Deep Fukuoka

Text by Toshiyuki Kamimura
Photos by Keiichiro Todaka

In recent years, the popularity of Japanese ramen throughout the world has grown to the point that the dish is as recognizably Japanese as sushi. In a word, ramen is Japanese soul food, and the basic flavors—tonkotsu (pork bone), soy sauce and miso as well as some other unique blends—and preparation differ from region to region. Of these, tonkotsu ramen has gained a great deal of attention from people around the world due in part to increasing interest in Japan and its cuisine under the “Cool Japan” soft power initiative. And the mecca of tonkotsu ramen is Fukuoka, on the island of Kyushu. First, let’s take a look at where tonkotsu ramen started and how it spread.

Born in 1937. Tonkotsu ramen was transparent at first

The term Kyushu ramen is used to refer collectively to the various regional ramen in Kyushu, including Hakata ramen, Kurume ramen and Kumamoto ramen. While there may be differences in noodle size or ingredients used, the soup base in all cases is the milky tonkotsu. When you talk about Kyushu ramen, you have to talk about the city of Kurume in Fukuoka Prefecture, which is considered the birthplace of tonkotsu ramen. Tonkotsu ramen was first created in 1937 at a noodle stall in Kurume called Nankin Senryo. The first owner of the stall originally was an udon vendor, but taking hints from the shina soba (lit., “Chinese soba”; soy sauce ramen), which was all the rage in Tokyo and Yokohama, and champon noodles from his hometown of Nagasaki, he created tonkotsu ramen. Back then, there were Chinese restaurants that served noodles in soup, but in most cases, the broth was made from chicken bones. The owner of Nankin Senryo is said to have turned his focus to pork bones because they were cheaper than chicken bones. However, the soup that Nankin Senryo devised, was actually semi-transparent and bears little resemblance to the tonkotsu ramen of today. The milky tonkotsu soup that we are all familiar with was first created by chance in 1947, 10 years after Nankin Senryo’s first soup, at a ramen shop called Sankyu. One day, the owner of Sankyu left the heat on under the tonkotsu soup when he left the shop, creating a milky white soup on accident. When he added some seasonings, he found he had actually made something quite delicious.

Tonkotsu spreads throughout Kyushu

After creating its milky tonkotsu soup, Sankyu opened up branches in Saga City and Tamana City in Kumamoto. The original owners of several now famous ramen shops in Kumamoto City, including Keika, Komurasaki, Ajisen Ramen and Shoyoken, all did their training at Sankyu’s Tamana shop, and they developed their own unique take on tonkotsu, primarily by adding garlic chips. This is what we now call Kumamoto ramen. Likewise, if you trace the roots of Miyazaki ramen back, you’ll also end up in Kurume. In this way, the tonkotsu ramen that began in Kurume gradually spread throughout the rest of Kyushu, yielding various regional varieties. In the early days, it was the long-haul truckers who spread the word of tonkotsu ramen to the rest of Japan, but more recently, its popularity has skyrocketed both at home and abroad with the expansion of several Fukuoka-based shops to the rest of Japan and throughout the world.

Hakata ramen: A child of food stall culture with trademark thin noodles

The most famous tonkotsu ramen of them all is Fukuoka’s own Hakata ramen. When compared to other ramen around Japan, Fukuoka’s ramen uses thinner, straighter noodles. They are supple and bouncy, and they go down smooth. Many locals prefer their noodles al dente.

Another factor unique to Hakata ramen is the kaedama, or noodle refill system. This practice, along with providing hard noodles, is said to have originated in the food stalls of Nagahama not far from the city’s fresh fish market. The stalls would serve up harder noodles, which took less time to cook, and offer noodle refills because the market workers had little time to eat, let alone get full. You also can’t talk about Hakata ramen without talking about noodle hardness preference. In Fukuoka, you can indicate your preference using the terms yawa (soft), futsu (regular), kata (hard) and bari-kata (extra hard), but some local ramen fanatics may bust our more obscure terms for even harder noodles, like harigane (wire) and kona otoshi (lit., “just remove the flour;” the noodles are barely passed through hot water). For Hakata ramen, the milky white tonkotsu soup is the mainstream. Each restaurant has its own recipe for creating this soup based on which pig bones to use, what other ingredients to add, how to prepare the bones, cooking time, how much oil to add and so on. Some owners may be particular about their utensils as well, like the shape of the ladle they use to scoop up the noodles or the type of pots they use for soup.

Recent trends in Fukuoka ramen

Today, there are around 1,700 ramen shops throughout Fukuoka Prefecture. One trend in recent years is to serve richer, “porkier” tonkotsu soups. Some shops even make what you could call “tonkotsu cappuccino”, where a layer of fine air bubbles sits on top of a thick, rich soup. On the other hand, some shops are starting to move away from pork bones altogether, as evidenced by the increase in shops offering paitan ramen, which features a creamy soup made from ingredients such as chicken and/or seafood, and other chicken soup-based ramen.

The five shops showcased below include both classic tonkotsu mainstays and some recent innovators who are turning lots of heads. Why not try some of Fukuoka’s great old and new ramen shops today? Just follow our five “Ramen Rules of Thumb.”

Ramen Rules of Thumb

Rule #1: Order your kaedama before you’re done eating, and leave enough soup to enjoy it.
You want to make sure your soup stays warm for the next round of noodles, so order your kaedama refill before you finish your first bowl. Also make sure you leave enough soup in your bowl because you can’t ask for extra soup.

Rule # 2: Only add seasonings after you’ve tasted the soup.
You are free to season ramen how you like, and many shops will have pickled red ginger, takana (Japanese giant red mustard) and other condiments that you can add freely. But remember that every owner wants you to try the soup “as is” first. Be polite, try the soup, then add your seasonings if you still think you want them.

Rule #3: Choose a counter seat. They’re where the action is!
The best seats in the house are at the counter where you can feel the heat of the kitchen and watch the chefs deftly prepare your ramen. It is fun to watch each step of the process, like lifting the noodles or cutting the char siu, and then see how the steps—and the utensils used—differs from shop to shop. (On the other hand, ramen chefs must never forget that they’re being watched!)

Rule #4: If you take a photograph, eat first and post later.
Many ramen shops don’t mind if you take photos and post to social media, but ramen is meant to be eaten as soon as it’s served. If you spend too much time taking photos, you’re being rude to the owner, so slurp first and post later!

Rule #5: If you thought it was good, drink all the soup.
For a ramen shop owner, the happiest thing to see is a customer who drinks all the soup. Forget about the calories. If you liked your ramen, drink your soup down. Once you’re done, there will be nothing left except fine particles of the pork bone.

The old image of Hakata ramen was that only men ate it, but with more shops offering milder versions of tonkotsu without the strong, distinctive odor of pork bones, the number of female fans is on the rise. Ramen, Japanese soul that’s gone universal!

Oshige Shokudo Imaizumi

This up-and-coming ramen shop won the World Ramen Grand Prix 2017 for its Jun Ramen Nanafushi, whose broth is uniquely extracted from seven kinds of dried ingredients—beef, pork, chicken, puffer fish, bonito, mackerel and sardine—through a coffee siphon. “First, we make a broth from flying fish sourced from Hirado in Nagasaki Prefecture, then we blend that with the seven dried ingredients in the siphon. The siphon uses a vacuum to pull the liquid through the dried ingredients and create one bowl’s worth of broth. The process brings out the rich aromas of all of the ingredients,” explains owner Yohei Oshige. At first sip, the soup is light, but the more the umami of the ingredients comes out, the more complex it becomes, and you won’t be able to stop until you’ve drunk every last drop. What’s more, there are only 400 kcal per bowl, which is far less than a standard bowl of tonkotsu ramen. In addition to the Imaizumi shop, Oshige Shokudo’s main shop is in Kego, so stop by either one to experience the “world’s best ramen.”

Name: Oshige Shokudo Imaizumi
Address: 1F Nishitetsu Imaizumi Bldg., 1-12-23 Imaizumi, Chuo-ku, Fukuoka
Tel.: 092-734-1065
Open: 11:00~1:00 (L.O.24:30)
Closed: Irregular

Menu: Jun Ramen Nanafushi ¥850, rice with pickled plum ¥150, alcohol ¥400~

*Foreign language menu: Yes / Credit cards: Not accepted / Reservations: Not possible / No smoking

Tenryu Ramen

Prefectural Route 68 which runs through Shime Town, just east of Fukuoka City, is called Dragon Road because it is home to several ramen shops with ryu (dragon) in the name. One of the most popular shops on this competitive strip is Tenryu Ramen, which has been in operation for nearly 50 years. The second-generation owner, Ryunosuke Mori—whose name also contains the character ryu for dragon!—makes ramen using a recipe handed down from his grandparents. Using an old-fashioned hagama pot, the pork bone broth is made using the yobimodoshi method, which means fresh pork bones are added to any soup leftover from the day before, making for a rich, umami-packed soup. The milky texture is due to the fact that the shop uses no lard or back fat, just lots of pork bones and pigs’ feet. Because of this, you can drink the soup down to the last drop.

Name: Tenryu Ramen
Address: 1-3-31 Minamizato, Shime-machi, Kasuya, Fukuoka 
Tel.: 092-935-1588
Hours: 11:30~20:00
Closed: Thu.

Menu: Ramen ¥500, char siu ramen ¥700, miso ramen ¥650 wonton soup ¥650, fried rice ¥500, mentai-don (rice topped with spicy cod roe) ¥300, draft beer ¥500, highball ¥350

*Foreign language menu: None / Credit cards: Not accepted / Reservations: Not possible / No smoking


Situated in a regular looking house in the southern Fukuoka suburb of Nakagawa, NakamuLab is a buzz-generating hole-in-the-wall ramen shop where all seats are available by reservation only. After working in ramen shops in Tokyo and Singapore and developing his own ideas about flavor, owner and Fukuoka native Takashi Nakamura decided to open a shop in his home ground. He rented a house to serve as his “lab” for prototyping his ramen, and then turned this lab into his restaurant. “I started this shop to test myself. I felt I could make it as long as I could get people to come here,” says Nakamura. Despite being a reservation-only operation, his prices start at a reasonable ¥740. His specialty is not the local standard tonkotsu ramen, but rather tori-paitan soba, a variety of chicken ramen, and its spicier cousin tantanmen. He uses a blender to make the creamy, emulsified chicken soup for his trademark tori-paitan soba. The air bubbles on the surface give the soup a mellow mouthfeel. NakamuLab makes a great pit-stop for drives to Nakagawa or further south.

Name: NakamuLab
Address: 1067-8 Bessho, Nakagawa City, Fukuoka 
Tel.: 090-4358-1696
Open: 11:00~15:00, 17:00~21:00 (reservations required)
Closed: Irregular

Menu: Tori-paitan soba ¥780, Japanese-style soy sauce soba ¥740, tantanmen ¥850

*Foreign language menu: None / Credit cards: Not accepted / Reservations: Required / No smoking

Daruma Ramen Chikushi-dori

Founded in 1983, Daruma Ramen is a famous shop located on Chikushi-dori in between JR Hakata Station and Kasuga. Second-generation owner Shusaku Furukawa, who took over the shop from his father explains: “To make our soup, we use only skinned pigs’ heads, and just like we always have, we mix three different concentrations of soup, each in a different stage of emulsion, from three different pots. If you do not prepare pigs’ heads properly, they can emit quite an odor, so we make sure they are fully bled and all the impurities are skimmed away.” Because of this, the soup takes 12 hours to make, but the end result is a rich, flavorful soup with a clean aftertaste. The char siu (braised pork) is made with lean cuts of pork and only flavored with salt, while the crunchy kikurage mushrooms are chopped thinly to mix well with the soup and noodles. With a large parking lot, Daruma attracts many people taking drives, not to mention a fair share of ramen fanatics. The shop is so popular that it typically fills up as soon as it opens, so expect to wait a bit for a seat.

Name: Daruma Ramen Chikushi-dori
Address: 3-22-27 Naka, Hakata-ku, Fukuoka
Tel.: 092-431-5260
Hours: 11:00~19:30 (Sun. & hol. ~14:30)
Closed: Irregular

Menu: Ramen ¥600, large ramen ¥750, Daruma miso topping ¥50, wonton ramen ¥800

*Foreign language menu: None / Credit cards: Not accepted / Reservations: Not possible / No smoking

Ramen Oigen Kego

Located at the Kego Crossing, within walking distance from Tenjin, Oigen serves up a super-rich bowl of tonkotsu ramen. Although it can be considered a late entry to the ramen game, only opening in 2014, Oigen is now one of the city’s more well-known shops. Owner Takeshi Tsumagari, who opened Oigen after years of training at a famous ramen shop, decided to focus on the combination of “extra rich” soup and seared char siu (braised pork). “Each bowl packs a punch with a soothing pork flavor and a resonating aftertaste. It may be a little bit robust, but it’s just right,” says Tsumagari. You can even request the “extra rich” ramen, with added back fat, for an even stronger punch. Searing char siu is a recent trend among ramen shops, but instead of taking a short cut with a kitchen torch, Oigen uses a charcoal brazier. The char siu is seared right before serving to ensure the flavor and aroma of the seared meat can blend with the soup. Oigen also has a shop near Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine, so you can also enjoy this rich, flavorful ramen before or after seeing the sights in Dazaifu.

Name: Ramen Oigen Kego
Address: 1F ARK Kego, 1-13-1 Kego, Chuo-ku, Fukuoka
Tel.: 092-714-1433
Open: 11:30~16:00, 17:00~4:00 (L.O. 3:30)
Closed: Never

Menu: Tonkotsu ramen ¥600, char siu ramen ¥800, ramen with marinated soft-boiled egg ¥700, champon ¥700, gyoza (5 pcs.) ¥220

*Foreign language menu: None / Credit cards: Not accepted / Reservations: Not possible / No smoking