Perhaps unbeknownst to foreigners, ramen is just as popular inside Japan as out. Here's a look at arguably the most popular variety, Hakata ramen.
Originating in China, ramen developed into a Japanese original and today it is no exaggeration to say it is loved by all Japanese. The noodles have a 350 year history with records showing that in 1665 Tokugawa Mitsukuni, Tokugawa Ieyasu's grandchild who was a 17th century shogun (and now a popular figure in period drama), was the first Japanese to try them.
That is not to say they became an immediate hit with the general public. It was more than 200 years later, following the start of the Meiji era, that the number of ramen stalls gradually increased and people began consuming them en masse.
And now, more varieties of ramen have popped up than can be counted. From a basic trio of soy sauce, miso and salt bases, there are local specialty ramen such as Hakata ramen, Sapporo ramen, Kitakata ramen, and Kumamoto ramen. With as many ramen flavors as there are distinct local areas, aside from die-hard fanatics there are few Japanese that have tried them all!
From these many varieties of ramen plus the addition of local arrangements, it is clear that ramen is loved all throughout the country and is firmly rooted in Japan’s food culture.
Though there are an abundance of choices, Hakata ramen remains a super popular example.
In a nutshell, Hakata ramen's unique flavor comes from its thick, cloudy tonkotsu (pork belly and bone mixed with miso and vegetables) soup, thin noodles; and other ingredients, including red ginger, kikurage (cloud ear) mushrooms and green onion.
The noodle is said to have originated in Hakata city, Fukuoka prefecture on the island of Kyushu in 1941. However at that time the style was a little different, with evidence that chicken broth or a thinner clearer tonkotsu soup were used.
The thicker cloudier tonkotsu soup was in fact introduced by accident after a chef overcooked but served the whitened soup to customers anyway. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive and this new version became the standard. Perhaps this popular flavor wouldn't exist today if not for such serendipitous circumstance!
Some readers may be wary about the kind of smell to expect from tonkotsu soup.
However, with a few exceptions, most establishments serve Hakata ramen without any characteristic strong odor. While thick, the mild soup is mixed expertly with its soy sauce base to produce a flavor that gets many aficionados hooked after the first bite!
In today's major cities like Tokyo there are many places offering Hakata ramen that you can easily enter and enjoy. The main advantages over other establishments is that you can choose the firmness of the noodle and get a kaedama (second helping).
The majority of places allow you to choose firmness levels of “yawa” (soft) “futsu” (normal), “kata” (firm), “barikata” (very firm), “konaotoshi” (just briefly dipped in boiling water) when ordering.
“ラーメン,博多ラーメン 一竜 ヨドバシカメラ店”by Yuichi Sakuraba at https://flic.kr/p/3jr2DW
The final konaotoshi option is hardly boiled but that doesn't mean it is difficult to chew or will give you a toothache. Just to be safe though it may be best to order “futsu” first and graduate to increasing levels of firmness with your kaedama.
This second serving can be had for as little as 100 JPY, though it is just noodles so be careful not drink up all your soup beforehand!
Go for the kaedama if you feel one bowl wasn't enough, and you can choose the firmness of this second serving too.
On the table of some restaurants you will find condiments including sesame, mustard greens (fried in oil and chili peppers), garlic and red ginger, which you are free to add to taste.
Discovering your own perfect Hakata ramen combination may be an interesting challenge for your time in Japan!