The Ramen Shaman: Yoshimura-ya (Yokohama)
On Sunday, April 6, my picture and story was in the Kanagawa edition of the Yumiuri Shimbun, one of Japan's three biggest newspapers (yes only the local Kanagawa edition... but still). Read it here if you can read Japanese. If not you can look at my picture and Google Translate your way to such gems as: "Will's "pig bone very popular, but can not win in shock when I eat ramen family" he said."
This befuddling sequence of events is all because of Yoshimura.
Yoshimura-ya is the first iekei ramen shop. The "ya" at the end of the name and the "ie" in iekei have similar backgrounds as the term for "house"... you know what, don't worry about it.
Basically Yoshimura's ramen was so popular when it first opened that imitators started popping up all over Yokohama, Yoshimura's homebase, and soon after elsewhere in Japan. But in tribute to the one ramen shop that rules over them all, they usually add "ya" to the end of their name, in homage to the O.G.: Yoshimura.
So Yoshimura is kind of a big deal. Other than the legendary Ramen Jiro, Yoshimura is the only shop to spawn an entire genre on its own, like a ramen version of AKB48. It was one of the first hybrid ramens, a shoyu-tonkotsu blend, sporting boiled spinach and a triple nori mohawk as toppings. Hybrid broths are standard these days but were revolutionary when Yoshimura first opened in 1974. This year marks their 40th anniversary, and the reason for a six-part feature that I magically became a part of in Yomiuri Shimbun.
How did that happen? Total accident! Two years ago I ate at an iekei shop by mistake. I was looking for a different place but was unknowingly at the wrong train station (I didn't have the collective knowledge of the human race on my cell phone back then). Out of desperation and hunger I went to a hole-in-the-wall called Nakamura-ya solely because of the name Nakamura -- I thought it might be related to the Nakamura-san of Los Angeles Ikemen ramen fame. It was not. It was just an iekei shop, the first one I ever tried. I remember the soup being delicious and the chashu melting in my mouth and documented it all in my second ever Umami Mart post.
Two years later, a reporter for the Yomiuri Shimbun typed "iekei ramen blog English" into Google and the rest is history. When he contacted me about doing an interview I was immediately thrilled... and then just as quickly terrified because I've never been to another iekei shop since Nakamura. Whoops! It just hasn't happened. As much as I liked the broth, the spinach and nori were kind of a turnoff, although in the past year I've come around to them. So I've just never made iekei a priority.
But with a real interview looming in which I was being consulted as an "expert" it quickly became a priority. So I ate at three iekei shops in a week. Including Yoshimura-ya.
The first one was billed as the best in Shinjuku. It was ok. A better atmosphere than the ramen. The second had the highest rating in all of Tokyo. It was much better, but still didn't quite resonate with me like some other ramens. Don't get me wrong, I love shoyu-tonkotsu ramen, but there was an extra component to the flavor that I could do without. Great ramen, just not my platonic ideal.
I had been hoping a local Tokyo ramen would blow my mind enough to be a surrogate. But in the end I knew I had to try the original before I could look myself in the mirror prior to the interview. So a 40 minute train ride on a rainy day later I was in Yokohama Station and down the street to the waiting area outside the first iekei ramen shop ever. They have an interesting vending machine that dispenses colored plastic chips instead of tickets. Here's my golden ticket, a purple chip designating my 'venti' size order.
Err, medium. There are different colors for the different toppings, for example the red and blue combo was popular (regular small size with added soft boiled egg).
Once inside I watched the cooks prepare several bowls while I waited. First came a ladle of shoyu broth, followed by a big pour of tonkotsu, aka liquid pig, straight from a giant vat. The two never totally blended, resulting in a striated bone marrow black and tan for the ages. It looked awesome.
Finally they laid down my bad boy. It's a simple bowl, the marbled broth hiding chunks of chashu and the aforementioned spinach on top with nori propped on the side, and thick, chewy noodles within.
Yoshimura's ramen reminds me of the day I spent at Oktoberfest Munich in 2006. Oktoberfest should be like the Mona Lisa. Everyone knows about it, it's super famous, and there's no way it can possibly live up to the hype. If you've been to the Louvre you know I'm right. The Mona Lisa sucks. But Oktoberfest doesn't suck. It totally lived up to the hype -- and then some. Even though after eight hours of drinking I had to exit the subway twice due to nauseau -- and may have puked once -- it was still awesome. Just a tremendous experience all around and I still can't quite believe it.
That's Yoshimura. It's phenomenal! In my mind, iekei used to be an overrated style whose popularity I didn't quite understand, but this place just Double Dare slimed me into submission. Now it's a no brainer. The mixture of dark, salty shoyu and thick, sweet tonkotsu, when done right, is mad scientist genius. Creamy, rich, and one of the greatest broths of all time.
No, really. This is one of the best bowls I have ever eaten. Top 5 for sure. Unbelievable. I have no idea what else they put in that thing, but if you told me it was the collective canned dreams of the 18th century I'd believe it. Only a critically rare historical nonentity can taste so good.
True ramen fans owe themselves a visit to one of the white whales of ramenia, the One Broth That Spawned Them All. Let me know if you want company. すごい!
2-12-6 Minamisaiwai, Nishi-ku
Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan