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Friday, Nov. 30, 2007

Ramen shop brings a taste of tonkotsu to Himeji


By ORLANDO MATKIN
Special to The Japan Times

Noodle bars in Japan — especially those serving cheap, quick bowls of ramen (egg noodles) — play a key part in catering to the inebriated, just as kebab shops do in my native England.

News photo
Takada's tonkotsu ramen and various condiments ORLANDO MATKIN PHOTO

Twenty or so years ago, eating ramen was a predictable experience. Typically the dish would be defined by its soup base, which was determined by geographic location, such as soy sauce in Tokyo, miso in Hokkaido and tonkotsu (stock made with pork bones) in Kyushu. Grace notes would come in the form of extra toppings, such as boiled eggs, char siu (barbecued pork), pickles, vegetables and so on.

Nowadays, regional barriers are being broken, and you can easily find establishments specializing in tonkotsu all over the country, alongside foreign influences such as a spicy kimchi topping or tomato soup.

When a new ramen bar, Takada, opened near some of my favorite watering holes in Uomachi, Himeji's entertainment district, in August, I had to try it out. Being the only tonkotsu specialist in central Himeji, it has a somewhat captive audience, despite many other eateries competing for the post-drink stomach-filler market.

The eponymous manager-chef, Akimasa Takada, told me of his years as a truck-driver. "Ramen was my staple food on the road," he recalls, and eventually, overcome by his love for the noodles, he decided to quit, re-train, and start up his own ramen shop.

Takada has created a cozy little place, adorned with fashionable Showa Era signage. Like many establishments that were hitherto targeted at men, Takada realized that excluding half the human race is not good for business, and took great pains to ensure that the atmosphere would be welcoming to all.

So what's the food like? Takada shuns the recent trend of boiling the broth until it has the consistency of potage and a fat content that is off the scale; instead he serves a tasty yet light pork broth with a chubby egg-noodle as the house specialty. There are soy- and salted-chicken-based soups as alternatives for the faint of heart.

On the topping front, of special note are his gelatinous and flavorsome char siu, and egg soft-boiled in a soy-based broth; a perfect treat for a beer-laden stomach.

A simple bowl of ramen is ¥500; toppings and extra noodles come in at ¥150 each, and Takada also offers sides such as gyoza dumplings.

Ramen is traditionally a Chinese cuisine. While its earliest reported appearance in Japan dates back to the late 17th century, it was in the early 1900s that the dish started to turn up here in Chinese restaurants. The true explosion came much later, and the generally accepted theory for its rise is that Japanese soldiers returning from China after World War II, having acquired a taste for it and finding themselves without income, set up ramen stalls around Japan.

I ask Takada if he considers ramen Japanese. "Certainly," he replies. "Its roots may be in China, but for the Japanese, the soup is the most important element, and Japanese ramen soups were developed right here."

The soft yet persistent flavor of tonkotsu is delicious on its own, but it also accepts many other strong flavors that enhance the taste. As is common in tonkotsu shops, garlic, chili oil and sesame seeds are lined up on the counter at Takada, allowing diners to customize their dish.

Ramen offers a wider variety of taste sensations than Western equivalents such as hamburgers or fried chicken. Indeed, within a 1-km radius of Takada I know of three other ramen bars, each with its own distinctive specialty. Sure, it confounds the frequently repeated wisdom that Japanese food is healthy, but this late in the evening, who cares about that?

Takada, 63 Shiomachi, Himeji, Hyogo; (079) 288-7015. Open 8 p.m. to 5 a.m., closed Sundays and public holidays.


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