We discover an unforgettable dish in the city that boasts the highest number of ramen joints per 100,000 people in Japan.

Whenever you travel around Japan, you get to experience new sights…and new flavours, thanks to an abundance of regional specialties that differ from prefecture to prefecture.

Up in the prefecture of Tochigi, for example, there’s a specialty called Sano Ramen, which is a famous dish in Sano City. It’s so beloved that locals have their own favourite joints that serve up the specialty, and when our reporter Masanuki Sunakoma recently visited, he was keen to seek out one of these places so he could enjoy the dish like a local.

As we’ve seen in the past, one of the best ways to unearth such locally guarded secrets as a great eatery is to hop in a taxi and ask the driver to take you to a place they’d recommend, so that’s exactly what Masanuki did, sliding into a cab and saying to the driver:

“Hey taxi driver, take me to the best Sano Ramen in Sano!”

The driver didn’t miss a beat with his reply, saying:

“I know a place that’s good, and I like the gyoza okoge there too.”

So off they went, with the two of them chatting about ramen on the way, where Masanuki learned that Sano boasts the highest number of ramen stores per 100,000 people in Japan. As they drove along the roads, Masanuki saw loads of restaurant signboards with “Sano Ramen” written on them, and the driver told him there were around 150 ramen joints in the city.

On weekends, there are even traffic jams in front of the most popular ramen restaurants,” said the driver.

▼ It didn’t take long for them to arrive at their destination — Tamuraya, a ramen shop that’s said to be incredibly famous in the local area.

It looked like the driver had taken Masanuki to the best of the best Sano ramen joints, and when he stepped inside and waited to be seated, Masanuki spotted the gyoza okoge that the driver had spoken about earlier.

He was surprised to find that the gyoza okoge looked more like rice crackers than gyoza dumplings, and he made a mental note to pick up a pack for 330 yen (US$2.42) when paying for his meal later at the register.

After a five-minute wait, Masanuki was seated and he immediately picked up a menu to peruse the Sano ramen on offer. The most popular item (“人気No.1”) was the Seasoned Egg Char Siu Noodles for 1,220 yen.

The combination of melt-on-the-tongue char siu and soft boiled egg was said to be irresistible, so Masanuki wasted no time in ordering it.

It didn’t take long for his order to arrive, and it looked just as mouthwatering as it did on the menu. The broth was clear — a signature of Sano Ramen — and the mound of noodles was topped with a large piece of roasted pork fillet, a bright seasoned egg, bamboo shoots, and green onions.

▼ It looked simple but beautiful at the same time.

Taking a sip, Masanuki was delighted to taste the flavour and sweetness of the char siu, which had melted into the smooth broth. It was so delicious he couldn’t help but go in for another spoonful, and as he did, he recalled that Sano City is home to Izuruhara Benten Pond, which was selected as one of Japan’s 100 best waters by the Ministry of the Environment.

▼ Where there’s famous water, there’s famous ramen, as the water is said to make the broth extra delicious.

The noodles are hand-made according to the “aodakeuchi” technique, which involves stretching the kneaded wheat with “aodake” (“green bamboo”). This gives the noodles a smooth and chewy texture, and varying amounts of thickness, which, when combined with the contrasting smoothness of the broth, creates an unusual texture on the tongue.

▼ Some people say the noodles in Sano ramen “dance” when you put them in your mouth.

The pork belly char siu was plentiful, but also creamy, soft and juicy. The whole meal was delicious, hearty and filling, yet oddly refreshing at the same time, as the transparent soup imparted a clean aftertaste.

After slurping up his last mouthful, Masanuki understood why the taxi driver had recommended this joint, as he was able to fully enjoy the unique charms of Sano ramen in one sitting. 

▼ Plus, he now had another specialty to try — the mysterious gyoza okoge.

“Okoge” is the word used to describe the slightly burnt, but still totally edible, bits of rice at the bottom of a pot when it’s cooked, and these gyoza wrappers looked to be covered in rice and fried, giving them that same crispy yet chewy texture.

Taking a bite, Masanuki’s eyes rolled back in delight — these were utterly ah-maz-ing! The gyoza dumplings were full of umami, flavoured with a hint of seasoning, and the light and crispy texture was so good Masanuki couldn’t stop eating them.

Masanuki only wished he’d bought more of them, so if you get a chance to visit Tamuraya, be sure to stock up on these after enjoying your delicious Sano ramen.

Thanks for another sterling recommendation, Mr Taxi Driver! We can’t wait to see what tasty delights our next local cab driver will introduce us to!

Restaurant information
Tamuraya / 田村屋
Address: Tochigi-ken, Sano-shi, Asanuma-cho 780-3
Open 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5 p.m.-9 p.m. (weekdays) 11 a.m.-9 p.m. (Sat, Sun and holidays)
Closed Wednesdays (the following day if Wednesday is a public holiday)

Photos ©SoraNews24
● Want to hear about SoraNews24’s latest articles as soon as they’re published? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter!
[ Read in Japanese ]