Noodle Stand Tokyo’s Golden Wagyu Ramen is not for the faint of heart.
It’s presented in a shallow black bowl, easily big enough for two people. The custom-made noodles are completely buried under a whopping 300 grams of A5-grade wagyu — 200 grams of thinly sliced, rare Saga beef, 100 grams of Miyazaki beef sukiyaki — a jammy Okukuji egg from Hitachi Farm; sauteed asparagus; honkatsuo (“true dried” skipjack tuna flakes); truffle oil; and, as if that wasn’t “extra” enough, flakes of gold leaf, which quiver gently in the heat of the wagyu tail broth. To the side, there’s a spoon heaped with foie gras, kabosu citrus and a wooden masu box of fermented chili paste add-ins.
Offered exclusively via reservation through ByFood, a platform that offers food experiences to tourists across Japan, this extravagant bowl of ramen costs ¥12,000.
Seeking to develop a unique tourism experience in Tokyo, Serkan Toso, the founder of ByFood, came up with the idea of creating an expensive ramen in partnership with YouTuber Sonny Side, the personality behind the “Best Ever Food Review Show.” The resulting video, which was released last November, compares ramen at three different price points, culminating with the Golden Wagyu Ramen developed by Noodle Stand representative and 22-year industry veteran Takeshi Nishimaki.
“First, I thought it would be good to have a ramen that embodied Japan,” Nishimaki says. “So I made representative ingredients the focal point. Lots of ramen uses pork … so I wanted to use wagyu, and made that my jumping-off point.” The video has over 3 million views since it debuted and according to Nishimaki, Noodle Stand’s sales have since increased about twofold.
“Although it’s expensive, people don’t mind because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Toso says. “It becomes a reason to come to Japan.”
ByFood is intentionally capitalizing on an increasingly important motivation behind Japan’s growing inbound tourist numbers: food. According to a survey conducted by the Japan Tourism Agency (JTA) in 2018, 70.5 percent of tourists listed “eat Japanese food” as something they “wanted to do before (they come to) Japan”; 27.9 percent said it was the thing they “wanted to do most.”
Gastronomy tourism — visiting an area primarily to sample its local cuisine, and using food as a lens to explore a culture — has a surprisingly long history in Japan. Entire regions, if not individual towns, are known for their culinary meibutsu (literally “famous item”), while tourist-focused books about restaurants have been published since the Edo Period (1603-1868). Still, according to the World Tourism Organization’s “Second Global Report on Gastronomy Tourism,” it remains an underutilized resource in Japan, representing “a potentially major economic driver for regional communities.”
Lauren Shannon, the general manager at Arigato Japan Food Tours, which offers food tours and culinary experiences across five major Japanese cities, agrees. “Domestically, food is a natural connection to tourism, it’s very granular,” she says. “There’s a dawning revelation, slow to come, that it’s something to adapt for inbound (tourists).”
The Japanese government also recognizes the need to create sustainable regional development in its quest to become a “tourism-oriented country” by 2030. In 2016, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) began the Savor Japan program, which has since certified 21 areas with notable culinary history and experiences such as heshiko (fermented mackerel) from Obama, Fukui Prefecture, and tenobe sōmen (hand-pulled noodles) from Shimabara, Nagasaki Prefecture. The government also consults with food tourism companies for other initiatives like the Eat! Meet! Japan! contest, which “(aims) to increase food expenses of tourists around Japan.”
Arigato Japan has also begun to partner with regional Japanese governments. “(Food tours) bridge the gap to showcase areas they have that are great, but also the things they might overlook as futsū (normal),” Shannon says. “We see a lot of potential if people invest in it.”
Mentioning that about 85 percent of tourists only visit the “golden triangle” of Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, Toso says, “We aim to make interesting food experiences in local areas to attract tourists. Although we are promoting regional areas,” he continues, “we need to get people to those areas and to get people to (branch out to) local places, we need to increase repeat tourists.”
Across the board, customer demographics for such food tours skew English speaking and middle-class. Customers mainly come from the United States, Australia, Europe and Britain; most are couples or friends in their mid-30s who are willing to pay for experiences with more communication and interaction with locals. At Arigato Japan, 90 percent of customers are first-time visitors to Japan, though Shannon does note the company has seen an uptick in repeat customers, which opens the door to expansion beyond Japan’s usual tourist destinations.
“We’re always trying to expand our knowledge about Japanese cuisine,” Shannon says. “(But) it’s a two-way street. If local communities are interested, they shouldn’t be shy about reaching out to tourism companies.”