Japan’s restaurants are turning to silent pandemic dining
NAGOYA, Japan—Vegetables, veggies, veggies. I’m sitting in a cardboard booth at a counter in a ramen shop and keep trying my order in my head. My sister is in the next cubicle – I can only see the top of her head – and I’ll find out later that she’s doing the exact same thing. Small paper signs on the partition walls ask us customers to tell the cook in a loud, clear voice and at a good pace which toppings we would like (garlic, vegetables, soy sauce or roast pork). The kitchen is noisy and the restaurant is full so it helps if guests can communicate efficiently all at once. Like an avid movie extra with a single line, I Yes, really want to do it right. Because that’s the only thing I’m going to say during the entire hour I’m here.
My sister and I are at Rekishi wo Kizame, a hugely popular ramen restaurant where customers are asked to basically stop babbling. Silence is not a regular aspect of eating ramen here, but a newer rule due to COVID-19. Usually both the restaurant and the queue of future guests waiting outside are loud and noisy. But Takeshi Kitagawa, the owner of the restaurant, told me that at the beginning of the pandemic, the restaurant received several complaints from people in the neighborhood that the line was a potential place for people to congregate and spread the coronavirus. Kitagawa introduced a strict mask mandate, as well as the practice of mokushoku, or still food to make things a little safer. (And there is evidence that silence actually works.)
In addition to specifying your toppings, only one other interaction is allowed. While we are standing in line, a member of staff comes and asks us how many people are in our group (only two). No one else is supposed to speak – and at least when I was there, that’s exactly what happened. Don’t consult your lunchtime colleagues about what type of ramen you will be getting. No happy exclamations when your meal arrives. No more asking for the time or looking to see if your friend would like to have coffee afterwards. Even the first order itself does not need to be discussed: Like many other restaurants, Rekishi wo Kizame has a machine inside, into which customers can insert cash and receive a ramen ticket corresponding to their order.
There are several in the restaurant blue and white posters with face, eyes closed and one hand over his mouth in one universal shh Gesture. It has to be mass produced because I’ve seen the same poster in other restaurants and cafes in town with the same politics. I couldn’t find any official figures on how many restaurants in Japan are implementing some form of mokushoku, but silent dining seems to have caught on early on 2021when a curry restaurant made headlines in Fukuoka. A poll in March of restaurant customers in Japan found that 22 percent of diners planned to practice mokushoku regardless of the restaurant rules to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
After meandering through the queue outside – we spent the time looking excitedly over our masks – my sister and I are shown into the little shop, to the counter ringing in the kitchen. The decidedly homemade dining stalls we’re locked in make it practically impossible to talk to anyone. I sit on a stool between my cardboard walls and reach over to attach my ramen ticket (a normal bowl of the restaurant’s house noodles) to a clothespin on the counter. I’ll take another look at the instructions for ordering toppings. Vegetables, vegetables, vegetables!
According to Crack interrupts my concentration. The three men next to us apparently ordered an egg on the side. At least that’s what I infer because I can’t overhear their orders. I only understand what has just happened when I see another customer receive a shiny, white egg that they hit against the counter. Although there is no chatter, the place still feels pretty noisy. There’s the sound of cars whizzing down the busy street outside, the roar of J-Rock from the speakers, and the constant whirring of several industry fans. Water bubbling on a stove; Metal sieves clink against bowls; Soup splashes. It’s a pleasant, happy noise that makes me even hungrier for my ramen.
Kitagawa finally asks me which toppings I want, and with a practiced shout I say, “Vegetables and garlic”. The garlic is a last minute decision, and for a split second I’m nervous that I butchered my only comment. I didn’t, and a bowl of cabbage, bean sprouts, and two glistening roast pork comes down over the counter. Under the meat rests a nest of thickly sliced ramen noodles that float in a dark broth. I squeeze the chopped garlic into the soup and break my chopsticks, inhaling the scent of allium, soy sauce and rich pork bone broth.
For a moment I’m almost apathetic about the restaurant mokushoku Politics. Or maybe it doesn’t matter that people can’t talk to each other – especially here. Americans may eat ramen like a dinner party meal, seemingly lingering over their bowl for hours while the noodles languish and puff up. But from a Japanese perspective, ramen is a food to eat quickly before the heat of the broth causes the noodles to swell and lose their chewability. Sure, it’s nice to chat with another diner or to notice how hearty the broth is, how impressive a platter char siu appears teetering on a pile of bean sprouts. But sitting in the whirlwind of restaurant noise, the enforced silence leaves me with no choice but to quickly inhale my noodles, exactly as they should be eaten.
Nevertheless, I would like to stick my head over the barrier and make a brief remark to my sister in order to marvel at this steaming ramenberg with her, which we are about to devour. But there’s just me and the ramen in our little cardboard confessional, staring each other in the face. I know the clock is ticking, that I have to vacuum my noodles before they get heavy with water, but I want to poke my sister with my knee. I want to clap my hands and say Itadakimasu!, the traditional Japanese expression means to open a meal. The blue above me shh-ing symbol looks down blissfully and exudes its memory of the silence.
When I spoke to Kitagawa, he said that in general most clients have a similar experience to me: even when they want to speak, they respect his rules and keep quiet. Sometimes he has to hand out a reminder, but he makes sure to phrase it as a request rather than an order – even if it really is just that. Could you help us by calming down? He said that most people have a hard time rejecting such a request.
Even though more than 60 percent of the people in Japan are now fully vaccinated, he isn’t sure when he’ll end politics, but he can’t wait for his restaurant to be full of laughter and liveliness again. Before the pandemic, boys visited in groups and competed to see who could eat the most ramen fastest, which sparked cheers and boos. Still, the politics weren’t all bad. Before the pandemic, Rekishi wo Kizame was a ramen shop that was mostly visited by men. Porky, garlic-like, and inelegant to eat, his ramen were a little difficult to sell to female customers. But the quiet and privacy of the cardboard dividers has led to an increase in the number of women visiting the store, Kitagawa said. You no longer have to fend off unwanted glances or attempts to talk and can devour your ramen without a thought of decency or serenity.
At the end of our meal, I caught my sister’s gaze over the partition and wiggled my eyebrows toward the door to ask if she was done. She wiggles her eyebrows and we put our ramen bowls (quietly!) On the counter, get up and leave. Outside we swing on our bikes with easily visible faces and call to each other across the alley after dinner. I see other guests doing the same thing and shaking off their silence as they come to the zebra crossing. A couple of guys are waiting for the red light to turn green and wistfully summarize their meal: Rekishi where Kizame is always good, They say. We’ll be back soon. They keep talking about their food as they cross the street and walk out of earshot. I think you can stop people from talking about their food for a limited amount of time.
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