The Tōhoku region of Japan came into international focus in 2011 when a 9.0–9.1-magnitude undersea earthquake struck off the coast. The Great East Japan Earthquake was the fourth most powerful ever recorded, triggering 133-foot tsunami waves in Tōhoku and killing more than 15,000 people. More disaster followed when the tsunami hit the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.
But before the tsunami, Tōhoku had been known for something else: its food. Its tsukemono, or pickled vegetables, are famous. The cherries in Yamagata can sell for $10 a piece. The region is also home to what’s considered the ramen capital of the world, Kitakata. A city of about 50,000, Kitakata has the most ramen spots per capita of any city in the world, making it a must-visit for diehard fans.
Ramen developed in Japan after Chinese immigrants introduced “Chinese Soba” to their new home, according to American author Elizabeth Andoh, who has been living in Japan since 1967 and wrote a book about the Tōhoku region. Like pizza in the United States, the Chinese noodle dish took on a new identity in Japan.
“By happenstance, it evolved into something with a unique identity,” Andoh says. Once ramen took over Japan, it went on to conquer the world. Its lore lures travelers like myself not only to Tokyo, but to Tōhoku. How can a ramen fan not want to go see the dish’s capital city?
Tōhoku is a calm and bucolic agricultural region in Fukushima Prefecture surrounded by mountains. The road to Kitakata passes through hay and rice fields with swans pecking for food. Driving into Kitakata from the highway, you know you’re coming to the right place because you pass billboards for ramen. The town and its surrounding area are known for having good water, which helped foster the ramen boom as well as a thriving sake industry.
Andoh says that water is a critical component in Japanese cooking. “Merroir” matters, and the spring water around Kitikata is different than elsewhere. There’s a subterranean stream from the Iide Mountains north of Kitakata City that has a perfect balance of hardness and PH balance. That combination of traits makes it great for both the broth and noodles.
But there’s more to the origin story than Kitakata’s water.
“The gist is that it was a combination of new express trains linking Tokyo with nearish spots like Kitakata, and TV coverage that put Kitakata in the limelight,” says Brian MacDuckston, Tokyo resident and author of Ramen at Home. MacDuckston has been living in Japan for more than eleven years, documenting the culture of ramen on his blog Ramen Adventures all the while. He’s visited Kitakata six times. “Kitakata’s excellent water meant that noodles were a perfect food for the area. That and a peculiar morning ramen culture.”
Like what Game of Thrones did for Croatia and Lord of the Rings did for New Zealand, Kitakata got a bump in tourism thanks to mass media.
“In 1975, a major Japanese TV channel, NHK, aired a program about Kitakata ramen, and this put Kitakata on the map for many Japanese who were looking to explore their country,” says Steve Yu, VP of marketing at Zicasso, a travel company that runs a ramen tour through Japan.
“To provide some more context, this was during the time when television sets were also becoming widely adopted in Japanese homes and many programs that were featured on television were often glorified,” Yu says. “At that time, approximately 50,000 visitors were recorded to have visited Kitakata that year, and the number of visitors rapidly reached to 200,000 by 1983.”
More TV shows promoting Kitakata ramen followed, proving the city to be worthy of more than 15 minutes of fame. Its reputation as a top ramen destination stuck and grew. “Two of the largest ramen chain restaurants were started and have headquarters in the city,” says Yu.
According to MacDuckston, Kitakata really only has one major style: Noodles that are pressed by hand before boiling to activate the gluten, served in a light soy broth.
As far as restaurants go, MacDuckston’s favorites in town are Ajian Shokudo, Hasegawa, and Makoto Shokudo.
The menu at Makoto Shokudo is simple. You can pick the size of your ramen bowl, how many slices of chashu (pork) you’d like to go with your curly, sticky noodles. On a nearby shelf, there’s a framed recent photo of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe visiting the shop.
“We have been open for about 70 years,” says Rika Sato, who represents the fourth generation of her family to run the restaurant. Every day, her father wakes up at 3:00 a.m. to begin making the shoyu ramen. It takes three hours to prepare. “Then he opens at seven o’clock,” Sato says. Kitakata residents are known for enjoying asa-ra, or breakfast ramen.
Makoto Shokudo’s recipe hasn’t changed in seven decades of business. Sato and her father still follow the same method her great grandmother perfected in the ‘40s when she moved to Kitakata. It contains local Kitakata soy sauce made with the same Iide Mountains water as the broth and noodles. The broth is rich with umami from dried sardines and pork bones. The noodles are thick and curly, which makes them catch broth well. It’s dressed with hearty chashu and bright, chopped green onions.
Even though there are so many ramen shops in town, Sato isn’t worried about the competition. “I’'m really happy,” she says. “I am really appreciative of my great grandma. Because she made this ramen shop, that's why I can do, I can still open this ramen shop—that's why I don't worry about everything.”
If you visit Kitakata, do like the locals do and eat ramen for breakfast. Later in the day, go sample the region’s famed sake that also benefits from water from the Iide Mountains, such as Dewazakura. For dinner, you might need more ramen considering you’re in the world’s ramen capital. Round out your visit by staying in a Tohoku onsen hotel where you can digest, soak, relax.
Getting to Kitakta is easy thanks to the bullet train. Travelers visiting from Tokyo can take the JR Tohoku Shinkansen to Koriyama, then transfer to the JR Banetsu-sainen rapid service train to Kitakata.