Originally created 04/28/04

Japan's working-class noodles go upscale, high-finance

TOKYO -- Customers with Prada handbags and Gucci sunglasses sometimes stand in line for hours and gaze hungrily at a TV outside the restaurant door, feasting their eyes on the delicacy that awaits: a bowl of noodles.

The humble noodle - known in Japan as "ramen" - has long been better known as a staple of construction workers and penny-pinching students than as a favorite of the chic.

But in a push to win over a new clientele, Japanese noodles are going upscale with special pork and organic vegetables served in eateries with fetching dark-wood interiors and soft lighting.

One company even came up with a shocker for anyone who's slurped down a calorie-packed bowl of noodles: diet ramen made from seaweed extracts. It weighs in at a meager 8 calories.

"The 'stylish ramen' stores have really boomed," said Masahiko Ichiyanagi, who writes a "ramen column" for a popular weekly magazine, Tokyo 1Week. "The result is that it's now recognized as a legitimate leisure activity."

The trend reaches extremes at Shiodome Ramen, a spanking new cluster of steel-and-glass towers next to - but a world away from - the decidedly lowbrow Shimbashi district.

The shop aims to create a splash. Nippon Television Network Corp. began a highly publicized nationwide contest in 2002 to seek out the country's best ramen cook, and put the winner - Konosuke Takewaka - in charge of the restaurant on its premises.

The exposure brought in the crowds. Customers sometimes waited in line a foot-aching four hours when the restaurant opened Aug. 1. Now, waits of over an hour are still common.

Those with endurance are rewarded. Takewaka strains the noodles by whipping an acorn-shaped sieve through the air in a dramatic figure-eight, splashing scalding water against a window between the kitchen and the restaurant and drawing gasps from startled diners.

"I went through thousands of trials to make the soup we serve today," Takewaka said.

The broth gets its flavor from pork, beef and chicken stock, squid legs and dried fish, he said. The restaurant, which serves 800 bowls a day starting at $7.30, closes when it runs out of its pungent noodle soup.

The highbrow attention is quite a turnaround for the humble dish.

According to popular lore, ramen was introduced by Chinese immigrants early last century. Taking root in major port cities like Yokohama, it soon spread across the country and assumed regional variations. Today, it's as Japanese as tofu or miso soup.

In Japan, ramen shops have long been dingy joints, their counters crowded with chopsticks, seasonings and self-service water jugs.

The fare until now has been straightforward: noodles in a salty broth, topped with a few slices of pork, chopped green onions and strips of seaweed. Standard flavors are salt, soy sauce and miso bean paste.

The search for the perfect bowl of ramen was immortalized in Juzo Itami's 1985 gourmand movie classic "Tampopo"; The Shin Yokohama Raumen Museum near Tokyo gets 120,000 visitors a year - about 15,000 more than Japan's largest collection of art.

The popularity translates into earnings. There are some 200,000 ramen shops in Japan, where customers slurp down an estimated $6.36 billion worth of noodles annually.

Even the financial world is interested. Japanese online brokerage Traders Securities launched a fund in December seeking $1.8 million to invest in a noodle complex in Tokyo.

But for all the bells and whistles, ramen lovers say the key ingredients remain the same: a signature soup and good noodles.

"Ramen is so tasty because it's so simple - it's like eating something homemade, except the ambiance is better," said Jun Yoshizawa, a student.

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