Japanese Restaurants Turn to Silent Dining Amid Pandemic
NAGOYA, Japan—Vegetables, vegetables, vegetables. I’m sitting in a cardboard booth at a counter inside a ramen shop here in Nagoya, Japan, repeating my order in my head over and over again. My sister is in the cabin next door – I can only see the top of her head – and I will find out later that she is doing the exact same thing. Small paper signs stuck to the partitions ask customers to tell the chef what toppings we would like (garlic, vegetables, soy sauce or pork gravy) in a loud and clear voice with a good tempo. The kitchen is noisy and the restaurant is full, so it helps that customers can communicate at one time. Like an enthusiastic single-line film extra, I really want to do it right. It’s because that’s the only thing I’ll say in the whole hour I’m spending here.
My sister and I are at Rekishi wo Kizame, a very popular ramen restaurant where patrons are asked to refrain from any gossip. Silence is not a regular aspect of ramen consumption here, but rather is a more recent rule due to COVID-19. Usually the restaurant and the line of future diners waiting outside are noisy and noisy. But Takeshi Kitagawa, the owner of the restaurant, told me that at the start 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 therefore implemented a strict mask mandate, as well as the practice of mokushoku, or silent dinner, to help make things a little safer. (And there is some evidence that silence actually works.)
In addition to specifying your toppings, only one other interaction is allowed. While we are in line, an employee comes to ask us how many people are in our group (only two). Other than that, no one is supposed to speak – and, at least when I was there, that’s exactly what happened. Don’t argue with your lunch friends what kind of ramen you’ll get. No happy exclamations when your food arrives. Don’t ask for the time or see if your friend wants a coffee afterwards. Even the initial order itself requires no speech: like many other restaurants, Rekishi wo Kizame has a vending machine tucked inside, where customers pop in cash and receive a ramen ticket corresponding to their order. .
Inside the restaurant there are several blue and white posters with a face, his eyes closed and a hand raised in front of his mouth in a universal hush gesture. It must be mass produced, as I have seen the same poster in other restaurants and cafes in town with the same policy. I could not find official figures on the number of restaurants in Japan implementing some form of mokushoku, but silent catering seems to have really caught on in early 2021, when a curry restaurant in Fukuoka made headlines. A survey of restaurant patrons in Japan in March found that 22% of diners planned to practice mokushoku regardless of restaurant rules, in an effort to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.
After winding through the queue outside – we spent the time giving each other excited looks over our masks – my sister and I are ushered into the small storefront, to the counter that rings the bell. food. The distinctly home-made dining cubicles we are surrounded by make any conversation with anyone nearly impossible. I sit on a stool between my cardboard partitions and reach out to hang my ramen ticket (an ordinary bowl of homemade noodles from the restaurant) on a clothespin attached to the counter. I look again at the instructions on how to order toppings. Vegetables, vegetables, vegetables!
Aloud rift interrupts my concentration. The three men next to us apparently ordered a separate egg. Or at least that’s what I take from it, since I can’t spy on their orders. I don’t understand what just happened until I see another customer receive a shiny white egg that he starts banging against the counter. Although there is no chatter, the store is still quite noisy. There’s the back beating of cars racing through the busy street outside, the howl of J-rock over the speaker, and the constant roar of several industrial fans. Water trickles over a stove, metal sieves clash against the bowls, the soup splashes. It’s a comfortable and cheerful din that makes me hungry for my ramen even more.
Kitagawa finally asks me what toppings I want, and in a trained cry, I say, “Vegetables and garlic.” Garlic is a last minute decision, and for a split second I’m nervous that I messed up my one and only utterance. I didn’t, and down from the counter comes a bowl filled with cabbage, bean sprouts, and two slices of shiny roast pork. Under the meat rests a nest of thick ramen noodles swimming in black broth. I push the minced garlic into the soup and separate my chopsticks, breathing in the scent of alliums, soy sauce and the rich pork bone broth.
For a while I’m almost apathetic about the restaurant mokushoku Politics. Maybe it doesn’t matter at all that people can’t talk to each other, especially here. Americans can eat ramen as if it were a dinner dish, lingering over their bowl for what seems like hours as the noodles languish and swell. But from a Japanese point of view, ramen is a quick-eaten food, to be swallowed before the heat of the broth causes the noodles to swell and cause them to lose their chewing. Of course, it’s nice to chat with another guest or to notice how tasty the broth is, how good a slice of char siu wobbles on a pile of bean sprouts appears. But sitting in the whirlwind of ambient restaurant noise, the forced silence leaves me with no choice but to inhale my noodles quickly, just as they should be eaten.
Still, more than anything I want to stick my head over the fence and make a brief comment to my sister, marveling with her at this steaming mountain of ramen we’re about to devour. But it’s just me and the ramen in our little cardboard confessional, staring us in the face. I know time is running out, that I have to suck up my noodles before they get heavy with water, but I want to nudge my sister with my knee. I wanna clap my hands and say Itadakimasu!, the traditional Japanese expression meant to open a meal. Above me, the blue hushThe -ing icon looks down blissfully, beaming its reminder of calm.
When I spoke with Kitagawa, he told me that, generally, most clients have an experience not too different from mine: even if they want to talk, they play by his rules and keep quiet. Sometimes he has to make a reminder, but he is careful to word it as a request and not as an order, even if it is just that. Could you help us by calming yourself down? He said most people find it difficult to refuse such a request.
Even though over 60% of Japanese are now fully vaccinated, he doesn’t know when he will end politics, but he can’t wait for his restaurant to be full of laughter and liveliness again. Before the pandemic, boys would visit in groups and compete to see who could eat the most ramen the fastest, resulting in cheers and boos. Yet the politics have not been so bad. Before the pandemic, Rekishi wo Kizame was a ramen shop frequented mainly by men. Porky, garlic and inelegant to eat, his ramen was somewhat difficult to sell for female customers. But the silence and privacy of the cardboard dividers has resulted in an increase in the number of women visiting the store, Kitagawa said. They no longer have to fend off unwanted stares or attempts at conversation and can gobble up their ramen without thinking of decorum or calm.
At the end of our meal, I meet my sister’s gaze over the partition and raise my eyebrows at the door to ask her if she’s finished. She lifts her eyebrows back and we (calmly!) Put our bowls of ramen on the counter, get up and leave. Outside, with faces clearly visible, we get on our bikes and shout across the alley about the food. I see other customers doing the same, ignoring their silence as they arrive at the crosswalk. Two boys wait for the red light to turn green and sum up their meal with nostalgia: Rekishi wo Kizame is always good, they say. We will be back soon. They keep talking about their meal as they cross the street, out of earshot. I guess you can keep people from talking about their food for a while.