She used to be affiliated with AKB48, Japan’s biggest idol group, but now ramen fans are the ones singing about her amazing noodles.

There’s a stereotypical image of a ramen restaurant owner in Japan. A middle-aged man, often with a somewhat gruff or world-weary aura, acquired from his days working as a salaryman or in some sort of blue-collar job, until he saved up enough money to open his ramen joint.

Some of those story beats also apply to Yagumo, a ramen restaurant that opened in Tokyo’s Katsushika Ward two years ago.

▼ Yagumo

But Yagumo’s owner didn’t get into the ramen business after working as an accountant or a truck driver, but as an idol singer.

Yagumo founder/owner Mayuka Umezawa wasn’t affiliated with just any idol group, either. No, she was attached to AKB48, Japan’s number-one idol juggernaut.

▼ Umezawa at her old job…

▼ …and at her new one.

So how did Umezawa make this unusual transition? We stopped by Yagumo to find out, and also, of course, to try her ramen, which the 22-year-old restauranteur personally prepared and served to us.

Let’s start with the food. Yagumo offers a number of different ramen varieties, including soy broth, salty broth, and butter broth. The most popular, though, and also Umezawa’s personal favorite, it the miso ramen, so we ordered a bowl of it for 800 yen (US$7.40).

Miso ramen can sometimes have a dark, murky look to its broth, but Yagumo’s is bright and comparatively clear.

As you might expect from a chef with the skillful footwork of a trained dancer, the thickness of the noodles is perfectly balanced, as is their texture, which is pleasantly firm and chewy but with no mushy or gooey feeling.

The noodles have a remarkable tasty wheaty flavor to them, and they go perfectly with the broth, which is rich and flavorful with a clean finish, devoid of the oily aftertaste that plagues sub-par miso ramen. The chashu is also excellent. This is no paper-thin, half-melted strip of pork, but a proper meaty slice of protein.

Put it all together, and Umezawa’s miso ramen was so good we’d eaten the whole thing before we realized it.

▼ See?

With the lunch rush over and the restaurant closed until the dinner crowds show up, Umezawa came and sat with us to chat about her experiences as an idol and ramen chef. Her foray into the idol life came in 2014, when AKB48 put out a job listing looking for “part-time idols” to joint the group on an initially temporary basis. Over 10,000 women applied, and out of them 50 were hired, one of whom was Umezawa.

“It was a very…concentrated time,” she recalls. “I’d always watched idols working so hard on TV, but then I was right alongside them, practicing dancing and singing, and even being up on stage with them. I’d just graduated from high school, and still had so much to learn, so it was a very busy, meaningful half year for me.”

Having joined the group as a part-time idol, Umezawa wasn’t taking up the center position in video shoots and stage shows. She regularly appeared on-stage with the high-profile superstars at the AKB48 Theater in Tokyo’s Akihabara neighborhood, filling the role of a backup dancer. She also acted as a stand-in for senior idols during rehearsals, and took part in fan meet-and-greet events.

When we asked which other member left the biggest impressions on her, Umezawa gushes about Minami Takahashi. “She was just like I expected her to be: A leader who carries everyone else along, and who’s always the first to grasp what needs to be done and gets people organized.” She also had nice things to say about Rina Kawaei. “At the AKB Theater, I was in charge of making announcement on the P.A. system before the concerts started, and I was feeling really nervous. Then [Kawaei] came up to me and said ‘Don’t worry, you’re going to do fine.’ It made me feel so much better!”, though she adds that all of the idols she worked with were kind and helpful.

However, when the concerts finished and the stage lights were turned off, Umezawa didn’t call it day. Concurrent with her idol activities, she’d begun reading up on how to make ramen in books and on the Internet. “After every concert at the AKB48 Theater, I’d go home and head straight into the kitchen to practice,” she says.

Umezawa’s contract with AKB48 was for a six-month stint, and even after she graduated from the group (to use the parlance of the idol industry), she threw herself into improving her ramen skills. “After I graduated from my part-time position with AKB48, I kept trying to make different kinds of ramen, and in 2017 I finally could make ramen that I thought tasted good enough to serve to customers. ‘This is something people would probably feel happy about eating’ I thought…and so I opened Yagumo in September of 2017.”

After finding success with Yagumo’s initial location, she opened a second branch last year, and the recent addition of two franchise locations brings the chain’s restaurant count up to four. Umezawa remains a hands-on restaurateur, though. “Every day I’m at one branch or another. It’s important to have direct interaction with your customers, so I take their orders, cook their ramen, serve them their meals, and even bring them their bills and give them their change. I spend pretty much every morning, from 4 to 7 a.m., making the day’s noodles.”

It’s at this point we had to remind ourselves that this hard-working ramen boss is 22 years-old, an age when most people aren’t nearly so industrious. “Don’t you ever feel tempted to live the relaxed, care-free life that a lot of people do in their early 20s?” we asked, to which she replied “For me, right now, the thing that makes me happy is making delicious ramen, and that ramen making people smile. That’s what I find fun.”

We also wondered if Umezawa felt any sadness or frustration over not becoming a full-time idol, since that had once been her dream. “Right after I graduated from AKB48, yeah, I did have some regrets,” she admits. “But as I was trying to make it as an idol, I realized I was coming to love ramen even more.”

“I’ve always been the kind of person who likes to concentrate on one thing. If I try to divide my mental energy up too much, I run out of it. So I decided ‘That’s it – I’m going to focus on ramen!” and that’s what I’m doing my best at every day.”

Having tasted the results so far of Umezawa’s effort and passion, we’d say everything is working out just fine.

Restaurant information
Yagumo / 八雲
Address: Tokyo-to, Katsushika-ku, Horikiri 3-4-13
Open 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5 p.m.-10 p.m.
Closed Mondays

Related: Mayuka Umezawa Twitter, Instagram
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Insert images: SoraNews24, Mayuka Umezawa
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