More than a century after it welcomed its first ravenous customers in downtown Tokyo, Rai Rai Ken is back in business.
On a recent afternoon, diners at its new premises in the bowels of the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum barely looked up as they demolished servings of noodles made according to the restaurant’s original recipe.
Rai Rai Ken is unlikely to recapture its heyday, when specially hired Chinese chefs served up to 3,000 customers a day in Tokyo’s Asakusa District.
However, its reappearance last month, albeit away from the cut and thrust of the high street, was a rare piece of good news for Japan’s COVID-19-hit restaurant sector.
Between April and September, restaurants accounted for 10 percent of all bankruptcies, according to Teikoku Databank.
However, there was worse news for purveyors of Japan’s favorite comfort food. In the nine months to the end of September, 34 ramen chains filed for bankruptcy — the first time since 2000 that bankruptcies have exceeded 30 by that point in the year.
If the trend continues, this year could be the worst on record for ramen shops.
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented ramen restaurants with an unprecedented challenge. Many operate out of tiny premises where social distancing and profits are incompatible, with customers crammed in along narrow counters.
Bigger chains have responded by installing plastic shields between spread-out seats, increasing delivery services and offsetting price rises by charging less during certain periods, in the hope that they can stay afloat during the pandemic.
The rest face a dilemma: ask Japan’s price-sensitive diners to pay more, risking driving them away, or accept the inevitable and close.
The decision is complicated by a generally accepted rule that no ramen shop hoping to retain its customers’ loyalty can charge more than ￥1,000 (US$10.56) a bowl. Prices vary depending on the region, but Tokyo eateries generally charge about ￥800, while the national average is a little more than ￥500, according to Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications data.
The pandemic has also deprived ramen shops of foreign visitors, who before the collapse of tourism would happily line up around the block to try authentic ramen at Tokyo’s better-known chains.
The industry is also undergoing a generational change that could hasten the demise of restaurants that opened during the era of breakneck economic growth in the 1960s and 1970s, and whose owners are struggling to find successors.
The effects of the pandemic aside, Kazuaki Tanaka, a ramen researcher and writer, believes the industry is settling into a state of equilibrium after years of overheating fueled by new openings and a rash of recipe innovations ranging from seafood-based broths to tsukemen dipping noodles.
“Talk of a ramen crisis is overblown,” said Tanaka, who reckoned he has eaten about 15,000 bowls of ramen in the past two decades — an average of more than 700 a year. “It’s far from being on the verge of collapse. Now that the boom has ended, the industry is maturing, and only the good places are surviving.”
There is wavering on the ￥1,000 principle, as more people are willing to pay extra for “craft” ramen, inspired by growing demand for unusual or organic ingredients, and the cuisine’s entry into the gourmet fold that began in 2016 when Tsuta became the first ramen restaurant to be awarded a Michelin star.
“Younger chefs who trained under veteran cooks are opening their own places rather than taking over aging restaurants, so the quality will keep on improving,” Tanaka said. “They trained the traditional way, but they have their own ideas.”
Rai Rai Ken’s resurrection should serve as both a cautionary tale and cause for optimism. In 1976, it served what many thought would be its last bowl of ramen, after the then-owner failed to find someone to take over the family business. It would be another 44 years until diners were again able to sample its trademark noodles and soy-based soup coupled with char siu pork, fermented bamboo shoots and shavings of spring onion.
“The secret lies in doing something different to everyone else,” Tanaka said. “It’s about the soup, the noodles, the selection of toppings, and how they all work together. If you can do that properly, then people will queue up to eat your ramen. And they will keep coming back.”
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