When Tokyo people think of a neighborhood for ramen, Ogikubo would make the list with its famous shoyu-based soups. In contrast, neighboring Nishi-Ogikubo has developed more of a reputation for curry than noodles. Apart from the veteran ramen shop Hatsune (in Willow Alley near the station), only a few independent noodle shops stand out. In the past few years, some young restaurateurs have been filling this void, led by Menson Rage, which lies 200 meters down Nishiogi’s South Shopping Street. If you took the coolest ramen shop in Brooklyn and leveled its taste up to Tokyo standards, it would be Rage. Edgy décor and loud music bring a youthful hipster energy not usually found in Nishiogi restaurants. Osama Bin Laden and Che Guevara glare down at your steaming soup from posters on the wall, while Jesus and his disciples slurp a last ramen supper from Rage Ramen bowls in another.
Rage Ramen’s owner, Hirota created the unique interior. “I wanted the space to feel like my own room because I spend time here all day. I want to be surrounded by things I love. I am keen on a band called “Rage Against the Machine.” Some of these posters and graffiti are inspired by the band.”
The restaurant’s name is also derived from this band. “I used to do karate, and Rage [Against the Machine] was the opening theme for mixed martial arts events. I used to listen to Rage before practicing to motivate myself; so at the restaurant, I want to make ramen get a rise in emotions.” He even closed his restaurant in order to see the successor band “Prophets of Rage,” when they toured Japan.
From Karate Dojo to Ramen Shop
Hirota was a karate instructor at a dojo located in Nishiogi. “I thought if I opened here, my karate master might come to visit,” he said with a laugh. The characteristic ingredient of Rage Ramen, shamo (a Japanese gamecock) also relates to his experience with karate. “I was attracted to these fighting chickens because I was doing karate,” Hirota said. “shamo is a fighting chicken, so it has a particular muscle texture. That's why it has low-fat content and a clear umami taste, you know. It enhances the flavor of soy sauce quite well. I want to bring out the taste of soy sauce.”
Before opening Rage Ramen, he worked at the highly regarded ramen shop Suzuran in Shinjuku, serving a different style of ramen. He was engaged in the opening of Suzuran and had been working there for three years. Suzuran’s ramen broth is tongyo (豚魚), a stock made from pork bones and seafood, he explained. It is a variation on the paitan style and cloudier than the soup stock served at Rage Ramen. Hirota decided upon a different style for his own shop.
“The cooking process for that paitan style is quite demanding,” Hirota explained. “I was thinking that I would not be able to keep that up running a business by myself.” He also wanted to make a Tokyo-style shoyu-based ramen. “There was a ramen boom at the time. Ours involves a broth of heritage chickens (jidori) and unpasteurized soy sauce (kiage-shoyu). I think it has been popular since 2010 or so.”
Ogikubo, next to the station of Nishiogi is famous for ramen. We asked Hirota what is special about Ogikubo ramen. “The shop Harukiya in Ogikubo rightly could be called the origin of Tokyo Ramen. There are many shoyu-based ramen restaurants in that area that are like Harukiya. If Harukiya is the original one, then people might say that ours is a hybrid type. Since the beginning, we slowly boil the ingredients in the traditional way. We carefully select our ingredients from all over the country, blending them. You could call it a sense of luxury ramen. I think Sano [Minoru] of Shina Sobaya in Kanagawa Prefecture was a pioneer who started making this elevated style of ramen.”
We asked if there is already a Nishiogi style of ramen. "Nishiogi doesn't quite give off a ramen vibe,” Hirota mused. “There is more the image of Hatsune offering tanmen or the image of Sakamotoya's katsudon, I'd say."
At the same time, it does seem that Nishiogi's ramen scene is gradually gaining visibility, with places like Rage and Nishiogi Tō both receiving recommendations from the Michelin guide. However, even these two shops do not share a style, Hirota said. "Nishiogi Tō leans more towards the Shirakawa style, a local specialty ramen from Fukushima. Personally, I think Rage could be characterized as Tokyo ramen or possibly a Neo-Tokyo ramen, so to speak."
Finding His Own Ramen Taste
We asked what about his ramen makes it unique. “First of all, I would say soy sauce. We mainly use a soy sauce from Gunma called Oka Naosaburo Shoten. It’s a type of unpasteurized soy sauce (kiage shoyu). They filter it just a minimum, so it's just raw. We have them pack it from the wooden vat into a five-gallon square can and send it to us by refrigerated delivery.”
Hirota prepares the soup stock at his restaurant. “Other than chicken, I try not to use too much-dried food, like kelp. There is some konbu and ham for balance. For Hirota, the most important thing in the ramen flavor is maintaining this balance. “It's very difficult," he said. “I like my noodles hard and thin, so I make the soup to match, and it's a balance. The main thing is the soup, but I want to make it match with the noodles. I also make the chair siu in such a way that it does not interfere with the flavors of the soup and noodles. I try to use the same ingredients that I use for ramen as much as possible to keep the balance so that the tastes don't fight with each other."
Growing the Business Along the Chuo Line
The ramen business is hard labor. Until recently Hirota’s routine workday started at 8:30 am and ended at 11 pm. “I arrive at the restaurant at 8:30 a.m. and process the carcasses, which changes a bit depending on the season. I finish putting it in the soup by 9:30 a.m., and then I adjust the heat and cook it. I strain it, cool it, put it in the freezer, and use it the next day or later. I leave the restaurant around 11 p.m. and go to bed around 2 a.m. Then I get up around 6:00 a.m. and start working again at 8:30 a.m.... We work with just a few people, so when it's tough, it's tough. We always lack staff members.”
Aside from the main restaurant in Nishiogi, Rage Ramen also operates branches in Hana-Koganei, Nakano, and Kokubunji, all along the busy Chuo Line and thus convenient to Nishiogi. The Nishiogi branch has seven employees, and altogether there are about twenty, he said. Opening the additional branches was not a difficult decision, he said. “I just did without thinking he said. I just do things according to feelings (laughs),” he said.
He entrusts the management of the other branches to people with long experience at the Nishiogi main branch. "If their experience is not that extensive, it might be a little difficult to entrust them with certain things. The skills might be learned in a short time, but it's not just about that."
What impressed us was Hirota's respect for the autonomy of the chefs in the other branches, allowing differences in flavor to emerge between his restaurant in Nishiogi and the other branches. He said, "Rather than trying to completely imitate my recipe, I think it's better for other branches of the restaurant to see and feel the atmosphere of their own customers, and then adapt their ramen to suit their own taste,” he said. “It's all about the place they serve. For example, even if the recipe is the same, there may be subtle differences even if the customers don’t notice. However, I feel like that's the taste of the person.... I don't want to keep serving the same taste at all branches, and I like to try new things.”
Customers: From Raman Freaks to Locals
When Hirota first opened Rage Ramen in Nishiogi, some of the first customers were Hirota’s fans from his time working at Suzuran. “When I was at the previous shop called Suzuran there were fans called "nibora" who are diehard fans of niboshi ramen,” he explained. These ramen freaks were his first customers, lining up at his shop on the weekends. “With ramen it is always this way, for the first month or so it will be all ramen freaks, and then the locals started asking, ‘What's this place?’ So, the locals will be the second batch of customers, and this second batch will become repeaters.”
The restaurant has not only counter seats but also comfortable table seats so that one person or a group of people can enjoy ramen. We didn't see so many women, but Hirota assured us that the restaurant was designed to be clean and spacious to attract female customers. “There are many women here. About 40 percent of the customers are women. Sometimes it's almost entirely filled with women,” he said. “The seating area is designed with baby strollers in mind. The spacing allows mothers and others to come in easily and eat quickly. In that sense, it might make it more welcoming for women as well. Women tend to prefer counter seats against the wall, as they feel more comfortable in seats like that rather than facing other customers.”
Although there is a long line in front of the restaurant on weekends and holidays, the turnover rate of customers is fast. Visitors don't usually wait in line for more than five or ten minutes, Hirota said. He doesn't like to make people wait. “Even if there is a long line, you can get in in about 30 minutes.”
Most of the current customers are regulars who live in Nishiogi and some of them visit the restaurant three to four times a week. Since the restaurant continues to be loved by local regulars, Hirota pays attention to keeping a certain distance between his regular customers. "I don't really initiate conversations with regular customers. On the contrary, sometimes it's more comfortable that way. People who want to talk will make an effort from their side. I don't tend to start conversations with those who show no interest. I read an article before where a regular female customer mentioned she couldn't go back because someone started talking to her. And I am not that into it either. Once you become friendly with people, you have to keep that up, and that can be quite challenging. I think it's better not to engage halfway. I do talk with people who come really often, but maintaining the right distance is crucial. It's a delicate balance, and it's tough because in reality, when it's busy, it's hard to have conversations."
Michelin Selected for Eighth Consecutive Year
RAGE Ramen has been listed as a bib gourmand selection by the Michelin Guide Tokyo for eight consecutive years since 2016. “Since we were listed in the Michelin Guide, the average number of visitors and foreigners has gone up,” he said. The menu has also been translated into English. “There is a famous ramen blogger called "Ramen Adventures" who strongly recommended us. Thanks to people like that, many foreigners have been coming to the restaurant recently.”
The Michelin award has not influenced the taste of his ramen. On the contrary, he constantly rearranges the taste of his ramen regardless based on many factors. “We are constantly changing the way we cook the soup and the soy sauce mixture in order to make progress as a restaurant,” he said. “For example, in spring and summer, I sweat a lot, so I prefer a salty taste. In winter, it's cold, so it's better to make it mellow. All of this can be changed by adjusting the heat level and other factors. Then there is also the temperature of the soy sauce. Soy sauce is blended and then heated up (hi-ire). This brings out the aroma and stabilizes the taste. It also depends on the temperature.”
We asked if being awarded the Michelin recommendation has impacted his vision for the business. “Nah, I haven't really thought about it at all,” he said with a laugh. “I just consider it lucky if it works out. I don't focus on it too much; if I become too conscious of it, we might deviate from what we are doing. Rather than being all about business, I just think it's fine as long as I'm making ramen. When it becomes a matter of needing to earn money, that pressure inevitably affects the ramen too."
It is indeed “lucky” in some ways that a Nishiogi ramen shop impressed the Michelin inspectors, who usually do venture to stations outside of the Yamanote Line. Perhaps the hipster decor reminiscent of a Brooklyn or Berlin ramen shop caught their attention. However, staying on the Bib Gourmand list for eight straight years is quite a feat, speaking to quality and hard work as well as “luck.” (James Farrer and Sakura Yajima Sept. 5, 2023)
(interview conducted by James Farrer and Sakura Yajima; transcription and translation by Sakura Yajima; text by James Farrer and Sakura Yajima; Japanese editing by Fumiko Kimura; copyright James Farrer, all rights reserved.)