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Tokyo planetary science professor doubles as ramen guru

by Tomoko Otake

Although the fields of extraterrestrial activity and ramen may seem to be worlds apart, these disparate subjects have provided one Japanese academic with widespread recognition.

Sho Sasaki, an associate professor of planetary science at the University of Tokyo, is the author of a paper focusing on the relationship between meteoroids and asteroids that was published in the scientific journal Nature in March 2001.

He is also the man who, two months previously, had won a TV ramen contest after overcoming a series of challenges, including identifying the name of a noodle shop after sampling its “menma” bamboo shoot pickles, a typical ramen topping.

“Being on TV was really embarrassing,” the soft-spoken 42-year-old academic said in a recent interview.

“It’s like you’re on a cutting board waiting to be cooked. But my friends told me I have been helping ramen win social recognition.”

Having its roots as a Chinese noodle dish, ramen is a solid part of Japan’s food culture. The ramen industry, which dates back to the Meiji Era, exploded in the 1960s and has since spawned a cultlike following across the country, according to food industry observers.

While there are few concrete figures to illustrate ramen’s popularity, government statistics show that the average family’s annual spending on ramen grew from less than 2,000 yen in 1970 to more than 5,300 yen in 2000.

Over the past few years in particular, ramen shops have become popular with consumers whose purse strings have been tightened amid the economic downturn.

Sasaki’s love for ramen is such that he consumes some 600 bowls a year and even conducts occasional visits to the countryside to sample local varieties.

“The biggest fun is discovering little-known spots, or some Chinese restaurant that has existed for years but whose ramen dishes are little known,” he said.

Sasaki has two Web sites; one dedicated to his research, the other, of course, dedicated to ramen. The latter site has a message board, where tips are exchanged with other noodle enthusiasts.

Ramen freaks in the information age are so well-connected that word of newly opened — and even yet-to-open — outlets spreads fast.

In Sasaki’s view, ramen has acquired the status of a national pastime, akin to watching professional baseball. Both are imports, but have been transformed into something very Japanese, he noted.

Sasaki also believes the differences in regional varieties of ramen can be likened to the various characteristics displayed by regional baseball teams.

While Sasaki admitted there are ramen lovers who surpass him in knowledge, he said he has established a unique approach toward enjoying the noodles.

Rather than boast of his visits to new and novel outlets in the manner of some aficionados, Sasaki returns again and again to the same shops, enjoying the subtle differences in taste each time.

The taste of the broth, for example, varies depending on the time of day it is consumed.

This approach is rather unconventional, as ramen chefs generally view the task of offering every customer a consistent taste as part of their job.

Many outlets save their best broth and blend it with a less tasty mixture to even out the quality.

“I’d like to tell ramen shops, ‘don’t mix soup of varying qualities, give us the best one right when it’s made.’ ” he said.

To some extent, this message reflects Sasaki’s philosophy on work and life.

“In my field of research, it’s rare to come up with a clean, complete answer,” he said. “But we have to get new findings out quickly.

“Painters won’t be able to complete a single work of art, either, if they are too perfectionist. I think it’s OK to be honest about your ability.”