Weird Japan Interlude: The Curious Case of Detective Butt

I am reminded there is more to life than lawsuits and childcare and learning how well the Second Law of Thermodynamics--i.e., the entropy of a system always increases, the inexorable trend in the universe is toward disorder--explains the experience of managing and retaining a restaurant staff. We can always return to Japan, the country that produces the "Moist Diane" line of hair-care products, and it is amazing. 

Last week, a small but very satisfying slice of Japan arrived in my house. Hiroko went kids book shopping in Kinokuniya, a Japanese bookstore in SF Japantown, and came back with the delightfully weird Detective Butt (Oshiri Tantei in Japanese, and in some places translated as The Butt Detective or The Bum Detective). I couldn't read the title when Hiroko thrust it in front of me, but I could see what was on the cover. 

I did a double-take.  I said to her, "is his head really a . . . butt?"  "Yeah," she said, "his name is Detective Butt." And so it is, reader, so it is. 

Only in Japan.  Japan is an amazing filter of foreign culture. Here, the input is Sherlock Holmes. The output is Detective Butt. Also, should we be surprised that of the two translations currently on the market, one is  French ? The other is Korean.

Only in Japan. Japan is an amazing filter of foreign culture. Here, the input is Sherlock Holmes. The output is Detective Butt. Also, should we be surprised that of the two translations currently on the market, one is French? The other is Korean.

Detective Butt, believe it or not, is a completely serious and very smart book. It's a Japanese kids repackaging of Sherlock Holmes, wherein the Holmes character just happens to have a butt crack in place of a nose and mouth (although I presume there's a breathing apparatus buried in there somewhere). But otherwise he's completely Holmes: logical, sophisticated, intense and intellectually rigorous. His eyes (one on each cheek) are fierce. The book takes kids through a surprisingly thorough investigation of a candy theft from a sweet shop. It forces them to examine evidence and identify witnesses on the way to figuring out who did the crime. Detective Butt is joined by a cast of cute characters, like a dog policeman and something that looks like a cucumber mated with a balding, goateed middle-aged man. There's even a scene in a ramen shop!

Perhaps you've started to wonder where the punchline is, am I right? I mean, why is his head a butt? Is that part of the story? What's the point of the whole thing? That's what I asked Hiroko, at least. "It's just that his head's a butt," she responded. So that's how it is.

And that's where we come to Japan, possibly the only country in the world where Detective Butt could not only be created, but end up a bestseller. My other comment to Hiroko was to the effect that there is something so completely Japanese about this book. Like, if some nation is going to make a book like this, it's of course going to be Japan. She agreed. 

But why do we think this? What's so Japanese about it? Sure the animation style is definitely Japanese, but it's more than that. It's the book's ability to make the butt/head so conventional, so incidental to the story. The whole thing is just so matter-of-fact. In this world, there's nothing unusual about a man with a butt for a head. The butt is unremarkable and unthreatening. It's just human anatomy, it doesn't have to be sexual or fecal.

Makes Complete Sense.  Two Butt Detectives, Japan (L) and America (R). The one on the right is what you find if you search "Detective Butt" on Google.  If you want the one on the left, try searching "Oshiri Tantei."

Makes Complete Sense. Two Butt Detectives, Japan (L) and America (R). The one on the right is what you find if you search "Detective Butt" on Google.  If you want the one on the left, try searching "Oshiri Tantei."

Japan is a country where the urinal stalls on trains sometimes have a see-through window rather than a "vacant/occupied" sign. People would freak out in America. To see the back of a man peeing on public transportation would certainly herald the End Times, I have little doubt. 

On my first trip to Japan 13 years ago, we were in Tokyo Station the morning after I arrived. I announced a need to use the bathroom. Hiroko said "do you know what's in there?" She laughed and called out "good luck!" Inside, I found myself face-to-face with a squat toilet. What madness is this? What am I supposed to do with that? Sensing my obvious confusion, a cleaning lady grabbed me by the shoulders and thrust me toward the next stall, which housed a western toilet. In the end, I'm not sure which part surprised me more: that squat toilets were a thing, or that a lady was in the men's room tidying up in and directing confused tourists to the proper facilities.  

And let us not forget about the toilet slide museum exhibit where, according to Huffington Post, children "are greeted by cartoon stools and singing, interactive toilets that guide them through lessons about what feces are made of, where they go and how different toilets are used around the world."  Oh, and the human body exhibit where museum-goers walk into a giant inflatable butt.

I repeat, completely different sensibilities.   

Scenes from  Detective Butt .  

Scenes from Detective Butt.  

It's this innate Japanese neutrality toward its potentially scatological subject matter that makes this book possible. Combine that background with the Japanese ability to make pretty much anything cute (see, e.g., poop emoji and toilet/butt museum exhibits, supra), and Detective Butt starts to appear more inevitable than anything else.

Brilliantly, Detective Butt sustains the joke with barely a wink at the reader until our sleuth finally corners the culprit (a pig) in a gritty back alley at the end of the story. Now comes the punchline: Detective Butt deploys his secret weapon--a potent blast of facial flatulence--to disable the crook. So a butt is a butt after all.  But even then, as soon as the air is clear, Detective Butt is back to his life of sophistication, soaking in a hot bath, then enjoying tea and potato cakes in his bathrobe.    

When I told Hiroko I could imagine Detective Butt as a whole series of books, she informed me that there are already seven of them! Of course there are.  

Google Translate!  While searching, I found this Japanese  bookstore page  announcing a  Detective Butt  event. Clicked translate, and voila, this!

Google Translate! While searching, I found this Japanese bookstore page announcing a Detective Butt event. Clicked translate, and voila, this!

It's a Fox, It's a Cat, It's a Shiba Inu

The Shiba Inu, the iconic Japanese dog with pointed ears and a curly flourish of a tail, is a magical creature. It is a dog possessed of almost feline characteristics, fastidious, quiet, sensitive, refined, elegant, and somewhat aloof. There is nothing slobbery about the Shiba, no rolling around in shit. On walks, puddles are delicately avoided. Its stature and proportions are those of a much larger dog, but in a house dog sized body. It's insanely cute, without ever being silly. Everybody thinks it's a fox. And have you ever seen the Shiba puppy cam?

Shibas in the Garden. Momo (L) and Toro (R). 

When we got our first Shiba (Toro) eight years ago, Shibas were a relatively new phenomenon here in the U.S. Nobody knew just what he was, and countless people asked about him when we were out and about. We heard "he looks just like fox!" everywhere we took him. Once we were strolling through a small park at the base of Mt. Shasta, the volcano towering above us and rainclouds in the sky as dusk approached. The park was almost empty, except for us and little boy and girl with their mother.  After we passed them we could hear their children's voices arguing. "It's a fox," said one. "No, it's dog," said the other. "No, it's a fox!" 

Maybe it's because we rarely go out anymore, having become hermits in our life of ramen and toddler mayhem, but it seems people ask about the dogs a lot less now than they did five years ago. I think breed recognition has grown significantly, so fewer people feel the need to comment on their foxy looks. Now I see Shibas around all the time here in the Bay Area. Two years ago, I had dinner with a friend in New York, who told me she'd never seen a Shiba there. But it's definitely a question of whether or not you're looking. The next morning I went out to do some exploring, and spotted five of them in the Lower East Side, all before lunch! 

When we made the abrupt, almost spontaneous, decision to start our ramen business two years ago, the Shiba Ramen name was all but set. Just hours into the project, we were confident enough to buy the domain name as our very first corporate act. We never really talked about other names. We just kind of understood this was it. And of course this was it! What other name could there be? We're just wild about our dogs.

Let's learn a bit more about this amazing animal and companion, from its ancient origins to the ideal orientation of its majestic tail.

Japanese Dogs

The Shiba Inu is the smallest of six native Japanese breeds of spitz-type dogs, the others being the Shikoku, Kishu, Kai, Hokkaido, and Akita. It has its origins in prehistory, its ancestors coming to Japan with immigrants from the Asian mainland beginning in around 7000 B.C. By 200 B.C., continued interbreeding of the ancient dogs with more recent immigrant breeds produced a dog similar to the modern Shiba: small size, pointy ears, curly tail. In the 7th Century A.D., the imperial court established a dogkeeper's office to help maintain the native dog breeds as an important part of Japanese culture. Through the medieval period, Shibas were bred by Samurai for hunting deer, wild boar, and small game. Three regional sub-breeds of Shiba ultimately evolved: the San In Shiba, Mino Shiba, and Shinsho Shiba. 

Six Japanese Dogs. Clockwise from upper right: Hokkaido, Kai, Kishu, Shikoko, Shiba, and Akita. All are named after the region of origin, except the Shiba.  Image from 

World War II almost made an end of the Shiba. Due to bombing, food shortages, and a post-war distemper epidemic, the breed was almost wiped out. The surviving members of the three Shiba strains were bred together to produce the modern Shiba Inu. 

Modern Shiba. After WWII reduced the Shiba to near-extinction, the survivors of the three regional sub-breeds were combined to give us the Shiba we know today.  Image from My First Shiba.

What a Tail!

In our Shiba Ramen logo (which you now understand is not a cat!) we chose to emphasize two features of the Shiba: it's pointed ears and curly tail. These twin traits stand out when you see a Shiba for the first time, the tail especially. According to the American Kennel Club breed standard, the Shiba's tail "is thick and powerful and is carried over the back in a sickle or curled position. A loose single curl or sickle tail pointing vigorously toward the neck and nearly parallel to the back is preferred. A double curl or sickle tail pointing upward is acceptable." I now appreciate what this means. Our younger Shiba, Momo, has the "preferred" tail, a loose single curl that drapes elegantly along her back. 

Our older Shiba, Toro, has the latter (i.e., merely "acceptable") kind of tail. It's tightly curled, sits up on his back, and resembles a cinnamon bun. It's high on cuteness factor, but it can't fully unfurl and has a limited range of motion. When he wags his tail, the wound-up tail clicks back and forth on his back. His tight tail was at least one reason the breeder didn't keep him to show. Nevertheless, it is a pretty amazing emotion-conveying tool. When he drops his tail 90 degrees, such that it hangs parallel to the ground with core still coiled, it's a sure sign he's nervous.

The Shiba ears, meanwhile, are incredibly soft and velvety, and are at least as expressive as the tail. They can lower into a high-cuteness airplane-like position or, like a satellite dish, they can rotate around a vertical axis to pick up sounds coming from behind. 

Our abstract logo fails to pick up on one significant Shiba feature: it's coat and markings. The Shiba comes in four color varieties: red, sesame, black & tan, and cream. Red is the most common. If you've seen a Shiba, odds are it was red. The first three colors are the only ones accepted in competition. According to the AKC, cream coloring "is a very serious fault and must be penalized." Good grief, I say to that, but whatever. The apparent issue is that the cream Shiba doesn't have urajiro markings--i.e., white color on the underside of the dog from the muzzle through the tail.

Four Flavors of Shiba. Black & Tan, Red, Cream, and Sesame (L to R).  Photo credit here.  

Toro, My Personal Stalker

The Shiba temperament is different from the other dogs I've experienced. There's an aloofness and independence in the Shiba; it is not a lapdog. But that doesn't mean it doesn't want to be close. It wants to be next to you, not on you. It wants to interact on terms of its own choosing. When Toro arrived as a four-month-old puppy, he was unlike any puppy I'd met. Cautious, nervous, even depressed by his changed circumstances, it took a long time before he warmed up to us. Eight years later, he still only allows himself to be handled in certain ways, but the strength of our bond is undeniable. He is near me almost all the time. He's the most needy kind of aloof you can imagine. 

Momo is a bit different. She's not the nervous type, and doesn't need to be in the same room. But she enjoys--and sometimes even initiates--physical affection. In a demure Shiba sort of way, she'll come up and poke you with her nose, inviting a pet. Where Toro was something of a basket case when he arrived, Momo bounded out of the crate and got straight to the good times. Where Toro doesn't bark, Momo thrusts out her chest and runs around the house and yard throwing around her tough girl bark at every squirrel and passing dog. Not uncommonly for Shibas, both dogs arrived as 3-4 month-old puppies essentially housebroken. Shibas really want to be clean.  

What a Stud! Taro, father of Toro and grandfather of Momo. Great logo inspiration.  

The personality difference we see in our dogs may be a reflection of male vs. female Shibas generally. Toro has had a lot of anxiety issues over the years, and under certain circumstances can be prone to dog-dog aggression. Last year when my mom's male dog visited for a couple months, Toro was aggressive with him when food was around, especially when my mom was doing the feeding. But as soon as we learned Toro needed to feel like the alpha around her (he already was with me), so he should be fed first, the problems diminished. There are lots of reports of male Shibas being difficult. Momo, on the other hand, isn't prone to mood swings or any type of aggression. Her personality is light and eternally good-natured. Toro's foibles aside, both dogs are remarkably gentle around people, kids included.  

To learn more about the Shiba Inu, click here, here, here, or here.


Don’t Forget the Font! The Complexity of Written Japanese and the Shiba Ramen Logo

I have a confession to make: I don’t speak Japanese. I can’t read it or write it. I do understand lots of words and phrases (foods, cultural miscellany, petty vulgarities), but that’s pretty much it. Nevertheless, I live around Japanese, I hear it and see it every day in my house, and I’ve learned a lot about it over time. Critically, this level of knowledge is enough to make informed decisions about how, if at all, Japanese language should feature in Shiba Ramen’s brand image (especially because we have an in-house technical expert).

Earlier this year, I wrote extensively about our logo design strategy: suggesting Japanese authenticity while seeking American accessibility. We wanted to use Japanese text in the logo, but we knew we’d need to strike a delicate balance if we did.  

I’m going to explain how (I think) we struck that balance, but first I need to explain a fact about Japanese language that is pretty surprising for westerners: Japanese uses three sets of written characters.

Shiba Ramen Logo, Cast-Iron Brand .  We use a single Chinese character ( kanji ) saying only "shiba."  The text font and the logo itself evoke a traditional Japanese  hanko  stamp (see below).  Here with our Shiba Scream ice cream prototype (minus the ice cream).  

Shiba Ramen Logo, Cast-Iron Brand.  We use a single Chinese character (kanji) saying only "shiba."  The text font and the logo itself evoke a traditional Japanese hanko stamp (see below).  Here with our Shiba Scream ice cream prototype (minus the ice cream).  

Two Syllabaries: Hiragana and Katakana

English is written with a set of 26 Roman letters known as “the alphabet.” But alphabet is actually a technical term: it means a set of letters, usually arranged in a fixed order, each one of which represents a perceptually distinct sound. Japanese is a little different. It doesn't use an alphabet; instead it uses a syllabary. The characters in a syllabary each represent an entire syllable, instead of just a sound. For example, the syllable “ba” is made up of two distinct sounds, “b” and “a.”

Actually, Japanese uses two sets of parallel syllabaries, known as hiragana and katakana. Hiragana and katakana have just under 50 characters each, which represent the same set of sounds. The only obvious differences between the two are their visual appearances. The hiragana and katakana characters for the same sound typically look quite different, and the overall appearance of katakana is sharper and more angular.

Japanese Syllabaries.

Japanese Syllabaries.

At this point it's only understandable to ask why in the world the Japanese need two sets of characters representing the same sounds. The historical answer is that the two character sets evolved separately in medieval Japan, both as simplified versions of Chinese characters (kanji). Interestingly, katakana were typically used by men, who controlled the translation of Chinese literature and the writing of official documents. Hiragana, meanwhile, were considered women's script, and were used in unofficial communications like personal letters and literature. Apparently, Japanese women traditionally wrote Chinese characters in a cursive style, which is why hiragana has a decidedly more cursive appearance than katakana. Eventually, the gendered usage was abandoned, and the two scripts took on different functional uses.

And that's how things stand today. Hiragana is set that is used for Japanese words, especially those that can't be written with kanji. Katakana is the set used for foreign words and names, onomatopoetic words (lots of those in Japanese), and for emphasis (as we use bold or italics).

So why the need to signify foreign words with a separate character set? For one thing, the Japanese borrow a lot of words from other languages. But so does English, so what gives?

I'm Actually Wearing This Right Now.  Katakana in Action. グッド・タイムズ = "Guddo Taimuzu" = "Good Times"  

I'm Actually Wearing This Right Now.  Katakana in Action. グッド・タイムズ = "Guddo Taimuzu" = "Good Times"  

Well, something funny happens when words from an alphabet-based language are written in a syllabary. Look at it this way. We can combine and manipulate our Roman letters to represent almost any sound, although we often have to memorize a word's pronunciation as a result. In a syllabary, the sound is manipulated, as well as the spelling. All of the syllabic characters in Japanese are either stand-alone vowels (a, e, i, o, u) or a vowel paired with a consonant (i.e., ha, ba, na, ka). There is only one stand-alone consonant (n). Everything must be spelled using this limited universe of sounds, each of which is always pronounced the same way.

Any foreign word must be modified so that it can be written and spoken in Japanese, unless, of course, that word is comprised only of syllables in the Japanese set. Use of katakana signals that a word is not Japanese; that it has been altered to fit into Japanese.

Here are a couple examples. It’s impossible to write my name (Jake Freed) in Japanese, because Japanese has no standalone “k” or “d” and no “fr” consonant blend. My name becomes “Jeiku Furido.” And some of my absolute favorites: Starbucks becomes “Sutaabakusu.” Alcatraz becomes “Arukatorazu.” McDonalds becomes Makudonarudo. Lots of extra vowels, no letters like “L” or “V.” Katakana would be used for all these words. By the way, the Japanese are also very proficient at abbreviating words. Sutaabakusu becomes Sutaba; Makudonarudo becomes Makku.

Katakana.   Makudonarudo Hanbaagaa = McDonald's Hamburgers

Katakana.  Makudonarudo Hanbaagaa = McDonald's Hamburgers

One Logography: Kanji

If things aren't tough enough yet, it gets yet more complicated. In a single sentence, you might see hiragana and katakana. You will probably also see kanji. Kanji are logographic characters, which means that they are associated with meanings, not sounds. They were imported to Japan from China in late antiquity. Many characters are similar or even the same in Japanese and Chinese and, for that reason, a Japanese person who doesn’t speak Chinese can often understand the rough meaning of basic written Chinese, even if they have no idea how it sounds.

There are well over 5000 kanji, but most Japanese only know a fraction of these. Japanese kids are required to learn a government-mandated set of 2136 by the end of high school, and those are the ones that are typically used in newspapers and media publications. Some kanji are inordinately complex or obscure, and they can be hard to read, let alone write. But if you understand them, kanji are more efficient for reading: symbols can convey the same amount of information in less space than letters can.

Back to the Logo

For Shiba Ramen's logo, we wanted to use some Japanese language element. We considered using either hiragana or kanji. We initially looked at some designs that said “Shiba Ramen” in both English and hiragana. Although we liked the hiragana, the look with a single kanji (“shiba”) was just cleaner and more refined. Using two kanji would start looking Chinese. Incidentally, “ramen” is often written in katakana in Japanese because it's actually a foreign (Chinese) word.

Hanko Inspiration .  Remembering the old Uniqlo soy sauce t-shirt in my closet (left) led us to our logo font.  This shirt was done in the style of a hanko stamp (right).

Hanko Inspiration.  Remembering the old Uniqlo soy sauce t-shirt in my closet (left) led us to our logo font.  This shirt was done in the style of a hanko stamp (right).

Just like Roman letters, Japanese characters come in all sorts of fonts. The reality, though, is that many of the available fonts are meant to evoke calligraphic brushstrokes. Our view was that brushstrokes were too traditional for Shiba Ramen, so we spent some time looking for alternatives better suited to the image we want to project. After a few days of waffling, I recalled the kanji on the back of a soy sauce t-shirt Hiroko bought for me at Uniqlo in Japan over 10 years ago. I dug it out of the closet and showed it to Hiroko. This font used clean lines of uniform thickness and right angles.

Hiroko explained that this font is the kind used on a hanko stamp (the stamps all Japanese use to sign their names on official documents). A hanko-type font, we realized, would fit with our more modern image while still retaining something of the traditional Japanese. We played around with a few hanko-type fonts, picked one, and our logo was complete.  

Profiles in Ramen, India Edition

It was a bit good fortune that we encountered Satoshi Akimoto during our field trip to ramen school. This guy is undertaking a very serious ramen project.  A year ago, he was working as a mechanical engineer at Nissan, doing things like designing auto suspensions and chassis.  Now, in an abrupt career redirection, he's a just a few months away from opening one of  India's first authentic ramen restaurants.  It's an interesting story, and one with some obvious parallels to ours.

When we arrived at Shoku no Dojo early on a Wednesday morning, most of the students were huddled around a table, hunched over pens and papers, working out the recipes they'd serve in the school's training restaurant a few days later.  Akimoto was set apart, standing at the ramen bar and working on a laptop.  This guy looked like he was working.  The others were kind of shooting the shit. He was clearly the most intense student in class.

After a few minutes of walking around the Dojo shooting pictures of the scene, I parked myself at the bar where Akimoto was working and started talking about what he's doing in ramen school.  I had time to chat while Hiroko was getting some thoughts on kitchen design from the other Akimoto, the guy who runs the Dojo.  

Akimoto told me he'd lived in the U.S. a few years ago, in Detroit.  He was there doing engineering work for Nissan.  After a few years back in Japan, Nissan sent him to Chennai, India in 2012.  He went alone, while his wife and two boys remained in Japan.  It appears that there's a decent-sized Japanese expat community in Chennai, and Akimoto was on the board of the local Japanese society.  This activity plus business connections he made in cycling group helped him get a sense of the economic opportunities there.

He realized there's a serious business opportunity in India.  There are essentially no ramen restaurants in India; it's a completely untapped market.  Akimoto wants to start the first real Japanese ramen shop in India, and then expand from there.  He wants to be the guy who brings ramen to India.  

Japan, Inc. Logo. .  Akimoto created a Japanese corporation, called Japan, Inc., as well as an Indian entity called GRP for "Global Ramen Project."  The text says "Japan."   

Japan, Inc. Logo..  Akimoto created a Japanese corporation, called Japan, Inc., as well as an Indian entity called GRP for "Global Ramen Project."  The text says "Japan."   

So six months ago, he came home to Japan for one week, just to attend the first half of the ramen course at Shoku no Dojo (he had come back to finish the course in April when we met him). He went back to India, resigned from his job at Nissan, and now is in the midst of opening his first ever business.  He's doing it in a foreign country, and one in which he's only lived for 2 or 3 years at this point.  He calls it the Global Ramen Project.

Akimoto is opening his restaurant Aki-Bay Ramen this July, partnering with a Japanese friend.  The name combines their respective names, anglicizing the spelling a bit.  Over the past few months, he hired an Indian lawyer to get his corporate stuff up and running , and used his network from cycling to find a space in a local mall with two floors and a balcony.  He's signed a lease, and now he's back in India overseeing design, architecture, and construction, lining up his suppliers and working out his recipes.  Everything is happening at breakneck pace. Apparently he's going to be featured on a TV program, a segment of which will be filmed at Shoku no Dojo! 

Kanji.   Chinese characters for "Aki" and "Bei."

Kanji.  Chinese characters for "Aki" and "Bei."

Aki-Bay is going to focus on chicken and vegetarian ramens, using no pork in the broths, to conform to Indian dietary sensibilities.  Akimoto will probably bring managers from Japan to work at the business.  He's going to have his noodles specially made in India, but he'll have to import his kansui (carbonate salts) from Japan, the ingredient that is the sine qua non of ramen noodles.

Akimoto told me that he's also going to make an effort to introduce India to more Japanese culture than just ramen, starting with matcha green tea.  This goal really resonated with me and Hiroko, because introducing and translating Japanese culture is definitely something we intend to pursue through Shiba Ramen and this blog.

You can follow Satoshi Akimoto on Facebook here.

Profiles in Ramen, Japan Edition

In Tokyo last month, Ramen Chemistry sat down to talk about the ramen business with two chefs, one (Keiichi Machida) an established Tokyo presence who's about to open an outpost in Toronto, the other (Satoshi Akimoto) an engineer who just quit his job at Nissan to open his first restaurant in India.  These meetings, one planned and one by chance, were of special interest to us.  Both chefs are examples of people who, like us, got into the ramen business from outside of the restaurant world.  And all three of us are today working on projects to bring ramen to newer markets outside of Japan.  

I asked both whether I could profile them at Ramen Chemistry.  Then, like the (diligent) lawyer that I am, I pulled out a notebook, and took a (low-key and cooperative) deposition of each.  Hiroko translated between me and Machida, but Akimoto and I talked directly.  Today I'll profile Machida, and later this week will profile Akimoto.  

Petrochemicals to Ramen

According to Keiichi Machida, "passion" is the key to a successful career in ramen. We met Machida at the bar at Kyouka, his restaurant in Tachikawa, a somewhat anonymous and remote district in the deep and dense urban expanse west of Tokyo. Hiroko had gotten to know him last fall when he taught her about ramen at Shoku no Dojo. The two of them talked about Shiba Ramen's kitchen design plans while I took pictures of the space and the food. Afterward, we headed to a local cafe for Japanese desserts (black sesame ice cream parfait for me) and talked to Machida about his life in ramen.  


Fifteen years ago, Machida made a living as the owner of a small petrochemical import company.  He apparently started making ramen broth after buying some pork bones for his german shepherd.  He had to cook the bones to make them edible for the dog, and decided to put the soup stock to use.  

Around this time, he was sitting around with his family over the New Year holiday, watching TV.  They randomly saw a program that featured a segment about a ramen museum and restaurant complex in Yokohama (pictures below), which was hosting a televised competition looking to discover creative new ramen chefs. Since he'd been making soup, his family thought he should check it out.  So at the spur of the moment, they took a field trip to the museum.  They actually weren't too impressed with what they ate there, and thought they could do better.  Machida's family encouraged him sign up for the TV contest.  He went for it.

Instant Celebrity

422 people entered the competition.  The first rounds were on paper, narrowing the field before the televised portion.  Machida advanced.  At this point, he realized he actually needed to learn something about making ramen!  So he went to a meat supplier, and asked what ingredients other restaurants were using.  And he went around and ate a lot of ramen.  He even rooted around in some ramen shop's garbage to find out what supplies it was buying!  

It all worked: he ended up making it to the semifinals.  After that, he spent a year eating ramen and refining his recipes before opening Kyouka.  He started off specializing in chicken chintan ramen (i.e., clear chicken ramen).  He explained to us that from the start he had some notoriety in the ramen scene, because of his TV appearance and the media attention that followed.  Because he was talked up in the food media as some kind of "charismatic chef," (apparently there was some public infatuation with Japanese celebrity ramen chefs at the time), he felt pressure to innovate.  So about two years in, he started seriously studying ramen, becoming empirical and systematic in his approach to product development.

Today he's known for shoyu (soy) ramen.  He emphasizes complex recipes with natural ingredients.  He uses over twenty ingredients just in the soup of his ramen, not including the tare, oils, or toppings.  He even uses six different types of niboshi (dried sardines)!  As I mentioned in my post about Tokyo ramen, my reaction to his soup was that it has some deep essence of the ocean, without being fishy.  The recipe must be really refined to make a product like this.  We suspect it would be pretty expensive to make a product like this in the U.S. given the limited availability of Japanese specialty ingredients.  

Empire Building

After 15 years of running only Kyouka, Machida is now in expansion mode.  While he still works in the kitchen at Kyouka once a week or so, handling special recipes, he's opening a food court kiosk down the street in Tachikawa later this year, where he expects to serve 1000 bowls a day!  He's become the consulting chef for a new pair of Toronto shops, called Touhenboku Ramen.  Touhenboku is owned by Zuimei Okuyama, who Machida helped train at Shoku no Dojo last year, and it specializes in chicken-based ramen.  And now that he has some familiarity with the Toronto scene, he's planning to open an outpost of Kyouka there within the next year.    

Touhenboku Ramen.  Machida serves up ramen in Toronto.  Image

Views on Ramen

We asked Machida how ramen has changed in Japan over the course of his career.  He explained that before he got into the business, Japanese ramen underwent successive style trends, usually focusing on regional specialties; there was a Sapporo miso boom, and a Kyushu tonkotsu boom.  When he started off, the focus had shifted from the ramen to the chefs themselves.  Later there was a trend toward thick, rich broths.  But it's expensive to make thick broths, and the ramen scene reacted with a tsukemen trend (tsukemen is a style of soupless ramen where the noodles are dipped in a sauce, and it's cheaper to make).  After that, simplified tastes took over (Machida gave an example of chicken ramen that emphasized the flavor of chicken).  Now he thinks ramen has become really fragmented, the sheer amount of competition causing restaurants to distinguish themselves in ever-increasing varieties, often employing singular strong or unique flavors.  

Machida also gave his opinion of ramen in the U.S.  He thinks that New York ramen beats out the West Coast.  The New York ramen scene is more mature, he explained, and the ramen there is often better than in Japan.  

I say let's see what we can do about that out here in California!  Next time, ramen in India.