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Running with the ramen hunters

by Steve Trautlein

Ramen is to Japanese food as school-girl uniforms are to porn — the animating fetish that sustains an entire industry. Helping to scratch the noodle itch is an army of bloggers whose dispatches are consumed with voyeuristic glee. The numbers are against them — with a ramen shop on nearly every street corner, even the most devoted enthusiast can never hope to achieve anything approaching completeness. But the collective zeal of ramen bloggers has ignited a national obsession, establishing the genre as a new-media force and catapulting some of its practitioners to an unlikely measure of fame.

Hiroshi Shimakage typifies the new breed. The genial 35-year-old construction worker who favors B-boy fashion grew up in the ramen hotbed of Kitakata in Fukushima Prefecture, where noodles are such a part of the community that the term asa-rā (morning ramen) describes the locals’ go-to breakfast.

“I can’t remember a time I didn’t love ramen,” he tells me over a round of Kirins at a pub in Tokyo’s Shibuya district. “It’s something that’s always been with me.”

Shimakage chronicles his passion via a pictorial blog, called No Reason! (noreason-hiroshi.blogspot.jp), which details his explorations in Tokyo and beyond. Filling each page are close-ups of sinewy chāshū (roasted pork), glistening noodles and frothy pools of miso broth. This is ramen fandom as visual poetry, a daily updated love letter to Japan’s true national dish.

Although ramen hunters operate according to no formal rules, Shimakage has set himself a few guidelines.

“When I go to a new shop with a ticket machine, I always push the button in the top-left corner,” he says. “That’ll be the chef’s specialty. I also ask for permission before taking photos.” His diligence has paid off: Shimakage often finds himself having a late-night beer with the owner, and his blog’s robust following includes fans in 45 countries.

It’s also forged connections in the community of ramen hunters. One of his cohorts is Abram Plaut, a 31-year-old San Francisco native who blogs at Yo! Japan (www.abram22.com) and Ramen Beast (ramenbeast.tumblr.com). Plaut got his first taste of “real” ramen during a stint as an exchange student in Hiratsuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, where he fell in love with the noodle shop near his dorm.

“Before that, I had only known instant ramen,” he tells me. “I must have gone to that shop 10 times in the month I spent in Japan.”

Since relocating to Tokyo nine years ago and starting his blog, Plaut has attracted attention in the national media. He’s been featured on TV at least five times — the producers of one program dispatched him on a tasting tour of Osaka as their “Tokyo ramen expert” — and he appears in a Playboy Japan column each week alongside fellow American blogger Brian MacDuckston, of Ramen Adventures fame (www.ramenadventures.com).

Indeed, ramen hunters have become so esteemed that a few are referred to as rā-stā — “ramen stars.” Chief among them is Hideyuki Ishigami (www.ameblo.jp/ishigamihideyuki), a 40-year-old food critic who made a name for himself in the mid-2000s as a noodle expert on TV Tokyo’s “TV Champion”; he’s now seen as a kingmaker in the industry. Ishigami’s career includes work as a restaurant producer and cup-noodle consultant, and his palate is considered so unerring that he’s been given the nickname the Tongue of God.

Another celebrated ramen fan is Hiroshi Oosaki, a 44-year-old native of Aizu in Fukushima Prefecture (profile.ameba.jp/oosaki-tora3) His website, Ramen Bank (www.ramenbank.com), serves as an essential resource for noodle fans around the country, listing more than 30,000 restaurants and providing a forum for self-anointed “ramenists” everywhere.

Like all ramen hunters, Oosaki has a seemingly bottomless appetite for his favorite dish. “I’ve probably eaten 21,000 bowls of ramen in my life,” he writes in an email. “And I eat 800 bowls every year.” For his part, Shimakage of No Reason! enjoys ramen at every meal — and even in-between meals. “I can crush three bowls in three hours,” he says.

It’s hard to imagine another dish that could command such devotion. As Plaut puts it: “The beauty of ramen is that there are endless possibilities.”

Steve Trautlein is a freelance journalist eating his way through Japan.

Veggie ramen returns!

Although ramen has near-universal appeal, there’s one constituency you’ll never find aslurp at your local noodle shop: vegetarians. That’s why the annual spring promotion by leading chain Kagetsu has become such a hit.

While supplies last, the shops are serving a 411-calorie bowl of ramen made from a light, vegetarian broth topped with noodles and a heaping serving of spring vegetables.

At ¥780, it’s sure to elicit contented sighs from non-meat-eaters everywhere. See www.kagetsu.co.jp for details.