Food & Drink

Full stomachs and wallets at Osaka Hanten

by Matt Kaufman

Contributing Writer

For Hisao Tanaka, ensuring that everyone can afford to eat a delicious meal is a cause dear to his heart.

Tanaka was born in 1953, in Otsuki, a small farming and fishing town in Shikoku’s Kochi Prefecture. His family was impoverished, and his two brothers and younger sister often went to bed hungry. After leaving school at age 15, Tanaka moved to Osaka to work in a factory to help support his family. A year later, he found a new job working as an apprentice at a Chinese restaurant, where the owner taught him not to waste anything: Onion skins, carrot peelings and eggshells were cooked into a soup for flavor and removed before serving.

In 1984, after over a decade of working at three different Chinese restaurants, Tanaka opened Osaka Hanten near Kishinosato Station in Nishinari Ward. Having experienced hunger as a child, Tanaka wanted to provide people in his working-class neighborhood with cheap and hearty meals that anyone could afford — especially children, who were warmly welcomed into his new restaurant.

Tanaka charged only ¥100 for a bowl of ramen, but knew it had to be of the highest quality, otherwise his customers would never come back for a second serving. Using the methods he learned from his restaurant experiences, he bought choice cuts of pork belly and chicken wings for his broth from a local butcher and added generous amounts of fresh bean sprouts and green onions for a simple ramen that was both tasty and nutritious.

Tanaka’s ¥100 ramen became the talk of the town, and interest in his new restaurant exploded after journalist Masaru Nishigaito wrote a series of articles about Osaka Hanten for the Asahi Shimbun in 1985.

Curious about the ramen, and intrigued by the story of the conscientious, hardworking owner, readers traveled to the tiny restaurant from all over Kansai. There were lines around the block, which led to even more coverage from national magazines, radio and television. Nishigaito later wrote a 222-page biography of Tanaka, published in 1986, titled “Hyaku-en Ramen Tetsugaku” (“100-yen Ramen Philosophy”).

Tanaka, 65, didn’t increase the price of his ramen for more than 25 years. Eventually, in 2009, rising costs forced him to begin charging ¥200. He says that he often gets customers from places as far away as Tokyo and Tohoku who fondly reminisce about eating his ramen as children when they only had ¥100 in their pockets.

“Children are a treasure,” says Tanaka.”I (prepare) my soup with a lot of nutrients, especially calcium for growing bodies. Seeing so many people enjoy my ramen over the years (gives) me happiness that is worth more than money.”

Osaka Hanten would not have lasted 34 years if it only served cheap ramen, which is sold almost at cost. There are over 30 other items on the menu including gyōza dumplings (six pieces for ¥180), fried rice (¥380) and shrimp in chili sauce (¥550), all of which helps Tanaka stay in business.

The yakisoba fried noodles (¥380) in particular are made with soft noodles from a specialty shop in Hokkaido and taste like authentic Cantonese lo mein. Tanaka coats the wok with vegetable oil and fires up the heat to eleven. Flames shoot up in the air like pyrotechnics at a rock concert. In goes the chicken or pork, followed by squid, shrimp, carrots, cabbage, green onions, shiitake mushrooms, green peppers, soy sauce, sesame oil, oyster sauce and a splash of Amami sake to enhance the flavor of the noodles.

When the restaurant is not busy, Tanaka often entertains his customers by playing harmonica and guitar as his alter ego, the “Ramen Bluesman.” He mostly plays Japanese folk, blues and enka, but also knows a handful of pop songs by the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel and John Denver. Tanaka encourages his customers to sing along, and musicians of any skill level are more than welcome to bring their instruments to Osaka Hanten to perform with him.

Osaka Hanten: Shioji 1-3-18, Nishinari-ku, Osaka 557-0052; 06-6615-8812; open daily from 12-10 p.m.; nearest station Kishinosato.