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Akihabara has a well-deserved reputation as having Japan’s highest concentration of anime and video game shops, not to mentioned maid cafes. There’s one other thing it’s known for, though, and that’s weird vending machines.

And no, we’re not talking about Japan’s fabled panty vending machines, but rather automated sales of odd canned food. A few years back, Akihabara came to be known as the place to score canned bread. Next came the canned oden craze.

On a recent trip to the Tokyo neighborhood, however, we stumbled across something we’d never seen before when we spotted a vending machine that spits out hot cans of pre-cooked ramen.

After a fruitless day of searching the neighborhood for my personal version of Ahab’s white whale, a Sora no Kiseki FC soundtrack (which I’d been hoping to listen to, not stab with a harpoon), my growling stomach told me it was time to stop looking for video game music and instead find something to eat.

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As I passed by a bank of vending machines, one of them caught my eye. While the top two rows were filled with energy drinks and canned oden, lined up along the bottom of the display area were cans labeled “ramen.”

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Now it’s true that Japan has a massive instant noodle industry. They’re usually sold in paper or Styrofoam cups or bowls, though, and you have to pour boiling water over them and wait three minutes for them to cook. Ready-to-eat ramen, straight from the can, is a definite oddity, but that’s exactly what the cans promised. There were even cold versions available, which are no doubt a big hit the ferocious heat of summer.

Ordinarily, it’s the job of our crack Japanese reporter Mr. Sato to eat whatever crazy foodstuffs we discover on our adventures. Unfortunately, the only way to summon him is by shining the Sato Signal into the Shinjuku night sky above the RocketNews24 office. Since I was on the other side of town, the duty of eating the canned ramen fell on my shoulders, and into my stomach.

At 320 yen (US$3), the canned ramen’s price point falls somewhere between what you’d pay for a bowl of noodles in a restaurant and an instant cup from the convenience store. Figuring that if you’re eating mystery chow it should at least be hot mystery chow, I passed on the cold version, and fed my coins into the machine.

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As advertised, the can comes out piping hot, and it’ll give you a little scalding if you don’t pick it up gingerly. According to the writing on the can, it’s Hakata tonkotsu-style, with the sort of pork stock broth common in Fukuoka. That just happens to be my favorite kind of ramen, but to be honest, I still wasn’t expecting too much from the little can.

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▼ Almost as if he can read my thoughts, the pig is saying, “Just shut up and eat it!!”

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Of course, I hadn’t prepared for the unlikely discovery of canned ramen, so it wasn’t like I had a set of eating utensils on me. Thankfully, the makers of canned ramen anticipated this, and taped to the top of the container is a plastic folding fork.

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Okay, enough stalling, time to crack this thing open and see how it tastes! The whole top pulls off, and inside you’ll find it filled almost to the brim with opaque broth.

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I took a sip of the soup, and it was surprisingly tasty. You’d never mistake this for the sort of premium ramen that people line up for hours to eat, but you could do a lot worse in the flavor department, especially with some of the bottom-rung instant cup ramen varieties. Quality wise, it’s pretty close to what you’d get with a can of soup.

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Another surprise was waiting for me when I got to the noodles. Considering they’d been sitting sealed in a warmed can for God knows how long, I’d been bracing myself for a soggy mess. So imagine my relief when they turned out to be nice and firm.

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There’s actually a tricky reason why. While the can says “ramen,” the noodles inside are actually something a little different. Ramen noodles are made with wheat, but the noodles in the can are actually konnyaku, a sort of gelatinous yam cake that retains its firmness even when packed in liquid. If you’ve never had it before, that probably sounds a little gross, but actually, konnyaku is incredibly mild in flavor, and since the broth was doing the lion’s share of the work stimulating my taste buds, the substitution wasn’t really an issue. Given konnyaku’s incredibly low calorie count and high quantity of fiber, you could argue it’s healthier than standard ramen noodles, too.

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There was one problem with my canned meal, though, and it came from an unlikely culprit: pork. Ordinarily, adding pork is a sure-fire way to make anything better, which is why most restaurant ramen comes with a few cuts of meat called chaashu. The canned ramen even tries to ape this, containing a few thin strips of pork.

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Unfortunately, all that time floating around in the broth wasn’t nearly as kind to the pork as it was to the noodles, and the meat ended up with the precise texture of wet paper, and almost the same taste.

▼ As much as it goes against every culinary experience I’ve had up until now to say this, skip the pork.

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▼ Once again, I have a suspicion that Canned Ramen Pig is clairvoyant, as no sooner had I swallowed a bite of the disappointing meat than I noticed this picture of him, looking shamed and apologetic.

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Still, there’s only a very small amount of pork in the can. It’s easy to eat around and doesn’t spoil the taste of the broth or noodles, either. The vending machine’s back alley location even meant I was able to jury rig a table.

▼ Pardon me, ladies.

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So if you’ve already crossed buying beer and Pocari Sweat off your Japanese vending machine bucket list, or if you just want the ultimate in ramen-based instant gratification, track down this vending machine and give it a shot.

Vending machine information
Being a vending machine, there’s obviously no fixed address for the canned ramen-dispensing unit. It’s located on the same block as Nadeshiko Sushi, though, and the restaurant’s address is:
Tokyo-to, Chiyoda-ku, Sotokanda 3-12-15, Chichibu Denki Building
東京都千代田区外神田3-12-15 チチブ電機ビル

Standing on the street facing the stairway that leads up to the entrance of Nadeshiko Sushi, look to your right, and on the left-hand corner is where you’ll find the canned ramen vending machine.

Photos © RocketNews24