Since Chinese immigrants first modified their noodles for Japanese locals in Yokohama Chinatown in the early 20th century, ramen has spread throughout Japan, with each area changing it to suit local tastes. This has given us the basic soups of shoyu (soy sauce), shio (salt), miso and tonkotsu (pork bones), plus all manner of variations, from toppings to the consistency of the noodles themselves,
While local varieties have become popular nationwide, like Tokyo’s shoyu, Sapporo’s miso and Fukuoka’s tonkotsu “Hakata ramen,” there’s a lot more out there. And while you might find a shop serving regional favorites in a big city like Tokyo, your best bet is to try them during your adventures through Japan.
There’s nothing like tucking into a warm bowl of local ramen made lovingly by a chef who probably grew up eating it themselves. Here are five of the best regional ramen in no particular order.
Yokohama Iekei Ramen
Although ramen is largely thought to have started in Yokohama, and it’s the home of the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum, it didn’t have its own, regional ramen to boast of until 1974 when former truck driver Yoshimaru Minoru took what he had learned from eating ramen around the country and opened Yoshimura-ya.
Yoshimura-ya is the originator of iekei ramen. Meaning “homestyle,” iekei-style ramen combines Fukuoka’s tonkotsu pork bone broth with Tokyo-style shoyu soup and adds chicken oil for an especially thick broth. The noodles are unusually thick and flat. Toppings include spinach, nori (seaweed) and chashu (braised pork belly). The result is a hearty, satisfying bowl of ramen.
Not sure where to start your Yokohama ramen adventure? Try one of these five shops.
Think of Kyoto, Japan’s former capital; history and traditional culture will likely come to mind. The former imperial palace, ancient temples and Gion’s rarified geisha district are symbolic of the city. Ramen, however, is not.
Kyoto is home to more than a million people. When they head out for ramen, they often choose one of Kyoto’s three regional ramens: thick shoyu ramen mixed with tonkotsu broth, pork back fat ramen made with chicken stock or the super-thick chicken paitan (white soup) ramen, which can be so dense you can stand a renge (Chinese spoon) up in it.
Although it’s always fun to take a trip to Kyoto if you can’t make it that far, good Kyoto ramen is probably closer than you think. Tenkaippin, one of Japan’s most popular ramen chains, specializes in chicken paitan ramen.
Nagoya Taiwan Ramen
No, that’s not a typo. Taiwan ramen is the regional ramen specialty of Nagoya. For locals, Taiwan ramen means Nagoya ramen. This is confusing for outsiders, including many Japanese, as all get out. What’s the deal?
Misen, a popular Taiwanese-style restaurant in downtown Nagoya, first developed Taiwan ramen in the early 1970s. The restaurant created a unique and popular dish by combining Taiwan-style tantsumen (Taiwanese spicy noodles) ramen with plenty of chili powder. When Japan went through one of its periodic gekikara (hot and spicy) booms in the 1980s, its popularity exploded, becoming Nagoya’s number-one bowl of ramen.
Now available at restaurants all over Aichi Prefecture, the dish—leeks, chives, bean sprouts, chili peppers and spicy ground pork over ramen noodles in a shoyu broth—is spicier than you probably expect. Oddly, traditional Taiwanese cuisine is not known for being spicy. However, this is not traditional Taiwanese cuisine. It’s called Taiwan ramen because a Taiwanese restaurant created it. For Nagoyans, lovers of intense flavors generally, it’s the perfect bowl of noodles.
Yamagata Karamiso Ramen
Pop quiz: what Japanese prefecture eats the most ramen per year? Nope, it’s not Tokyo. It’s actually Yamagata. The northern prefecture only has around one million people, but they consume the most bowls of ramen yearly. You know the competition between restaurants has to be fierce.
This struggle is especially real in Nanyo City, where there are about 180 ramen shops per 100,000 people (the national average is closer to 24)! While all kinds of ramen are available in Nanyo, the most famous is karamiso spicy ramen.
The creator of karamiso ramen is Akayu Ramen Ryu Shangai. To give you an idea of how important it is, the shop has even appeared at the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum. The broth is a melange of pork, chicken, vegetables and sardines. This rich broth is topped with a spoonful of spicy miso, which gives the ramen its famous fiery kick. They also make their own noodles, something of a rarity these days.
Kumamoto Black Ramen
If you’ve ever been to Kyushu, you know tonkotsu pork bone ramen is king. It was first developed in Kurume in Fukuoka Prefecture and then spread across the island. Of course, Hakata ramen is the most famous, but many other areas have their own version, including Kumamoto.
The main difference between Kumamoto-style tonkotsu and others is the presence of garlic. Lots of garlic. This can come in roasted and fried garlic chips or, more famously, mayu, blackened garlic oil from Taiwan. The mayu gives Kumamoto black ramen its distinctive taste and appearance.
Don’t forget to study how to order ramen when you’re in Japan! What’s your favorite type of ramen? Let us know in the comments.