A bowl of ramen consists of four basic elements: the broth, the tare, the noodles, and the toppings. The broth is generally a mix of pork, chicken, seafood, and vegetables, with each shop crafting their own blend. Most mix various parts of pig and fowl, some add more complex elements, and some never reveal their secrets. Though most diners categorize ramen into shoyu, miso, shio, and tonkotsu types, many shops specialize in just one style, referred to simply as “ramen” on their menu. This guide details the basic characteristics of a number of established regional styles; it only scratches the surface of the myriad varieties of ramen being served every day across Japan.
Tare タレ: Also known as kaeshi, tare is the strong, salty flavored essence placed at the bottom of each bowl. Shoyu tare, based on a reduction of soy sauce and other elements, is the most common. The tare—shoyu, miso, shio, or otherwise—roughly determines the ramen’s “type.”
Shoyu 醤油: Soy sauce but so much more. Strictly speaking, most ramen is built upon a shoyu base, but the amount of variation in taste and style within the category is immense.
Miso 味噌: Fermented bean paste. Coming in many shades of brown, miso makes up another common ramen category. Though only a few regions specialize in this style, many shops offer their own home-blended miso-based bowls.
Shio 塩: Literally, “salt.” Typically lacking shoyu in the base, light-colored shio ramen is built upon a reduction made from dried seafood, seaweeds, and other salty ingredients with lots of umami. Many shops offer shio ramen, but only the city of Hakodate selects it for local pride.
Tonkotsu 豚骨: Pork bones and the ramen made therefrom. Unlike the varieties listed above, tonkotsu’s name and taste are derived primarily from the broth rather than the tare.
Asahikawa Ramen (旭川ラーメン)
Located at the base of the mountains smack in the middle of Japan’s northernmost island, Asahikawa is Hokkaido’s second-largest city, and is best known for its zoo and a rich ramen tradition. Uniquely Asahikawa-style ramen emerged in 1947, at the shops Hachiya (which began its life as an ice cream parlor) and Aoba. Asahikawa ramen is a blend of pork and chicken stocks and a seafood broth, making for a rich and complex soup with a shoyu base. The bowl is topped off with an insulating layer of lip-scalding melted lard to prevent the soup from losing heat in the frigid winter months. The current nationwide trend of blended “double” soup traces its roots to the Asahikawa ramen tradition, which is celebrated with an annual summer ramen festival.
Toppings: Roast pork, scallions, bamboo shoots, lard.
Famous shops: Aoba (青葉), Hachiya (蜂屋).
Sapporo Ramen (札幌ラーメン)
The northern city of Sapporo is one of Japan’s most famous ramen destinations, best known as the birthplace of miso ramen. Although Sapporo had its share of noodle shops before World War II, it cemented its place in ramen lore in 1955, when a customer at the noodle house Aji no Sanpei asked the chef to dump some noodles in his miso and pork soup. A new classic was born, and Sapporo ramen has since evolved into a rich and fatty soup accented with minced pork, ginger, and garlic. (Traditionally the miso base, broth, and vegetables are cooked together in a larded wok before being transferred to the bowl.) Sapporo miso ramen was the first regional style to take off nationally in the 1960s, and the city remains a ramen mecca, boasting a “Ramen Alley” with over a dozen shops.
Toppings: Roast pork, scallions, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, minced pork, ginger, garlic, butter, corn.
Famous shops: Aji no Sanpei (味の三平), Sumire (すみれ), Shirakaba Sanso (白樺山荘).
Hakodate Ramen (函館ラーメン)
Ramen came to Hakodate the same way it came to the rest of Japan—via the slow boat from China. For reasons lost to history, the standard soup served by the Chinese community in Hakodate had a thinner and lighter broth than the soy-based soup that took hold in Yokohama and Tokyo. As a result, this bustling maritime town is home to a mild, yellow chicken-and-pork broth boiled long and slow. Hakodate is the only city in Japan to claim shio ramen as its own creation, and the style is dominant within the town’s precincts. Toppings tend toward the standards, and noodles are cooked to be quite soft—comfort food on a cold winter day.
Toppings: Roast pork, scallions, bamboo, nori, spinach, fish cake (naruto).
Famous shops: Miss Jun (ミス潤), Seiryuken (星龍軒).
Akayu Ramen (赤湯ラーメン)
One day in 1960, Sato Kazumi, the founder of ramen shop Ryushanhai, dropped a dollop of miso paste into the leftover soup and noodles he had taken home to eat with his family. After a bit of tweaking, Sato developed one of Japan’s most unusual ramen styles—sweet and mild ramen topped with an angry red ball of blended miso, chili, and garlic that slowly dissolves into the soup. Pop it in your mouth all at once and you’ll breathe fire like the Dragon of Shanghai that gives his shop its name. Thick, wavy, and chewy noodles topped with a dusting of powdered aonori seaweed swim below.
Toppings: Roast pork, scallions, bamboo shoots, fish cake, miso-chili-garlic paste, powdered laver (aonori).
Famous shops: Ryushanhai (龍上海).
Kitakata Ramen (喜多方ラーメン)
The small town of Kitakata boasts the highest ramen-to-resident ratio in the country, clocking in at roughly one shop for every 300 inhabitants. Kitakatans are known to eat their light, clean, shoyu-based soup for breakfast, and they’ve even developed a ramen burger made of pork sandwiched between griddled noodle patties. Order soba here and you’ll probably be served ramen instead. In the bowl, Kitakata keeps it simple, with a no-frills soup and minimal toppings. Noodles are hand-cut to be flat, wide, and curly; high water content makes them toothsome and chewy. Let’s hope the town escapes the ill effects of the nuclear meltdown at the not-far-enough-away Fukushima reactor.
Toppings: Roast pork, scallions, bamboo shoots.
Famous shop: Genraiken (源来軒).
Shirakawa Ramen (白河ラーメン)
As in most cities in Japan, ramen in Shirakawa dates back to the prewar period, when it was served in Chinese restaurants and street-side stalls. Takei Toraji learned to sling noodles at those stalls before opening up his own shop, Tora Shokudo, where Shirakawa ramen proper took shape. Despite idolizing the bumbling postwar comedic folk hero Tora-san to the point of cooking with a bottle in one hand, Takei managed to develop a refined ramen characterized by light, simple soup and hand-kneaded noodles. Like most local styles across northeastern Japan, Shirakawa ramen features an unadorned shoyu broth that draws its taste from an abundance of local mineral water, which also makes for springy noodles with lots of give in the chew.
Toppings: Roast pork, scallions, bamboo shoots, fish cake, nori, wontons, spinach.
Famous shops: Tora Shokudo (とら食堂), Kafutei (火風鼎), Suzuki Shokudo (すずき食堂).
Tsubame-Sanjo Ramen (燕三条ラーメン)
What’s the cure for living in a part of the country known mostly for freezing temperatures and silverware factories? Lard, lard, and more lard. The twin cities of Tsubame and Sanjo lay claim to one of the most unusual and unhealthy ramen variants anywhere in Japan—an already rich broth made of pork bones, chicken, and sardines is topped with an almost obscene amount of suspended pork fat. There’s enough lard and raw white onion shaken on top that it’s almost impossible to make out the extra-thick, linguine-like noodles hidden below. They say that the salt and calories go a long way to replenishing the body after a day’s work making forks and spoons.
Toppings: Roast pork, bamboo shoots, chopped white onions, lard.
Famous shops: Fukuraiten (福来店), Ryûkaitei (龍華亭), Ramen Jun (らーめん潤).
Today, Tokyo is home to an almost unimaginable variety of ramen styles and trends, but buried amid the thousands of shops, there is such a thing as traditional Tokyo ramen. Drawing from the soy-based broth brought to Japan by Chinese immigrants more than 100 years ago, Tokyo’s shoyu ramen is made from pork, chicken, veggies, kombu seaweed, shaved bonito flakes (katsuobushi), and other dried fish. The standard bowl contains scallions, nori, roast pork, and bamboo shoots set atop curly noodles, and nowhere in the metropolis is very far from a neighborhood shop or late-night pushcart slinging this nostalgic standard. This simple-seeming yet subtly complex style is probably the most recognizable image of ramen for millions of hungry slurpers around the world.
Toppings: Roast pork, scallions, bamboo shoots, fish cake, nori, spinach.
Famous shops: Chuka Soba Manpuku (中華そば萬福), Harukiya (春木屋), Sakaeya Milk Hall (栄屋ミルクホール).
Tokyo Tsukemen (つけ麺)
Ramen’s popularity has grown by leaps and bounds over the last decade, and one of the most notable trends has been the rise of tsukemen. As much a different concept of ramen as a regional style, undressed tsukemen noodles are dipped into an accompanying bowl of fishy, barely diluted broth before slurping. Though tsukemen has taken the ramen world by storm of late, it traces its history to the early postwar era, when the now-legendary “God of Ramen,” Kazuo Yamagishi of Tokyo’s Taishoken, decided to offer his customers soup and noodles separately. The sweet, spicy, vinegary broth clinging to extra-fat noodles has spawned literally thousands of imitators—tsukemen has staked its claim in the noodle pantheon.
Toppings: Roast pork, scallions, bamboo, fish cake.
Famous shops: Taishoken (大勝軒), Tetsu (哲), Rokurinsha (六厘舎).
Tokyo Abura Soba (油そば)
Literally meaning “oily noodles,” abura soba is ramen sans soup. Instead of sitting in broth, freshly boiled noodles are placed atop a thin layer of concentrated flavor essence (tare) and mixed by diners, who add vinegar, chili oil, and other toppings before stirring and slurping. This seemingly postmodern snack actually dates back to the mid-’50s, when a series of shops located in the suburbs west of Tokyo began serving soupless bowls. More recently, places like Junk Garage and Bubuka have upped the ante, adding a mess of toppings like raw eggs, mayo, hot peppers, chopped garlic, fried noodles, and, of course, lard to create a beast somewhere between noodle nachos and a heart attack in a bowl.
Toppings: Roast pork, scallions, bamboo, vinegar, chili oil, mayo, raw egg, garlic, lard.
Famous shops: Chinchintei (珍珍亭), Bubuka (ぶぶか).
Yokohama Ie-kei Ramen (横浜家系ラーメン)
Most ramen histories trace the introduction of ramen to Japan to Yokohama, where it arrived with Chinese traders in the late nineteenth century. These days, Yokohama is better known for ie-kei ramen, a viscous, salty, and fatty tonkotsu-shoyu style pioneered at Yoshimuraya in 1974. The shop’s many imitators add the character ie (家, meaning “home”) to their names in tribute to the founder of this open-source ramen. When ordering, diners can calibrate the firmness of the noodles, the amount of suspended fat, and the saltiness of the soup to the delight of their tongue and the detriment of their arteries. Yokohama is also home to the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum, a must-visit for any noodle aficionado.
Toppings: Three sheets of nori, stewed spinach, garlic, ginger, spicy bean paste.
Famous shops: Yoshimuraya (吉村家), Rokkakuya (六角家), Budoka (武道家).
Nagoya “Taiwan” Ramen (台湾ラーメン)
Don’t show up in Nagoya looking for “Nagoya ramen,” or you’ll go home hungry. The city’s best-known noodle dish is kishimen, the flatter and curlier cousin of udon, but Nagoya also has its own ramen legacy. “Taiwan ramen” is Nagoya’s claim to slurp fame—the name originates from the Taiwanese-born chef who ran the ramen shop Misen back in the ’70s. Wanting to give the locals a taste of home, he whipped up a reimagined version of Taiwanese danzimian, piling on ground pork, Chinese chives, green onions, and hot peppers. Taiwan ramen enjoyed a moment of fame in the ’80s, when a capsaicin-based diet craze swept Japan, and locals still love it. Apparently it’s a regular menu item in the corporate cafeteria at the Toyota headquarters in Nagoya.
Toppings: Ground pork, Chinese chives, hot peppers, scallions, garlic.
Famous shops: Misen (味仙).
Kyoto Ramen (京都ラーメン)
Given Kyoto’s cultural reputation, you might expect its ramen to be a rarefied and refined reworking of the humble noodle soup. But the old capital is home to two distinct types of down-home ramen: the thinner assari-kei shoyu ramen, and a thick, gritty chicken-soup kotteri-kei ramen, both of which are referred to as “Kyoto ramen.” The former is a blend of pork and chicken broth, with a dark soy base; the latter is a rich porridge-like soup culled mostly from chicken, topped with spicy bean paste, chives, garlic, and pungent local kujnoegi onions—it’s quite popular with the town’s large student population.
Toppings: Assari-kei: roast pork, scallions, bamboo shoots, nori; some shops offer pats of butter. Kotteri-kei: roast pork, scallions, bamboo shoots, spicy chives, minced garlic, chili bean paste, white pepper.
Famous shops: Assari-kei: Shinpuku Saikan (新福菜館). Kotteri-kei: Tenka Ippin (天下一品), Tentenyu (天天有).
Wakayama Ramen (和歌山ラーメン)
Whereas eastern Japan is dominated by thinner shoyu ramen, western Japan is the kingdom of rich, porky tonkotsu soup—and Wakayama is the happy medium where the twain meet. Known by locals as chuka soba (“Chinese noodles”), Wakayama ramen is based on a strong soy sauce tare and a heap of long-simmered pork bones. The noodles resemble the long, thin, firm threads of Hakata ramen, but you won’t fail to find a pink-and-white fish cake of the kind that pop up often in Tokyo. Most shops also offer hayazushi—traditional western-Japanese-style vinegared-mackerel sushi pressed onto rice and wrapped in an edible leaf.
Toppings: Roast pork, scallions, bamboo shoots, fish cake.
Famous shops: Ide Shoten (井出商店), Marusan (丸三), Marutaka (丸高).
The smallest of Japan’s four main islands, Shikoku is not known as a ramen hot spot. Udon is the ruling noodle in these parts, but Tokushima prefecture garners ramen respect for serving up a satisfying and complex shoyu soup. As the story goes, resourceful Tokushimans made broth out of the leftover pork bones from the many ham factories located nearby, and mixed in some extra-strong aged soy sauce to craft a tasty bowl not far removed from its cross-strait kissin’ cousin, Wakayama ramen. Add a few strips of thinly sliced pork belly, then break a raw egg on top of it all, and you’ve got a delicious dish. Tokushima ramen is sometimes divided into “black,” “yellow,” and “white” styles, in descending order of the strength of the soup served at a given shop.
Toppings: Scallions, pork belly, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, raw egg.
Famous shops: Inotani (いのたに), Shunyoken (春陽軒).
Onomichi Ramen (尾道ラーメン)
Onomichi ramen emerged as a distinct style in the years after World War II. It’s a relatively straightforward formula: take a lot of chicken, a little bit of pork, and add some local seafood—but it isn’t Onomichi ramen without a big helping of cooked lard and suspended pork fat on top. A shoyu base and homemade flat-wavy-chewy noodles round out the bowl. Onomichi got its own stop on the bullet train in 1988, and passengers have been known to get off the train just to grab a bowl. The city’s most famous shop, Shukaen, was founded in 1947, and most tourists don’t leave town without making a pilgrimage.
Toppings: Roast pork, scallions, bamboo shoots, lard.
Famous shops: Shukaen (朱華園).
Hakata Ramen (博多ラーメン)
Any devotee of Hakata ramen knows that the best way to find a bowl is by following your nose. Broken pork bones are cooked over a high flame for days at a time here until the marrow seeps out, giving off a rancid odor that belies the smooth and creamy broth. While eating at street-side stalls along Fukuoka’s Nakasu River, drunken diners can order unlimited extra servings (kaedama) of the thin, unrisen noodles to dump in their soup; a true Hakata ramen fan will have his noodles dipped in boiling water for barely a second before slurping them almost raw. The final component of Hakata ramen (which is also known as Nagahama ramen) are the tableside toppings, including sesame seeds, garlic, pink pickled ginger, spicy mustard greens, and soy base to strengthen the soup.
Toppings: Roast pork, scallions, nori, pickled ginger, garlic, spicy mustard greens (takana), garlic.
Famous shops: Ganso Nagahamaya (元祖長浜屋), Ichiryu (一竜), Ippudo (一風堂).
Kurume Ramen (久留米ラーメン)
Few towns have exerted as great an influence on ramen history as Kurume. In 1937, Miyamoto Tokio’s street-side stand Nankin Senryo started serving porky tonkotsu ramen; ten years later, a pot of bones left simmering too hot for too long at the nearby shop Sankyu proved to be a happy accident when the chef found the stinky and milky-white marrow-infused soup to be highly delicious. The broth with the beastly stench quickly earned devotees, and Kurume ramen spread across Kyushu, giving the southern island its distinctive style. Bits of fried lard, lots of melted marrow, and tableside offerings of sesame, pickled ginger, and garlic give Kurume ramen a pungent punch.
Toppings: Roast pork, scallions, nori, pickled ginger, sesame, spicy mustard greens, garlic.
Famous shops: Taiho (大砲), Tairyu (大龍).
Kumamoto Ramen (熊本ラーメン)
Tonkotsu ramen spread from its birthplace in Kurume to take root in Kumamoto prefecture, where locals started cutting it with a little chicken broth. Like all Kyushu prefectures, Kumamoto serves straight noodles, though they’re a bit thicker and softer than those to the north. In addition to the standard toppings, most bowls of Kumamoto also feature pickled mustard greens, sliced wood-ear mushrooms (kikurage), bean sprouts, and cabbage. What sets Kumamoto ramen apart, and keeps its fans devoted, is a heavy hand with the garlic, laid on as both fried garlic chips and the black liquid known as mayu, made from garlic burned in sesame oil. If you’ve ever eaten at the worldwide chain Ajisen, you’ve probably tasted a bastardized version of Kumamoto ramen.
Toppings: Roast pork, scallions, nori, wood-ear mushrooms, cabbage, garlic chips, burnt garlic oil.
Famous shops: Kodaiko (こだいこ), Kokutei (黒亭), Keika (桂花), Komurasaki (こむらさき).
Kagoshima Ramen (鹿児島ラーメン)
Known for its strong liquor, incomprehensible dialect, rebellious spirit, and mutton-chopped elders, Kagoshima is Japan’s Deep South. Kagoshima played a key role in ending the feudal shogunate and establishing modern Japan in the nineteenth century, and, as it turns out, their ramen is ahead of its time too. Kagoshima ramen cooks have been using their local brand of black pig (known stateside as Berkshire pork) since way before it was cool. The only ramen in Kyushu that doesn’t trace its origins back to Kurume, Kagoshima ramen features a surprisingly mild broth of pork, chicken, and veggie stock finished with burnt onions. Noodles are cooked quite a bit past al dente, and can be either quite thin or quite thick, reflecting influences from both Okinawa and Taiwan.
Toppings: Roast pork, scallions, bean sprouts, wood-ear mushrooms.
Famous shops: Noboruya (のぼる屋), Komurasaki (こむらさき), Wadaya (和田屋).