If Silence Is the Cost of Great Ramen, So Be It

Japan’s restaurants are taking COVID precautions to a whole new level.

An image of a man in a ramen shop in Japan
Takashi Aoyama / Getty

NAGOYA, Japan—Vegetables, vegetables, vegetables. I am sitting in a cardboard cubicle at a counter inside a ramen shop, rehearsing my order in my head over and over again. My sister is in the next cubicle over—all I can see is the top of her head—and later I will learn that she is doing the exact same thing. Small paper signs pasted to the partitions ask us customers to tell the chef what toppings we’d like (garlic, vegetables, soy sauce, or pork drippings) in a loud, clear voice with good tempo. The kitchen is loud and the restaurant is full, so it helps if patrons can communicate in one efficient go. Like an enthusiastic movie extra delivering a single line, I really want to get it right. That’s because it is the only thing I will say during the entire hour I spend here.

My sister and I are at Rekishi wo Kizame, a wildly popular ramen restaurant where customers are asked to refrain from basically all chatter. The silence is not a regular aspect of eating ramen here, but is instead a more recent rule because of COVID-19. Usually, both the restaurant and the line of soon-to-be diners waiting outside are raucous and noisy. But Takeshi Kitagawa, the restaurant’s owner, 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 spot for people to cluster and spread the coronavirus. So Kitagawa implemented a strict mask mandate, as well as the practice of mokushoku, or silent dining, to help make things a little safer. (And there’s evidence that silence actually works.)

Besides specifying your toppings, only one other interaction is allowed. While we wait in line, an employee comes to ask us how many people are in our party (just two). Other than that, no one is supposed to speak—and, at least when I was there, that’s exactly what happened. No conferring with your lunch-mates about what type of ramen you’ll get. No delighted exclamations when your food comes. No asking what the time is or seeing whether your friend wants to get coffee afterward. Even the initial order itself requires no speech: Like lots of other restaurants, Rekishi wo Kizame has a vending machine nestled inside, where customers insert cash and receive a ramen ticket corresponding to their order.

Inside the restaurant, there are several blue-and-white posters with a face, its eyes closed and one hand raised in front of its mouth in a universal shh gesture. It must be mass-produced, because I’ve seen the same poster at other restaurants and coffee shops in town with the same policy. I couldn’t find any official numbers on how many restaurants in Japan are implementing a form of mokushoku, but silent dining seems to have really caught on in early 2021, when a curry restaurant in Fukuoka made the news for its policy. One March survey of restaurant customers in Japan found that 22 percent of diners planned to practice mokushoku regardless of restaurant rules, in an effort to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.

An image a shushing sign inside of a ramen shop in Japan
Mary Coomes

After snaking through the line outside—we spent the time making excited eyes at each other over our masks—my sister and I are ushered into the small storefront, to the counter that rings the kitchen. The distinctly homemade dining booths we are cordoned off into make it virtually impossible to have a conversation with anyone. I sit on a stool between my cardboard partitions and reach over to clip my ramen ticket (a regular bowl of the restaurant’s house noodles) onto a clothespin attached to the counter.  I look again at the instructions on how to order toppings. Vegetables, vegetables, vegetables!

A loud crack interrupts my concentration. The three men next to us have apparently ordered an egg on the side. Or at least that’s what I deduce, since I can’t eavesdrop on their orders. I understand what just happened only when I see another customer receive a shining, white egg that he proceeds to whack against the counter. Though there is no chatter, the shop still feels fairly loud. There is the backbeat of cars whizzing down the busy street outside, the blare of J-rock over the speaker, and the constant whirring of several industrial fans. Water roils on a stove; metal sieves clang against bowls; soup splashes. It’s a comfortable, cheery din that makes me feel even more hungry for my ramen.

Kitagawa finally asks me what toppings I want, and in a practiced shout I say, “Vegetables and garlic.” The garlic is a last-minute decision, and for a split second I am nervous that I have butchered my one and only utterance. I didn’t, and from over the counter descends a bowl heaped with cabbage, bean sprouts, and two slabs of glistening roast pork. Under the meat rests a nest of thick-cut ramen noodles swimming in a dark broth. I push the minced garlic into the soup and crack apart my chopsticks, breathing in the scent of alliums, soy sauce, and rich pork-bone broth.

For a moment, I am almost apathetic about the restaurant’s mokushoku policy. Maybe it doesn’t matter at all that people can’t talk with one another—especially here. Americans might eat ramen like it’s dinner-party food, lingering over their bowl for what seems like hours as the noodles languish and bloat. But from a Japanese standpoint, ramen is a food to eat quickly, to slurp down before the heat of the broth causes the noodles to swell up and lose their chew. Sure, it’s nice to chat with a fellow diner or remark upon how savory the broth is, how impressive a slab of char siu teetering on a pile of bean sprouts appears. But sitting in the whirlwind of ambient restaurant noise, the forced silence gives me no choice but to inhale my noodles quickly, exactly how they should be eaten.

Still, I want more than anything to poke my head over the barrier and make a quick comment to my sister, to marvel with her at this steaming mountain of ramen we are about to devour. But there is just me and the ramen in our little cardboard confessional, staring each other in the face. I know the clock is ticking, that I need to suck down my noodles before they become heavy with water, but I want to nudge my sister with my knee. I want to clap my hands together and say Itadakimasu!, the traditional Japanese phrase meant to open a meal. Above me, the blue shh-ing icon looks down beatifically, radiating its reminder of quiet.

When I spoke with Kitagawa, he said that, generally, most customers have an experience not too different from mine: Even if they might want to speak, they respect his rules and keep quiet. Sometimes he does have to dole out a reminder, but he’s careful to phrase it as a request and not an order—even if it’s really just that. Could you help us out by quieting down? He said that most people have a hard time turning down such a request.

Even though more than 60 percent of people in Japan are now fully vaccinated, he’s not sure when he’ll end the policy, but he can’t wait for his restaurant to once again be full of laughter and liveliness. Before the pandemic, boys would visit in groups and compete to see who could eat the most ramen the fastest, leading to cheers and boos. Still, the policy hasn’t been all bad. Before the pandemic, Rekishi wo Kizame was a ramen shop frequented mostly by men. Porky, garlicky, and inelegant to eat, his ramen was somewhat of a tough sell for female customers. But the silence and privacy of the cardboard dividers has led to an uptick in women visiting the shop, Kitagawa said. They no longer have to fend off any unwanted stares or attempts at conversation, and can wolf down their ramen without a thought to decorum or composure.

At the end of our meal, I catch my sister’s eye over the partition and wiggle my eyebrows toward the door to ask whether she’s done. She wiggles her eyebrows back, and we (quietly!) place our ramen bowls on the counter, get up, and leave. Outside, faces fully visible, we hop on our bikes and shout to each other across the lane about the food. I spot other patrons doing the same, shrugging off their quiet as they get to the crosswalk. A pair of boys wait for the red light to turn green and wistfully sum up their meal: Rekishi wo Kizame is always good, they say. We’ll be back soon. They keep talking about their meal as they cross the street, walking out of earshot. I guess you can stop people from talking about their food for only so long.