Forget everything you think you know about vending machines.
In Australia, vending machines rarely mean anything good, and they definitely don't mean anything amazing. They mean a lukewarm can of fizzy drink. They mean a cardboard sandwich that's probably been there for a week.
So it's a little disconcerting when you wander into your first Japanese ramen bar prepared for a gourmet experience and find yourself faced with a vending machine. A large, glowing box filled with buttons and pictures. A robotic welcome with neither a smile nor direction.
This will be your first experience of ramen noodles, and it will be often repeated. Ramen bars work this way, they're designed for efficiency, they're no-nonsense eateries where salarymen can duck in and slurp deliciousness and get back to the office before anyone has even realised they're gone. No time for table service. Order, sit down, eat.
So yes, you will have to select your food by vending machine. You'll look at the myriad buttons labelled with symbols and hope for English translations. You'll feed money into the machine and begin making your choices: the flavour and size of the bowl of noodles you desire; the extra toppings, the sliced pork or soy-marinated egg or chilli paste; the sides like pickles or frosty glasses of beer.
Baffled by the choices? Here's a tip: most ramen bars have an "ichiban" selection, the "number one" ramen of the store, the soup it's best known for and that its chefs are most proud of. Order that. Plus a beer.
Make those selections and a series of tickets will begin spewing out. You take those and then hope to find a seat, which someone will probably direct you to. It will be at a bar, looking over the busy kitchen, where you will hand over your tickets and sit shoulder to shoulder with fellow slurpers.
And they will be slurping. Loudly and enthusiastically. This is the way to eat ramen: the noodles shouldn't be left to cool, as they'll continue cooking in the broth and go past optimum firmness. They're going to be piping hot, which makes slurping mandatory as a way to cool them, plus the air helps develop the flavours.
So there you are, hunched over the bar, slurping your noodles, gurgling your broth – sometimes thick and porky, sometimes fishy, sometimes flavoured with miso or soy – adding black garlic oil and shichi-mi togarashi to taste, sipping your beer and admiring the bustle, drinking in the flavours and the customs of Japan in all their glory. Brilliant.
Leave as soon as your bowl is empty. Smile and nod to the chefs. Glance at the vending machine that's now your friend and know that there will be many more bowls of ramen in your not-so-distant future.