April 14, 2008
by Takuro Yoshida
What do you imagine when you hear “Kyoto food”? You may picture a traditional, expensive meal with some complicated manners for eating. If you imagine such things, you would not be wrong. However, I want to introduce a new Kyoto food that is cheap and easy to eat: Kyoto ramen.
Ramen is a Chinese food, what many foreigners know as “Chinese noodles.” But recently, many Japanese people consume ramen, and the term “ramen” is now well established in Japan. We can easily see an example of this in the movie Tampopo, which tells the story of Japanese ramen culture. This movie, which was directed by Itami Juzo, will help you understand just how much Japanese like ramen, how they eat ramen, and how many different ways there are to make ramen.
In Japanese, a ramen shop is called a “ramenya.” You can realize just how much Japanese like ramen by how many “Japanized” varieties of ramen there are throughout the entire country. For example, in Hokkaido there is a ramen that uses miso (fermented soy-bean paste) as its soup stock. It is called “Sapporo ramen.” In Kyushu, “Hakata ramen” is a white-soup ramen that is made with boiled pig bones. In the Kinki district, however, we have never had a unique, native ramen.
What is the reason then that so many people started to use the term “Kyoto ramen”? It is because they began to appreciate the variety of soup stocks here. It is commonly said that there three basic kinds of soup stocks, but actually we cannot know the real figure because so many shops have developed their own stocks. However, this variety is the good point of Kyoto ramen. In other districts, for example in Hakata or Sapporo, most ramen shops stick to the one local soup stock.
Here are some famous ramen shops in Kyoto. First, I will introduce Shinpukusaikan.
This ramenya has a history of over half a century; it was opened during WWII. This shop is near Kyoto Station, so many travelers often drop in. The soup stock is chicken- and soy sauce-based, and although the color seems to appear dark and salty, it actually tastes better than it looks. This simple taste is said to be old-fashioned Kyoto ramen. This shop tops its ramen off with many slices of roast pork, and some outlets provide free boiled eggs. This ramen can be enjoyed for its “traditional” Kyoto taste.
Next is Tenkaippin, a famous shop whose name means “the best dish in the world.”
This shop was opened in 1971, yet it recently opened outlets up in the Tohoku district. Tenkaippin is comparatively new among Kyoto ramen shops and is also known as a one of the pioneers of Kyoto ramen. Their soup stock is based on long simmered vegetables and chicken. This shop provides chopped scallions for free. Many people seem to like scallions in ramen, so this system is appreciated. Tenkaippin’s soup stock is new, so many people seem to enjoy trying it.
Rairaitei is the newest shop among the three.
Rairaitei opened its first branch in Kyoto in 1997. However, they went bankrupt and moved to Shiga Prefecture to start over again. They succeeded in Shiga and soon returned to Kyoto. Now there are branches all over Japan. In this shop, we can order ramen to our taste, or rather we can choose the saltiness of the soup, the hardness of the noodles, the quantity of scallions, and the amount of fat used. This system prevents us from getting tired of the same menu.
Many shops have their own soup stock, yet this phenomenon seems unique to Kyoto. So we can eat many different types of ramen, and I recommend you to try them all. Here are some good places in Kyoto where you can enjoy Japanese ramen culture. If you are interested in many kinds of ramen, Kyoto Station is a great place to go.
[kyoto station pictures]
Please look at these pictures. On the top floor of Kyoto Station is “Ramen Street.” You can find Hokkaido ramen, Hakata ramen, Kyoto ramen and so on. You will feel you are in traditional Kyoto because this street recreates the “machiya” style of this town. There are seven ramen shops, a café, a burger shop, and an ice cream shop. You will enjoy this street even if you don’t eat ramen.
Kyoto ramen continues to change. Many new shops open, but many close because they can’t satisfy the tastes of the customers. Perhaps you will discover your own ramen shop in Kyoto.