How many of Japan’s ramen restaurants will survive?

Tonari Ramen Tanmen, in Maranouchi, Tokyo (photo taken in 2018), is still open.

Recent news reports show that small shops are hurting the most.

The headline was ominous: “Ramen Bankruptcies on the rise.” Like most restaurants, Japan’s vibrant ramen scene is hurting as the nation continues to grapple with coronavirus. Restaurant bankruptcies overall are expected to hit an all-time high.

I scanned the English-language Japan Times and a few Reuters articles to get a clear picture, and found that while the larger ramen chains are surviving, small shops are feeling the most pain – a familiar pattern for restaurants worldwide.

Compounding the problems caused by lack of tourists and sheltering of residents are social distancing requirements. Given the usual elbow-to-elbow seating at small ramen shops, distancing further limits the number of guests they can legally handle. Some spots are using Ichiran-like dividers to serve more customers safely.

Reuters profiled Shirohachi, a small noodle shop in Tokyo. Despite not taking a salary since April and receiving over $29,000 in aid, owner/chef Tashiro Haga recently closed his shop. The foot traffic upon which he depended simply isn’t there anymore. Other shop owners would rather close than raise prices.

While I enjoy ramen at Japan’s chains like Nagi, Ippudo and Taishoken, it’s the single, mom-and-pop locations that, for me, speak to the soul of ramen and often surprise me with their quality, attention to detail and friendliness. One such place is Menya Nukaji, a tiny spot run by a married couple located on a quiet street a short walk from the bustling Shibuya crossing.

The owners of Menya Nukaji in Shibuya. Also still open.

The place has fewer than ten seats, a limited menu, great craft beers and a friendly vibe. The tsukemen there was wonderful, in the same league as Taishoken. Scanning Google Maps, I was pleased to see that it remains open, as the latest review (five stars) was just a few days old.

The tsukeman ramen at Menya Nukaji.

Amidst the carnage, this was a small but optimistic sign. With the vaccine taking hold, the eventual return of tourists and more government aid, hopefully more small spots can make it through this crisis.

They are an important part of the life and culture of Japan, and of the neighborhoods they serve. As Hiroaki Nakazawa, a regular at Shirohachi for years, explained, “There’s only one place like this.”

Tokyo Ramen Festivals This Month!

2018 Tokyo Ramen Show.

Next week two ramen festivals overlap in Tokyo. If you’re there, go for a taste of ramen styles throughout Japan.

The annual Tokyo Ramen Show begins this week, running October 24 through November 4 at Komazawa Olympic Park. This overlaps with the month-long Dai Tsukemen Haku competition to crown the best tsukemen ramen in the country, running through November 3. 

On my trip to Japan last fall I discovered, last-minute, that I’d be there for the Tokyo Ramen Show. What luck! The show is outdoors in an open-air promenade setting built for the 1964 Summer Olympics (some 2020 Olympic events will be held there). The show features 36 different ramen purveyors – 18 for the first six days, then the next set of 18 over the remaining 6 days. It’s free to get in, and only costs $8 USD for a ticket that entitles you to one bowl of ramen.

This is a stellar opportunity to taste some of the regional differences in ramen all in one place. The lobster ramen seemed compelling, as did the all-meatball bowl. But how to choose among 18 different booths!? Just like visiting a “ramen street” in a Japanese city, I used the standard technique: find the longest line and stand in it! It turned out to be a Sapporo-based restaurant (didn’t write down their name).

The dish I had was an “aged miso ramen.” The actual serving bowl was plastic – unfortunate, but I suppose necessary for this venue. The broth had red flakes and appeared very spicy hot. But, tasting it, there was only subtle heat that, for my taste, was just enough. The semi-clear miso-based broth was delicious with a rich flavor. The noodles were firm (thankfully common in Japan), and the pork slices – for which I had to pay extra – were thick and flavorful, though not particularly juicy. 

Aged Miso Ramen – Sapporo style.

All in all, it was a good, well-balanced, lightly spiced bowl of ramen. It certainly wasn’t one of the best I’ve had in Japan, but worth the visit to the festival, especially for the fun of it. I’m not calling this an actual review, but I suppose I’d put it in the range of 3 to 3-1/2 stars (out of 5).

Fun for the kids.

I didn’t make it to the Dai Tsukemen Haku competition, but I’ve seen it covered on YouTube and elsewhere. Take a look at this 2016 video from Ramen Adventures.

A lesson I learned is to plan ahead next time, as there’s no way you can sample so many bowls in a day. And everyone served standard bowls, not the half-bowls you see offered sometimes. So I’d come in the morning, have a bowl; then take a walk before my second bowl in the afternoon. Going with some friends and sharing tastes is a better idea.

Tsuta is coming to San Francisco!

Tsuta in Sugamo, Tokyo

Tsuta, the Tokyo restaurant that was the first ramen spot to secure a Michelin star, is opening up a San Francisco location.

I nearly dropped my chopsticks when I read about this in the San Francisco Chronicle. Tsuta joins Nagi, Ippudo, Mensho and Ichiran as notable Japan ramen specialists which have moved to the U.S. I’m pretty damn excited about this, as I had one of my rare transcendent ramen experiences at Tsuta. Notable because shoyu ramen, Tsuta’s specialty, isn’t typically my favorite.

The restaurant will open in mid-September and be located at 155 4th Street. For updates and other info, check out Tsuta’s U.S. website at

Full review of Tsuta Tokyo coming soon.