Japan's working-class noodles go upscale

Sunday, May 9, 2004

TOKYO -- Customers with Prada handbags and Gucci sunglasses sometimes stand in line for hours and gaze hungrily at a TV outside the restaurant door, feasting their eyes on the delicacy that awaits: a bowl of noodles.

The humble noodle -- known in Japan as "ramen" -- has long been better known as a staple of construction workers and penny-pinching students than as a favorite of the chic.

But in a push to win over a new clientele, Japanese noodles are going upscale with special pork and organic vegetables served in eateries with fetching dark-wood interiors and soft lighting.

"The 'stylish ramen' stores have really boomed," said Masahiko Ichiyanagi, who writes a "ramen column" for a popular weekly magazine, Tokyo 1Week. "The result is that it's now recognized as a legitimate leisure activity."

Creating a splash

The trend reaches extremes at Shiodome Ramen, a spanking new cluster of steel-and-glass towers next to -- but a world away from -- the decidedly lowbrow Shimbashi district.

The shop aims to create a splash. Nippon Television Network Corp. began a highly publicized nationwide contest in 2002 to seek out the country's best ramen cook, and put the winner -- Konosuke Takewaka -- in charge of the restaurant on its premises.

The exposure brought in the crowds. Customers sometimes waited in line a foot-aching four hours when the restaurant opened Aug. 1. Now, waits of over an hour are still common.

The broth gets its flavor from pork, beef and chicken stock, squid legs and dried fish, he said. The restaurant, which serves 800 bowls a day starting at $7.30, closes when it runs out of its pungent noodle soup.

The highbrow attention is quite a turnaround for the humble dish.

According to popular lore, ramen was introduced by Chinese immigrants early last century. Taking root in major port cities like Yokohama, it soon spread across the country and assumed regional variations. Today, it's as Japanese as tofu or miso soup.

The popularity translates into earnings. There are some 200,000 ramen shops in Japan, where customers slurp down an estimated $6.36 billion worth of noodles annually.

Even the financial world is interested. Japanese online brokerage Traders Securities launched a fund in December seeking $1.8 million to invest in a noodle complex in Tokyo.

But for all the bells and whistles, ramen lovers say the key ingredients remain the same: a signature soup and good noodles.

"Ramen is so tasty because it's so simple -- it's like eating something homemade, except the ambiance is better," said Jun Yoshizawa, a student.

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