Recent news reports show that small shops are hurting the most.
The Nippon.com 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 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.
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.”