A skyscraper due to open next spring rises against the cloudy skies of Kabukicho in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. At the base of the 48-story, 225-meter-tall Tokyu Kabukicho Tower, construction vehicles were constantly coming and going. It was 9:30 a.m., and apart from the noise of the vehicles, the area was very quiet. I visited the main branch of Yaki-ago Shio Ramen Takahashi, a famous ramen shop a few blocks from the tower.
The restaurant, as its name suggests, is famous for its yaki-ago (dried flying fish) flavored ramen. The manager, Keisuke Fujiwara, and another member of staff were busy preparing for its opening at 11:00 a.m. I usually visit a ramen shop right after lunch time, but since this shop doesn’t close after lunch, I visited it before it opened. I ordered the shop’s signature dish, “Yaki-ago shio (salt) ramen” (¥850). After a while, the first morning ramen arrived at my place.
Takashashi Shinjuku during nighttime opening hours
Takashashi Shinjuku before opening
The Tokyu Kabukicho Tower, a new building that will open next spring, rises against the cloudy sky.
The cash machine outside the store
The first thing you notice is the pleasant aroma wafting from the dish, further enhanced by the soup which had a light and elegant umami flavor. The noodles, specially ordered from a noodle maker in Kyoto, go perfectly with the soup. This ramen would be nice to eat anytime.
Noodles are easy to eat and go well with soup
Soup with smoked flavor of yaki-ago
A special order of flat and curly noodles
Pour the soup into a bowl
Draining hot water from boiled noodles
Prepare noodles in a bowl
Place the leek whites on top
Dried shrimp for more flavor
Fujiwara, 29, explains, “We use a lot of yaki-ago in the sauce and to flavor the oil. A unique extraction method is used to condense the rich flavor into the sauce and oil. The soup is a mix of seafood and pork bones, and the sauce and oil give an even stronger yaki-ago flavor.
Small dried prawns on white leeks give the dish extra flavor. Other toppings include two types of homemade chashu (pork shoulder and chicken breast) cooked at low temperature, mizuna herbs and extra-thick menma (bamboo shoots). The overall result is a signature dish that has a truly unique taste.
Fujiwara: “I love making customers happy.”
“Cold Asari and Seaweed Ramen” noodles and soup are deliciously refreshing
It has limited “Cold Asari (clam) and Seaweed Ramen” menu items that were on sale until September 18. 980.
13-seat L-shaped counter
Finally, if you add rice to the remaining soup, it becomes ochazuke (rice in dashi soup). Wasabi and arare (Japanese crackers) are placed at the counter so you can finish the whole dish.
Fujiwara is in his twenties, but has worked in the ramen industry for almost half his life. He worked at a local ramen restaurant in his hometown of Kawasaki when he was a high school student at the age of 15. “I love cooking for people and making them happy,” says Fujiwara. “When you eat good food and receive good service, you feel satisfied, don’t you? I want to cherish that. Fujiwara has worked for Takahashi for three years now and was promoted to manager a year ago. He hopes to open his own restaurant in the future.
You can eat dashi chazuke by adding white rice to the remaining broth.
Various condiments are placed on the counter. Paper aprons are also available.
Japanese crackers for ochazuke (rice in dashi soup)
The ramen is explained on the counter.
In addition to ochazuke, rice bowls with meat are also available.
The challenge of the female president
But why yaki-ago? To find out, I visited the headquarters of Hikarich Associates in Nihonbashi, Tokyo. The company operates a total of nine Takahashi ramen shops in Tokyo, Kanagawa and Saitama. Company president Yuka Takahashi, 39, has appeared, and his life story involves more than just ramen.
“We aim to be a company with a yaki-ago-centric product line,” Takahashi said with a smile. “We are putting in place a structure that will allow us to sustainably and efficiently use marine resources and mass-produce high-quality yaki-ago ourselves.”
The ramen shop’s story began in his hometown, Niigata Prefecture, where Takahashi was born and raised. Traditionally, yaki-ago was used as a high quality ingredient in Japanese dashi soup. Niigata’s Sado Island has a long history of catching flying fish and producing yaki-ago, and the people of Niigata, including Takahashi, have become aware of its use in ramen and enjoyed its taste.
After graduating from college, Takahashi started working at a large real estate company in Tokyo, but left after only six months. “It was what we would now call a ‘marriage by birth,’” she says. Returning to Niigata and becoming a full-time housewife, Takahashi had two children and spent six years raising them. She returned to the workforce when her youngest child turned one and started kindergarten.
Takahashi said, “I wanted to do something that would develop my career and allow me to grow. But I was already 28, and I was like, ‘It’s hard to get into a company and fill in the blanks so late.’ Then I thought, ‘The only way to do this is to start a business.’
The idea came to him: his love of yaki-ago ramen. She saw an opportunity as the dish was relatively unknown nationwide. However, the company got off to a rocky start. “I was a complete novice with no experience, wisdom, connections or money,” she said. “It took me a year after starting my business to finally find a small budget property to open my ramen shop.” In July 2012, she opened a ramen shop in Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo, which she ran with her husband. She attempted to create the yaki-ago ramen flavor from scratch. However, the taste did not convey a sense of presence and the number of customers did not increase.
The biggest challenge with yaki-ago is the taste – it’s not as strong as with niboshi (dried fish) or dried fish flakes. In order to bring out the flavor, a large amount of yaki-ago must be used, which would make the cost higher than the usual ramen price. Takahashi wondered, “What do you want to convey?” She continued to experiment with the flavor even when the shop was closed, pondering how to “express yaki-ago in a single bowl of ramen.”
It took her a year and a half to develop a taste that she found satisfying. She had discovered an effective way to extract flavor from yaki-ago. Boiling water alone isn’t enough to get even half the flavor, but other substances such as alcohol and oil worked well with the umami and aroma that dissolved into the fish. She implemented a unique extraction method and managed to use 100% yaki-ago to make a bowl of ramen that cost 800 yen. After seeing the reaction from customers, her confidence grew and she opened a ramen shop in Kabukicho in February 2015 under the name “Takahashi”.
Become a complete yaki-ago business
Takahashi explains, “We are currently researching the use of enzymes to bring out the umami flavor.”
After spawning, the flying fish loses its taste, so its market value decreases. The company is collaborating with the University of Tokyo on research that uses enzymes to bring out the latent umami in flying fish at any stage of their growth. A demonstration experiment came close to success and they are now preparing to jointly file a patent application. Harvesting flying fish before they spawn will eventually deplete their stock, which seemed to happen about six years ago during a rise in yaki-ago’s popularity. Prices have skyrocketed due to lack of supply. Instead of the traditional roasting and drying method, the inexpensive method of mass producing dried flying fish and then passing them through a grinder has now become the norm.
Takahashi obtained a cooperative factory overseas and established a supply chain for traditional yaki-ago. There is a stable catch of fish in the warm waters of the South China Sea, but they are adults that have gone through the spawning process, which means the taste is not very good. However, Takahashi found a way to solve the problem with enzyme technology. In the near future, the cooperative factory will be directly managed to allow the company to carry out the entire process from upstream to retail: in addition to supplying all of its stores of ramen, it will also be able to distribute to food manufacturers. The company also plans to increase the number of products for home use.
She said, “As a company focused on yaki-ago, we would like to expand the food culture of the product and develop it globally. Ramen shops are an important point of contact with customers to promote yaki-ago. Takahashi’s dream grows.
Takahashi Shinjuku Honten
1-27-3 Kabukicho, Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo. Open from 11:00 a.m. Last order 10:45 p.m. Open daily except during the New Year and New Year holidays. In addition to the main branch in Shinjuku, there are five other stores in Tokyo, two in Kanagawa and one in Saitama .
Futoshi Mori, senior editor of Japan News
Food is a passion. It’s a serious battle for both the cook and the diner. There are many ramen restaurants in Japan that have a huge passion for ramen and I would like to introduce you to some of these passionate establishments, making the most of my cooking experience from Japan and around the world.