The Daily Life of a Tokyo Ramen Master (Q&A)
By Japan's standards, Kouki Kokubun is a very ordinary ramen chef. He's not elevating ramen to new extremes of refinement, or bringing obscure ingredients and rarified cooking techniques into the cuisine. And that's why we wanted to talk to him.
Although the rule-breakers and innovators get the acclaim, chefs like Kokuban are the foot soldiers who sustain Japan's ramen scene. At his shop Anaya, in the western Tokyo district of Hatsudai, Kokubun works over 100 hours each week and handles every aspect of the business solo, from sourcing, prep, cooking and noodle-making to cleaning, customer service and accounting. He serves a somewhat diverse menu — featuring shoyu ramen, tsukemen, a Jiro-inspired bowl and even a green curry ramen — but his food is considered pretty average by Tokyo expectations.
Local standards are remarkably high, however: If you were to drop Kokubun's shop into New York City, it would instantly be considered one of the best ramen shops in the United States. Across Japan, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of ramen masters like Kokubun — solitary chefs working tireless hours, serving impeccable meals to their neighborhood regulars.
Kokubun grew up in Yamagata Prefecture, a region famous for its love of noodles and high rates of ramen consumption. He came to Tokyo to attend hairdressing school — his first ambition — but learned to cook while working part-time in a Chinese restaurant. After abandoning hairstyling and bouncing around between odd jobs, he landed a gig as an assistant at the ramen shop Bassanova, which had become one of his regular hangouts. Not long afterwards he met the girl who would become his wife and found himself in need of a more permanent cooking post. Onozato-san, the master of ramen shop Pork Noodle Naito, took him on as an apprentice. When Onozato-san left in 2013 to open a new shop in Hatsuidai, he invited Kokubun to take over ownership of the space and make it his own shop. Kokubun renamed it Anaya, but at night, he still refers to the shop as Pork Noodle Naito in deference to his former mentor. Like many Tokyo ramen chefs, Kokobun describes the ramen calling as something he fell into — but it's a path that offered a rare and appealing sense of independence from the conformity of Japan's usual work culture.
The Ramen Beast team recently visited Anaya at the tail end of a busy weekday lunch service to ask Kokubun for insights about the daily life of an ordinary ramen master.
What kind of experience are you trying to provide for your customers at Anaya?
I want to make ramen for everyday people. I'm essentially the opposite of the ramen chef who is trying to make cutting-edge, luxurious ramen. I don't want anyone to feel intimidated coming in here. I'm going for a really relaxed atmosphere, where I can fill the stomach of the everyday man with a quality meal — at a price point he can afford on an everyday basis. That's what ramen is about to me. I don't really believe that ramen should be something fancy or refined.
What's a typical day like for you, from the moment you wake up until you go to bed?
Okay, sure. So I usually wake up at around 7am, have breakfast with my family and take my kids to school. By 8:15am, I start making my way to the ramen shop. I live in Chiba (a large suburban area to the east of Tokyo), so it takes me about an hour on the train to get there.
As soon as I arrive — around 9:30am — I get straight to work. I'll start making the noodles from scratch and preparing the day's soup. The noodle dough needs to rest for about 30 minutes, so as that's happening I'll start making toppings and other dishes. I usually finish all of that just as the noodles are ready to be cut, which takes me another 15 minutes. Then I cook the rice for the rice bowls and make sure everything is clean and ready. Usually, I'm finished exactly at 11:30am, when I open the doors and start serving customers.
During the lunch service, depending how busy it is, I'll begin getting ingredients ready for the dinner service. I serve a different style of noodle for the dinner menu, so I usually prepare those from scratch after the lunch service ends at 3:30pm. Usually I'm moving non-stop.
If I'm able to get enough prep done during the lunch hours, I'll make a simple lunch for myself that I can eat standing up — usually around 4pm. On a really good day, I'll then have time for a quick nap on a fold-out cot that I keep back here. At around 5:30, I'm prepping again — cleaning the bathroom, refilling the water bottles — and the shop is ready for dinner service at 6pm.
And when does your day end?
I close at 11pm on weekdays, so usually I need to run to the station to catch the last fast train to Chiba at 11:44pm.
On Fridays, Saturdays and holidays, I stay open until midnight. On those days, I sleep on the cot in the shop and go to the sento before I open in the morning. I'm closed on Sundays.
On the days when you make it home, how do you unwind?
Well, I do all of my own bookkeeping, so I need to do that first when I get home. I ride my bike from the station to my house — that's like a break, I guess. I get home at 12:45am and then I do the accounting. When I finish that I usually have a little time to enjoy some drinks. This drinking time is really precious to me. I really need it to reset my brain. It's what keeps me motivated throughout the day — looking forward to those moments I have to myself to drink. Then I go to bed at around 2am and do it again. My day off is Monday.
Have you ever thought of hiring an apprentice or a staff member to help lighten the load?
Actually, no. I used to be a manager of another ramen shop and there were several times where I spent a lot of time training someone — and then they just stopped coming in. It's a pretty common problem in Japan, because we don't have enough people to work and unemployment is very low [because of our shrinking population]. On top of that, there are a lot of people who come in and give ramen work a try, but they just can't hack it. Either they don't have the ability or they can't endure the intensity of it. Then, those who can handle it, honestly, they usually just leave and open their own shop eventually.
So it's just not worth it?
Yeah, when I finally got my own shop, I thought it's easier to do it all myself. Also, most of my clientele are loyal regulars. I know them all very well and I remember the nuances of how they like their ramen. I try to do little things to show my appreciation for them and keep them happy. Having someone else come in to cook, I don't know... that could really throw things off. It would make me very nervous to leave the shop in someone else's hands. That's probably the biggest reason I haven't hired anyone.
What would you say is the most fun part of your job?
Hmm. Well, nothing is fun. Playing with my kids is fun.
When I used to make ramen at home as an amateur, yes, it was a lot of fun being able to create different types of bowls. Unlike other types of Japanese cuisine, you have a lot of freedom with ramen — it's very transformable and there are no strict boundaries. You can take inspiration from other cultures and cuisines. I used to find a lot of fun in that. But it's my job now, and my priority is serving my customers and supporting my family.
One thing I guess I really do appreciate is that, through thick and thin, my regulars have remained my regulars. Recently a new ramen shop opened very nearby, but my customers have maintained their support for my shop. I'm a one-man operation, so I really know my customers. Maybe it's not fun like playing with my kids is fun, but being able to take care of my regulars is something I value.
Do you expect to run this shop for the rest of your working life?
Yeah, as long as my body holds up. That's my main concern these days — how long can I keep going physically? Obviously, after working in the ramen industry for so long, it's not like I can just quit and become a salaryman and work a desk job. As I get older and the everyday commute becomes harder, I'm hoping maybe I can eventually move my shop closer to my home, so I can cut down the hours I'm away from my family.
What to you makes a really good bowl of ramen? Or is there an element that you believe is most important?
Can you explain?
It's really about balance because it's not like you can take the best tare from one restaurant and then take the best broth from another and combine it to make good bowl of ramen. The harmony and balance of ingredients is what makes a really good bowl or ramen — how they mesh together, or layer on top of one another.
Do you think being a ramen chef requires, or attracts, a specific type of personality?
Really, it's all about what I would call having good sense. It's very different from learning to make sushi, or other types of high-end cooking that require the study of lots of refined techniques. If you have good ideas, and good sense, and some basic skills, you can open up a successful ramen shop — even if your experience is limited. You don't necessarily need to do a long apprenticeship.
It's essentially just mastering the balance of your ramen, and then having the know-how of being able to run a service industry shop. If you have the sense to create one really well-balanced bowl of ramen, and the touch for providing good flow and service for your customers, you can become a ramen chef.
For many visitors to Japan, one of the most amazing things about standalone ramen shops like yours is how high-quality the ingredients and preparation are, but how affordable it is for the customer. Basically, a handmade gourmet-level meal for $7 to $9. In the U.S., for example, a bowl of ramen in New York or Los Angeles tends to cost two or three times more than that, and the quality usually isn't nearly as high. Can you tell us a little about the economics of running your shop?
On average, before COVID, I would sell right around 100 bowls a day and I was hitting all of my monthly goals for revenue or profit. So I wouldn't say I'm suffering or anything to make my ramen so affordable. I guess the way Japanese food culture works is that soup bones and other ramen ingredients are essentially very cheap to get, because we have this long tradition of using them. In America, I suppose this type of culture isn't as prevalent. I imagine when you work with an American chicken supplier, they aren't always going to readily sell you good quality chicken bones, chicken feet or carcasses for cheap, because it's not so popular to use them. I think this situation probably applies to many of the good ramen ingredients that we can get cheaply in Japan.
About my own shop's economics, the freedom of it is what I enjoy most about this life. As someone who does everything in the shop by himself, anything I manage to earn is my own profit. Seeing how well my ramen sells and keeping my customers happy — this is really satisfying. I don't think a regular salaryman at a big company is able to see the results of their work so directly on a day-to-day basis. But that's what keeps me going: producing a special menu, seeing it sell well, and knowing that it's turning into money for me to take care of my own family — maybe take them out for some nice sushi on the weekends.
The back of Kokubun's t-shirt reads: "After you finish eating, please put your bowl and utensils up on the counter."