Hokkaido Ramen Santouka: The Original Taste – HOKKAIDO LOVE!

The globally renowned ramen restaurant Ramen Santouka got its start in Asahikawa, Hokkaido. Oki Hatanaka, president of the Asahikawa Honten (flagship store), continues to develop new flavors while preserving the original ramen taste created by his father.

Dashi—the soup stock that is a critical ingredient of Japanese cuisine—has the power to warm the body and the soul. Since ancient times, Japanese people have cultivated the art of blending bonito flakes, kelp, and other flavorings from the sea and land to create dashi that is rich with umami. Even as foreign cuisines have grown more popular within the country, dashi continues to occupy a special place in the Japanese palate. In fact, it is quality dashi soup that has made ramen one of Japan’s most representative dishes. While there are many other Japanese dishes that come in a bowl, ramen is one that you really have to experience in Japan.

If you are a ramen fan, you probably know that every region of Japan boasts its own distinctive style of ramen soup. Hokkaido’s cities like Sapporo and Asahikawa enjoy access to an abundance of farm and marine products, while the cold, dry climate of the island fosters a love of hot dishes. So ramen shops are popular, and they compete with their own special flavorings. Located in the center of Hokkaido, Asahikawa is famed for its shoyu (soy sauce flavored) ramen. But when Ramen Santouka opened its first store there, it gained a devoted following with something different, its signature shio (mild, salt-flavored) ramen.

Ramen Santouka’s flagship store in Asahikawa is a go-to destination for visitors from abroad.

When you open the door to Ramen Santouka’s flagship store—just a three-minute walk from Asahikawa Station—the homey aroma of the soup will immediately whet your appetite. Most first-timers order the shio ramen, a menu item that hasn’t changed since the store first opened. The white soup looks thick and rich, but that first sip will astonish you with its gentle flavor. There’s nothing sharp or pungent about it. The ingredients—pork bones, dried fish, vegetables—blend so perfectly that you can’t really distinguish them. As you get into the rhythm of slurping up the noodles, the soup naturally follows them into your mouth. Your chopsticks keep moving non stop as you devour the impossibly tender char-siu pork slices and drain the soup to the last drop. Amazingly, you won’t feel thirsty when you’re done—if anything, you’ll crave some more of that soup. Prepared using a painstaking process with top-quality ingredients, the soup is what keeps customers coming back for more.

When the first Ramen Santouka store opened, its only menu item was shio (salt) ramen. A ramen soup that you can drink to the last drop energizes both body and soul.

The first Ramen Santouka store was opened in 1988 by Hitoshi Hatanaka, father of Oki Hatanaka, president of the Asahikawa flagship store today. That spring, Hitoshi moved his family to Asahikawa from their home in northern Hokkaido. Oki remembers the day his father first became obsessed with ramen. After seeing the film Tampopo at home, directed by Juzo Itami, which is about ramen, his father got the urge to eat some ramen and went to a local eatery. However, the ramen there tasted nowhere near as good as the ramen in the story. “The next day, when I got home from school, there was a delicious aroma wafting from a big alumite pot sitting on our wood stove,” recalls Oki. “From that day on we always had ramen for dinner, but that was fine with me. My father’s soup tasted so good, I wanted to have it every day.”

Oki Hatanaka, second-generation president of the Asahikawa flagship store, was raised on the third floor above the restaurant. “There have been good times and bad times, but it’s part of my life,” he says.

Three months later, Hitoshi Hatanaka opened the first Ramen Santouka, a tiny restaurant offering only shio ramen, in Asahikawa. He worked there from early in the morning to late at night every day, with Oki and his siblings pitching in. “I would start draining the blood from the pork bones the day before. I’d boil them and drain the hot water and put them in cold water, carefully clean the blood off with my fingers, put them in a big stockpot of water, and place the pot over a very low flame. This was my job before I went to school,” says Oki. His father’s goal was to make a soup so flavorful that customers would want to drink every last drop of it. Over time the fans of his soup grew in number, and today the company owns 54 restaurants both in Japan and abroad.

The first Ramen Santouka store, shown here, opened in Asahikawa in 1988. What began with a homemade recipe, tested by the founder on family and friends, grew into a multinational company with restaurants in nine countries.

Rule No. 1 at Ramen Santouka is that each store must make the soup from scratch in its own kitchen. High-quality pork bones are boiled for 16 hours (with a dashi of vegetables and/or fish added depending on the recipe), then strained. The resulting soup is not re-boiled, but kept at a temperature of 95°C to retain its aroma and texture. The soup is served in round, thick Arita-ware ceramic bowls to keep it warm. Though not apparent to the eye, the semi-dehydrated noodles, made from Hokkaido wheat, have a slightly coarse surface that both keeps the noodles springy and helps the soup cling to them. The soup and noodles blend in the bowl into one perfect serving of ramen.

Santouka ramen’s unique style of presentation was invented by the founder, who had no previous experience making conventional ramen. The round, thick bowl keeps the soup warm. The pickled plum that accents each bowl evokes the lipstick worn by beautiful women pictured in ukiyo-e prints.

After finishing high school, Oki Hatanaka worked at restaurants in Tokyo and in Melbourne, Australia, then returned home to learn the art of ramen from his father. What brought him home, he says, was the flavor of his father’s ramen: “When I tasted Santouka ramen for the first time in two years, I realized I couldn’t do without it.” Oki’s motto is “Never stop updating.” He adds, “That means knowing how to put a smile on the faces of our customers each and every day.” He develops new menu items in the kitchen of the Asahikawa flagship store, then gradually introduces them to every branch. So if you want to experience the latest flavors of Ramen Santouka, go to Asahikawa. That’s where you can savor the handiwork of Santouka’s second-generation master, who says, “I always have several new ideas in my head.” That special dashi soup will quickly warm you up on the chilliest Asahikawa night.

“My daily routine consists of identifying and solving problems,” says Oki. “The only way to keep customers satisfied is to continually make adjustments, no matter how small.”

<Shop Information>
Ramen Santouka Asahikawa Honten (flagship store)

MANNY Bldg. 1F, 348-6 Ichijo-dori 8-chome, Asahikawa-shi, Hokkaido