come bundled with crapware and in fourteen separate hard to open boxes. They don't over segment the market and offer eighteen different products confusing potential customers.
Companies that can design experiences will survive over the companies that design products. That's why Ippudo can charge $13 for a bowl of ramen and Apple can make a profit in a slim margin consumer electronics industry.
User experience design, it's the hot topic now. What's next?