Sapporo Ichiban, Sun Noodle, Ichiran: My Life in 3 Packaged Ramens

What’s in a bowl of noodles? More than meets the eye, according to this semi-fictitious report by a ramen psychic who visits HONOLULU Magazine’s creative director.

Where’d it all go wrong? How did I find myself in this predicament? Living on my own in a studio apartment, solo again for the first time in years. I needed answers. I just never thought those answers would come from a ramen psychic. You may think I’m crazy, that there’s no such thing, but if psychics can read tea leaves, crystal balls, palms, tarot cards, stars and the coffee grounds in your morning cup, then they can read ramen—instant ramen, to be precise.


I was working at home and decided to break for lunch. My refrigerator was empty save for condiments, a few eggs and a vegan quiche I was not in the mood for. In the pantry was a packet of Sapporo Ichiban instant tonkotsu ramen; in the cupboard a single melamine bowl. My green onion plant outside offered a lone vibrant stalk. So I clipped it.


I chopped the stalk, boiled water in two pots, lowered an egg into one and the dehydrated noodles in the other. The bowl I filled with water and ice cubes. After three minutes I placed the egg into the ice bath and stirred the powdered ramen soup packet into the noodles. After another minute I peeled the egg and sliced it in half, revealing a bright pop of orange, silken yolk. I poured the ice out of my bowl, transferred into it noodles and broth and carefully spooned the soft egg on top, sprinkling it with green onion. I took my bowl back to the table and that’s when I saw him. “Hi there,” said the psychic sitting at my table. “I’m your personal ramen reader.”


A ramen reader? OK. “What, no crystal ball?”


“Do you have a crystal ball?”




“Exactly. It doesn’t look like you have much of anything here. So this ramen will have to do.”


The psychic lifts the bowl to his nose and inhales. “You want answers? Go out and get me more of these. Ramen from different phases of your life.” He points at my Sapporo Ichiban. “This one, I assume this is a comfort food that you grew up with.”


Sapporo Ichiban, $.99 to $1.09

Sapporo Ichiban Packet
Sapporo Ichiban Prepped

Worth the price? Without a doubt. Photo: James Nakamura

He’s right. I’m running barefoot in the grass, clothes stained with dirt, making my way home where a lunch of Sapporo Ichiban ramen is a certainty. Growing up on Kaua‘i, this was a daily summertime ritual. Our menu rotated between beef flavor (a brown packet), shrimp (pink), miso (orange) and original (red). To my inexperienced palate, the flavor was so intense that I needed a sip of water after every slurp.


One day there was a new package, yellow and covered in Japanese script. My aunt in Kumamoto had sent us a new flavor. Each package came not only with a powdered soup packet, but an extra one of oil that you poured over the noodles as a finishing touch. Tonkotsu was in a league of its own. After that, all other flavors paled in comparison. “Can we get more of the yellow package ramen?” I asked when we were all out. But aside from a few more care packages, I wouldn’t taste tonkotsu again until I left for college. And then Sapporo Ichiban tonkotsu instant ramen became a staple. The broth was creamy, with intense umami, and flecked with sesame seeds. The noodles had a gentle chew. And the way that savory broth paired with an egg was a beautiful thing.


The ramen psychic knows his stuff. I put on a documentary called Ramen Heads, which he appreciates, and run out to get more ramen.


Sun Noodle Tonkotsu Ramen, $4.99 for a two-pack

Sun Noodle Packet
Sun Noodle Prepped

Worth the price? If you’re a noodle purist, yes. If you’re a broth purist, you’ll want a daylong simmered broth at a ramen shop. Photo: James Nakamura

When I get back the psychic is still there, absorbed in the documentary. I wash his empty bowl, fill it with ice and water and boil another egg to shock in the ice bath. Sun Noodle ramen is from the refrigerated section of the store, with fresh noodles and a packet of liquid tonkotsu concentrate. Squeezed into the bowl, the concentrate is the color of peanut butter. When the noodles are cooked I ladle the hot water into the bowl and stir the broth with my chopsticks. The tare thins out nicely and becomes fragrant. I drain the noodles, lay them into the broth and add the egg and more green onion.


This tonkotsu is milder and less savory. The egg doesn’t pair as well because the broth is so mild. But the noodles are perfectly al dente. There is no going wrong with Sun Noodle ramen, whether it’s cooked at home or one of the many restaurants they customize their noodles for. What will this bowl tell the psychic?


He traces the noodles thoughtfully with the end of a chopstick. “This is where you begin losing touch with your loved ones,” he says. “It’s all work and no play. At this point, all you’re doing is working.”


This hurts. But it’s true. I had landed my first full-time salaried position. I worked long hours and weekends, got promoted and moved into a studio apartment, on my own and without a roommate for the first time. By then I was eating out at ramen shops, always ordering the tonkotsu. Feeling grown up, I developed an appreciation for cooking. Sun Noodle’s take-home kit of artisan ramen met me halfway. Perhaps because I wasn’t very good at cooking, I fell in love with the process more than the finished product. It was pretty much all I did. Aside from that, work had begun to eclipse everything.


Ichiran Tonkotsu Ramen, $30 for a three-pack

Ichiran Prepped

The real thing in Japan, top, versus the home-prepped version. Worth the price? Ichiran’s store-bought ramen is really good, but for a few dollars more, try one of the restaurant picks at the end of this story. Photo: James Nakamura



My last packet of ramen bears the name of my greatest ramen experience. Ichiran Ramen is a famous Japanese chain where ramen is the sole focus, meant to be enjoyed quickly and alone. I remember it well—the ticket vending machine where you place your order, ramen counters partitioned for solo dining, curtained serving windows from which anonymous hands place a steaming bowl in front of you. The ramen is delicious, the experience myopic. No conversation, no companions. Just you and a bowl.


The instant version of Ichiran’s ramen looks like skinny somen noodles. The packets are thin and light, giving the impression that you just paid 30 bucks for a couple of slurps. I wash my one bowl and go through the steps again. The packet of broth immediately clouds into a darker umbra when I add water, with discs of clear oil flitting across the surface. The noodles are dense, chewy and abundant. The broth is intense, savory, fatty and oily, with faint notes of caramel. The packet of red pepper adds good depth and dimension.


It’s not quite like the freshly prepared bowl I had in Japan, but it’s still really good.


The psychic plucks a single strand from the bowl and examines it. “Hakata noodles. Straight as an arrow. This is where you’ve ended up, a straight line with a direct path.” He drops the noodle and glares at me. “You want to know what’s wrong? You started out with Sapporo Ichiban noodles that were wavy and chaotic. Simple. Happy. The Sun noodles were more substantial, focused, complex. And now here you are. Straight noodles from Ichiran. No time to go off course, to get entangled, to wind down unexpected paths. The product of single-minded focus. You wonder how you got here? It’s all in these bowls.”


“So you’re saying I should go back to Sapporo Ichiban?” I ask hopefully. “Is that the answer?”


“Jeez, no! I’m a figment of your imagination, for crying out loud. Ramen, pizza, a 20-pound burrito: None of these has your answer.” He throws down his chopsticks and pushes back his chair. “I’ve shown you all you need. But I’ll tell you this. Your next step is to look outside the bowl.”


And with that, he disappears in a puff of steam, leaving me with my empty bowl.


The things I do for a Frolic story.


James Nakamura’s real-life tonkotsu ramen picks in Honolulu include Wagaya, Junpuu, Momosan Waikīkī, Hokkaido Ramen Santouka, Manichi Ramen, and Golden Pork Tonkotsu Ramen Bar.