Iekei Ramen Part II: From Truck Stops to the Streets
The follow-up to Ramen Beast's deep dive into the wildly popular but little understood world of Yokohama Iekei Ramen.
It's a clear morning in Tokyo and the cherry blossoms are fully abloom. Tokyo's state of emergency was lifted a few days ago and covid cases have been steadily declining. Things are looking up — at last.
Cherry blossom season in Japan tends to feel like the closest humanity has come to Utopia. City parks become a canopy of white and pink, people put out blankets everywhere and the famously restrained Japanese collectively let loose, sharing food and drink among friends and strangers in a perpetual, weeklong, citywide drunken picnic. It's Big Spring Energy — optimism, thaw, nostalgia in the air, hookups happening everywhere, drunk salarymen napping in the sun, new friends, ephemeral beauty all around. And despite the nationwide overindulgence, everyone cleans up their own mess, respects other people's space and there's virtually no crime. Only in Japan.
One of Tokyo's most popular destinations for hanami (traditional cherry blossom viewing) is the westside mini city of Kichijoji, home to Inokashira Kōen, a huge park with a lake encircled by enormous, ancient cherry trees. This year, city officials have asked the public not to fully picnic in the park, fearing covid spread. So, instead, friends and families are gathering to sip sake or share snacks on the walk, making a roving tapestry of humanity under the bright white trees, everyone people-watching and in good spirits after months mostly indoors.
Back down on the ramen level, the picnic ban is already giving a much-needed boost to Kichijoji's shops, as scores of hanami-goers pour out of the park day and night — often buzzing — looking for something to eat. As it happens, the two ramen shops located just outside the park are iekei specialty shops steeped in local lore — Musashi-ya and Budouka. Any Kichijoji ramen head will have declared their loyalties long ago, but the park-goers randomly stumbling into either of these shops will probably be unaware that they have just chosen sides in a decade-long ramen battle.
This is Part II of Ramen Beast's deep dive into the wildly popular but little understood world of Iekei Ramen. If you missed Part I, catch up here.
The Kichijoji Iekei Battle
Back in the late 1990s, iekei ramen had yet to reach the fast-growing and increasingly trendy Kichijoji area. Without knowing if the style would succeed there, aspiring ramen chef Fujisaki Shigeya rolled the dice and opened Musashi-ya, an iekei specialty house, in 1999. Over the ensuing several years, he indeed struggled to pull in customers; but as his regulars gradually accumulated and word of his deceptively high-quality iekei spread, the shop hit a tipping point in the early 2000s, exploding in popularity and commanding a long line regularly. Not surprisingly, Fujisaki's success soon enticed other Iekei hopefuls to come compete for a piece of Kichijoji's turf. In 2006, iekei shop Budouka, run by chef Kikuchi Akira, opened its doors literally steps away from Musashi-ya, kicking off what's now known as the Kichijoji Iekei Battle. Musashi-ya was the established champ, popular for its somewhat lighter-than-usual iekei soup, which leaned heavily on the chicken broth component. But Budouka brought a big punch, serving up a thick, funky tonkotsu soup, free rice and late-night operating hours.
Both of these shops are somewhat distant from the source, as neither chef received direct training from iekei originator Yoshimura-san. Fujisaki and Kikuchi each apprenticed at shops whose chefs were once disciples of Yoshimura-san, but neither of those masters were among the select group of disciples who were favored enough to be invited by Yoshimura-san to open what's known as an official "noren-wake" shop.
Being one step removed from the OG Yoshimura-ya, the two Kichijoji shops are viewed by most ramen heads as third-generation iekei establishments. Some suggest that this third wave status put a chip on the masters' shoulders, fueling their motivation to outdo each other on a daily basis, and to make Kichijoji a respected battleground for top-level iekei in Tokyo. Whatever the case, a friendly rivalry fully ensued, with occasional trash talking between shops and local ramen fans pledging devotion to one shop or the other. Since the duo's battle began in 2006, a handful of shops have opened nearby, but Budoka and Musashi-ya have retained their local stronghold on the style. More than a decade later, the friendly competition is still going strong, with Fujisaki and Kikuchi routinely labeled as the “Two Kings of Iekei” in West Tokyo.
How Iekei Ramen Conquered Japan
Almost immediately after its inception in 1974, iekei became an explosively popular style across Japan. The spread was first initiated by Yoshimura-san himself, as the master gave his blessing to a string of noren-wake shops. But once a particular style takes hold, of course, and there is money to be made, copycats come out of the woodwork. Within a couple decades, there were hundreds of unofficial iekei-style ramen shops operating throughout Japan.
One of the main reasons behind the style's popularity and rapid spread stems directly from Yoshimura-san's background as a truck driver. From his many years on the road, he knew how difficult it could be for truck drivers to find good places to eat where they could also park their trucks. So he deliberately opened his original shop near the shipping docks in southern Kanagawa, along Highway 16, which runs along the coast of Negishi Bay. Yoshimura-ya's main customer base, as well as that of other prominent Iekei restaurants, have always been truck drivers, construction workers and other blue collar laborers, thanks in part to their locations near ports and highways. Many iekei shops continue to be located along freeways and to boast spacious parking lots for work vehicles.
For construction workers and truck drivers, a meal with a lot of calories for cheap was particularly appealing. Some believe iekei ramen evolved to become richer and more flavorful specifically to cater to this blue-collar customer base. Due to the full-bodied flavor of the soup, early in the iekei’s evolution customers began requesting rice to eat alongside the ramen, and over time this became one of the style's signatures.
The pairing was the perfect breakfast for construction workers looking for a hearty meal to take in before a day of hard labor. The rice balanced the heavy soup, while giving laborers another chance to carb load. Morning ramen rose in popularity in Japan in large part because of iekei, with shops such as Sugita-ya among the first to open at the crack of dawn to serve truck drivers and construction workers before their early shifts.
As the popularity of iekei spread among construction workers and truck drivers who were sharing their favorite rest stop shops with coworkers, ramen enthusiasts and other gourmet food hunters caught on and began frequenting Yoshimura-ya too. Lines during the early days were said to reach into the hundreds, with many waiting hours to grab a bowl of this trendy new ramen phenomenon. With the growing street popularity came mass media publicity as magazines and TV variety shows began featuring iekei regularly. Unlike many traditional Japanese restaurants during the 1980s and early 90s, Yoshimura-san embraced the publicity and became something of a celebrity chef.
In 1999, with legacy building in mind and knowing he had to target tourists and regular ramen fans for his brand to continue growing, Yoshimura opened his current Honten (本店), or HQ location, within a short walk of Yokohama station. His original recipes continue to flourish there today, serving hundreds of customers on a daily basis.
Another factor driving iekei ramen's boom throughout the 80s and 90s up until today is the sheer number of disciples Yoshimura-san has trained over the course of his 40+ years running his shop. According to some local reports, Yoshimura had trained well over 300 ramen chefs as of 1999, and one can only guess how many chefs have worked under him by now. Some still currently work at the honten location in Yokohama, while dozens of others have gone off to open Iekei ramen shops of their own. But only a select few have been chosen by Yoshimura-san to open official noren-wake branches.
The biggest and most popular of the Yoshimura-ya noren-wake shops is Sugita-ya, which opened across the street from Yoshimura-san's original headquarters as that shop closed when he relocated to Yokohama station. The two masters who opened Sugita-ya had trained at Yoshimura-ya for mere months before the OG master entrusted them with opening the new shop in Sugita to maintain his rep for top-quality iekei among the area's long-time regulars. The training of these two masters was documented for a Japanese TV special, which is available today on YouTube.
As the old footage shows, Yoshimura-san may be noted for his generosity in sharing knowledge with his apprentices, but he's also notorious for the over-the-top brutality of his training methods (punches, kicks, pans to the head) — but that hasn't stopped generations of aspiring ramen chefs from lining up to work for him over the decades.
Today, hundreds, if not thousands, of iekei ramen shops are in operation across Japan and many can be traced back to Yoshimura-ya. There are just seven official noren-wake shops still in business, but these shops and countless other spinoffs have in turn trained dozens upon dozens of iekei chefs. And despite the style's bad wrap as a static, unsophisticated crowd pleaser, iekei has continued to evolve in some pockets of Tokyo. With no disrespect to the original Yoshimura-ya, Ramen Hiiki in Kamata is widely thought to serve the best iekei ramen available right now.
Here's an assessment from Cody Mizuno, Ramen Beast's resident iekei mega-fan:
As a Japanese ramen purist, I often have a strong affinity for shops that stem from the original source of a genre or ramen innovation. Whether it be direct Ramen Jiro locations (vs Jiro inspired shops) or Marucho Tsukemen (vs Taishoken), I can't help but have a soft spot for "the original." However, I have to admit, Ramen Hiiki, founded by chef Yuta Koizumi, is easily one of the best iekei shops currently operating in Japan.
What makes Hiiki so special is the way Koizumi-san was able to refine Iekei in a way that hadn't been done before. At Yoshimura-ya, the soup is made in one pot — both the pork and chicken elements are dumped into the same cauldron, which is continually stewed for hours, extracting the flavors from both kinds of bones at the same time. The famous iekei shop Oudou-ya pioneered a semi-double soup method in which they extract the pork bone broth first, and then after straining, add the chicken elements into that finished tonkotsu soup for further cooking. Hiiki goes a step beyond by preparing two totally separate soups — one tonkotsu and the other chicken. The two are then blended shortly before service, creating an uncommonly clean yet totally decadent iekei soup that is seriously to die for. Koizumi-san also has upped the game of iekei chashu, bringing the category more in line with the contemporary ramen trend of tender and immaculately prepared toppings. At Hiiki, customers can choose between chashu options made from grilled pork belly (bara) or smoked pork leg (momo) — and both are great. The best part about the Hiiki experience is that he's added a level of sophistication without sacrificing the earthiness that makes iekei a street legend. Once you get your bowl, all of the standard iekei condiments are waiting on the counter for you to remake Koizumi-san's creation to your liking and get slurping.
Respect for the roots but with innovative refinement — that makes me a very happy ramen customer.
- Edited by Patrick Brzeski, produced collectively by the Ramen Beast team.