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."