June 20, 2016
A little bit of history...
How did a tiny, countryside town become so famous for its ramen? To answer this, we have to go back to 1925 when a 19-year old Chinese migrant arrived in Japan. This young man was Bankinsei from Wenzhou in China's Zhejiang province. He arrived in Kitakata in the hope of meeting his grandfather who was working at a coal-fired power plant nearby.
But the happy reunion was never to be. His grandfather was nowhere to be found. Perhaps he had already gone back to China. No-one knew.
Finding himself in a strange new land, Bankinsei set up a street food stall and began selling noodles that he made himself. A year later, in 1926, he founded Genraiken, the first ramen store in Kitakata.
This turned out to be a good business move. The people of Kitakata loved ramen – or chūka soba (Chinese noodles) as the dish became known locally. They even ate it for breakfast, and today you can find many stores opening as early as 7am.
The popularity of ramen grew, but it wasn't until the 1970s that the ramen boom era arrived. Up until this time, Kitakata had seen an increase in visitors who came to see its beautiful timber-framed and brick storehouses that were used for sake, miso, and soy sauce. Yet this wasn't enough to bring in great number of visitors.
Storehouses and ramen combined, however, were a much more attractive proposition. And the story of Bankinsei added to the intriguing history. The media seized upon it and coverage snowballed from thereon. Thus, Kitakata became known as the "ramen town".
Although the townspeople were eager to promote their ramen, they were undoubtedly surprised by the extent of their noodle fame. Shoichi Bannai, owner of one of the most popular eateries Bannai Shokudō, said they could hardly believe that such a small, mountain-fringed town reached nationwide fame.
However, it's thanks to Bannai Shokudō that Kitakata ramen is now gaining a reputation worldwide. Noodle enthusiast Akira Nakahara, originally a specialist in soba noodles, tried Bannai's ramen and was so impressed that he decided to open a franchise. The first store outside Kitakata opened in Shinbashi in Tokyo in 1987, and now there are more than 50 Bannai stores across Japan and two in Los Angeles.