Here's a topic that isn't discussed very often. Kyoto is well known for a handful of very famous local foods... yatsuhashi sweets, kyoyasai vegetables, and tsukemono pickles, just to name a few. But ramen never ranks high on most visitors' "must-eat in Kyoto" lists. Well, that's about to change.
Even before arriving in Japan, most visitors have tried ramen in their home countries. This simple noodle dish has become incredibly popular in the west over the past few decades, so many tourists look forward to savoring the real thing when they visit Japan. Get your chopsticks ready, because KyoTours is going to fill you in on the best ramen spots in Kyoto.
Ramen comes in a variety of styles, many of which can be sampled in Kyoto. The noodles are usually firm and thing, but come in a variety of shapes and textures. But it's the broth that really sets one ramen apart from another. There are four main soup types:
Shio (salt) broth is lightest and clearest, and is thought to be the oldest style of ramen.
Shoyu soup is still a light broth, but is heavily flavored with soy sauce, resulting in a complex combination of tastes: salty and savory while still being surprisingly tangy.
Tonkotsu is the richest of all ramen soups, the result of boiling pork bones for hours to create a stock with a uniquely creamy, heavy flavor.
Finally, miso ramen from Hokkaido in the north offers a strong soup that pairs well with a variety of toppings, especially boiled eggs and fresh corn.
All of these types of ramen can be found in Kyoto, but there are two eateries that stand out above all the rest. Ask any local for the best ramen, and you'll hear the following two spots repeated over and over.
Nagahama Ramen Miyoshi
If you want classic tonkotsu ramen, Nagahama Ramen is the place to go. Located centrally in Sanjo, Kyoto's nightlife area, this is the perfect spot to grab some noodles at any point during your night out.
The first thing you'll notice when you enter Nagahama Ramen is that it's tiny. A counter with half a dozen tiny stools and and overflow area with a few more seats is all they have here. At peak times, you'll be waiting 15 or 20 minutes to grab a bowl. But as we're going to learn, the best ramen is always worth waiting for.
The second thing you'll notice at Nagahama Ramen - and bear with me here - is that it's absolutely filthy. The floors are greasy, the pipes overhead are caked with dust, and the counters are stained and pockmarked. This seems to be a hallmark of all the nest ramen spots I've eaten at over the years. When traveling in foreign countries, sometimes your expectations for cleanliness need to be thrown out the window, and I can assure you the food makes up for any appearances of the store itself. Thankfully, the cooking area itself is relatively clean. It's all on display in front of you from your seat at the counter, and it's evident that the chefs take their craft very seriously.
Nagahama Ramen's soup is really excellent, and it offers the perfect balance of ingredients. The dish itself is served simple: a shallow bowl of rich broth, a handful of firm, straight noodles, a few slices of chashu pork sliced thin, and a small pile of negi green onions. Perfeect balance without overload, and portions small enough that you'll be able to finish the whole bowl. A dash of spicy Korean kimchi on top finishes off the dish perfectly, but it's not over yet. A line of tins at the counter allows you to scoop out your own additional ingredients. Add sesame seeds, crispy rice puffs, or extra onions to your soup to create your own flavor. This is a nice touch that encourages experimentation - as well as repeat visits!
I haven't always been a fan of tonkotsu ramen, but Nagahama Ramen converted me. This is the most unpretentious, humble ramen you'll ever eat that manages to stay ahead of all other competitors and show that it can still do things its own way.
Dai Ichi Asahi Ramen
My other choice for Kyoto's best ramen is a little more traditional. Dai Ichi Asahi Ramen is actually a chain of shops throughout the region, but the original location is only a 3 minute walk from Kyoto Station. (Google maps auto-translates the shop name into "First Asahi Head Office")
Dai Ichi Asahi serves only shoyu ramen, which is the closest thing to "Kyoto-style ramen" that you're going to find. The broth here is excellent! Very smooth and light, but still filling. Dai Ichi Asahi's sliced chashu pork is also really great. Usually chashu is cut with a lot of fat still on it, and many westerners are used to a more lean cut. But here, there's usually not so much fat, so it matches the tastes of western visitors easily. Just one of the many reasons why I think this shop is a great place for visitors to experience Kyoto Ramen.
The only downside to Dai Ichi Asahi Ramen is that it's incredibly popular, which means it's also incredibly busy. At almost any time of day, there's a line a dozen people deep waiting to slurp down some shoyu ramen. The best time to show up seems to be mid afternoon between 2 and 4, but at lunch and dinner you'll be waiting 40 minutes or more. However, the line moves fast, and it's of course worth waiting for!
The menu here is simple, with ramen, ramen with extra pork or extra menma (bamboo slices), and gyoza (dumplings). The gyoza are really excellent here, and are considered the quintessential side dish to ramen, so be sure to try those as well. And don't be shy to ask the waiter for any special requests! I always request extra negi onions, and they always deliver a huge pile on top of my ramen at no extra charge.
Dai Ichi Asahi Ramen is my go-to spot when visitors ask me to take them to eat ramen, and it should be at the top of your list as well. Cheap, close to the main station, and amazingly delicious, you can't ask for a better ramen shop to experience the best that Kyoto has to offer. When you head over there, there are two noodle places right next to each other. Dai Ichi Asahi is the on the left with a white and red striped awning. Make sure you're in the right line, sometimes there are separate lines for both places!
If you're still hungry after Dai Ichi Asahi and Nagahama Ramen, head up to the 10th floor of the Isetan Department Store attached to Kyoto Station. There is a whole area of almost a dozen ramen shops offering regional tastes from all over Japan. And best of all, it's all really cheap!
If you'd like to try some local ramen while on one of our many Kyoto tours, just let us know when booking and we can try to fit it in!
See you in Kyoto!