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[Columns]Ramen Culture in Kyoto

 On the day in late October last year when he returned to Earth, Japanese astronaut Takuya Onishi (then 40), when asked by reporters what he would like to eat, replied: “Ramen.” He wanted neither sushi nor tempura, but ramen. It’s fun to think that the globe seen from the ISS might have seemed to him like a big ramen bowl. Ramen has become so popular it’s known as a national dish of Japan and the Michelin Guide lists some restaurants serving this popular noodle dish. Even in Kyoto, the capital of traditional Japanese cuisine, ramen is now a great attraction for tourists.
 
 But why is ramen so popular in Kyoto? Before I reveal the reason, let me introduce some famous ramen joints in Kyoto. Top on the list are the two rival shops, Shinpukusaikan and Honke Daiichi Asahi, standing side by side near JR Kyoto station. Shinpukusaikan is a long-established ramen shop founded in 1938. Its dark black soy-sauce-based soup might be startling, but despite its appearance, its taste is quite plain. “Ramen and fried rice (also black) are the best combination you can have at Shinpukusaikan in Takabashi!” a taxi driver claimed. Takabashi is a nickname for the area around an overpass located to the east of JR Kyoto Station and is well known in Kyoto. Standing next door is Honke Daiichi Asahi, where many regular customers make specific requests for their bowls like, “Put extra scallions (meaning Kyoto-native Kujo-negi scallions),” or “I’d like my noodles hard, please.” Like Honke Daiichi Asahi, many other ramen joints in Kyoto accept such requests from customers. Each of the two establishments has its own patrons who adamantly insist that ramen at their favorite shop is better than that of its next-door rival. I also have my own experience of this dispute. When I worked in Kyoto and went to Takabashi to eat with my colleagues, we sometimes clashed with each other over which shop to go to.
 
 The lightly flavored soy-sauce-based ramen served at Masutani, located near Ginkaku-ji Temple, is said to have reached a high degree of perfection. The old ramen joint, which opened soon after the Second World War in 1949, attracts flocks of people with guidebooks in hand from all corners of the country. You should prepare to wait in line to get a bowl of ramen there.
 
 Tenkaippin is another shop founded near Ginkaku-ji Temple some 40 years ago. Its main shop is in the Kitashirakawa district. At Tenkaippin, you will be asked if you’d prefer kotteri (thick and heavy) or assari (thin and light) soup. If you choose the shop’s signature kotteri soup, you will get a bowl of ramen in a potage-like thick soup. Some even say that chopsticks stuck vertically in the kotteri soup will stay upright all by themselves. Sample a spoon of the chicken-based soup and you’ll find it’s not as fatty as it looks. With the success of this “outrageous” soup, Tenkaippin achieved rapid growth and it now has more than 200 chain stores across the country. Randy Messenger, an American baseball pitcher for the Hanshin Tigers, is known as one of the most enthusiastic ramen aficionados in Japan’s professional baseball world. He reportedly enjoys slurping up noodles at Tenkaippin, among others. Daily sports newspaper Sankei Sports reported that one of the reasons he decided to remain with the Hanshin Tigers, turning down an offer from the Major Leagues, was that he wanted to eat ramen in Japan.
 
 Another interesting point about these famous ramen joints is their ambience. The atmosphere of both Shinpukusaikan and Honke Daiichi Asahi does not have the smallest element of what is called the elegance of Kyoto. You may well suspect that they are trying to outdo each other in the simplicity of the shop appearance as well as the taste of noodles.
 
 “Kyoto is a university town. It accepted various types of ramen from north and south, appreciating the soy-sauce flavor, which is popular in eastern Japan, as well as the thick and fatty style of the western part of the country. You could say that students have contributed to the development of ramen flavors in Kyoto,” Japanese novelist Makio Abe said, recalling his student days at Kyoto University. A book titled Ramen daisuki (I Love Ramen), written by the Kyoto Shimbun, points out that ramen in Kyoto takes in the essence of Kyoto’s traditional cuisine. It says: “People in Kyoto won’t accept a flavor as it is. Instead, they would add new twists for a more sophisticated taste. They tend to get immersed in anything. There are few places in Japan that can rival Kyoto’s zeal to experiment with this noodle dish.”
 
 However, the richly and heavily flavored Kyoto-style ramen might make Kyoto-loving tourists who appreciate the delicate and light taste of Kyoto cuisine feel as if they were deceived by their sweetheart. A study group named Iidabashi Ramen Kenkyukai made an acid comment on Kyoto-style ramen in its book Nippon ramen taizen (All About Ramen in Japan) (published with Kobunsha), saying, “(Kyoto-style ramen) tastes as if it were blended with all the evil spirits of mountains and rivers that have been around in Kyoto since it was once the capital of Japan.” Kyoto-style ramen is definitely not happy about being called a ghost or goblin.
 As an aside, in Kyoto you should be careful when using the word shinise, or long-established stores. If you describe a ramen restaurant as a long-established shop founded soon after the war, you might be asked which war you mean. To people in Kyoto, the last war is often the Onin War (1467–1477) in the Muromachi period, in which Kyoto was burned to ashes, and thus a long-established shop is one that has been in business since the Muromachi period. Shoichi Inoue, professor at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies and the author of Kyoto-girai (Kyoto Hater) (published with Asahi Shinsho), describes their unique view on things as a nasty aspect of the ancient capital of Kyoto. It might be the magical spell – I mean, the charm – of this ancient city that made me expatiate here only on the taste of ramen. (Takahito Sato)
 
 
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Daiichi Asahi (left) and Shinpukusaikan, located next to each other, share popularity.