Masago Ramen: 3 Generations of Takayama Ramen
As a ramen fan, every trip I take is an opportunity to try a new bowl of a local masterpiece. So on my visit to Takayama, I looked up a shop to have a proper taste of the famous Takayama ramen to understand what it’s all about. The ramen guidebook made the decision for me: “Masago Ramen - the oldest shop and the origin of Takayama Ramen”.
The shop isn’t far from Takayama station/bus terminal, and after about 10 minutes of walking (with some navigating around town), we found this little shop behind a back alley. The sign was beautifully written in an ancient font that got even my Japanese girlfriend stumped.
We entered the shop and the inside was very beautiful for such an old shop, It was also quite empty, but then I remembered that it was still 11:30am. The owner and his friendly wife invited us to the counter so we could leave the luggage by the door, and “two Takayama ramen (chuuka soba), please”. That was the specialty item on the list, with the size option between regular or large. To me, this is always a sign of confidence if a shop can survive on just one product.
The counter seats were right in front of the cooking stations, so I asked for and was granted permission to take photos. It’s exciting to be able to watch the cook slice green onion and cook the noodles from such a close distance. At that point, they had probably noticed that I wasn’t Japanese, despite my Asian appearance.
Looking around the shop, I noticed the Ultraman Tiga sitting in the cupboard and I pointed it out to my girlfriend. The wife of the shop owner heard my remark, and asked “oh, you know Tiga?” I explained how I was a huge Ultraman fan as a kid, and the fondness branches out to different generations of the series, but Tiga remained my favourite. Apparently, the little figure displayed in the shop belonged to their son. “We might look old, but our son is only 5 years old.”
As we chatted about Ultraman and his son, the owner would occasionally comment on it too as he prepared our two bowls of noodles. “Here it is. Please enjoy.” The two bowls of ramen delighted us with a pleasant aroma. A single slice of cha-siu pork, a few slices of bamboo shoots, green onions floating around, and thin curly noodles sitting in this thin, yet dark soup, and we dug in.
Takayama ramen is a variation of chuuka soba, which is a light and soy sauce based soup, but this regional version has a much strong flavour that is slightly bitter. This shop uses a mixture of fried sardine and pork bones to make its soup, creating a more complex flavour than standard chuuka soba. We learned that the noodles are also hand-made by the owner.
As we enjoyed the noodles, I noticed a black and white photo on the cupboard of this young man pushing a ramen cart. “Oh, that’s his grandfather. My husband is the 3rd generation”, the wife explained with enthusiasm and pride. At this point, an old gentleman chimed in. He was a regular. “I started eating Masago ramen when I was a high school student, cooked by that man in the photo. He was just pushing his cart around town back then. I still come here at least once a week.”
At this point, I also noticed that the shop was full, with local families as well as tourists who found this shop from online recommendations. The old man finished and left, and another old man sat down and started chit-chatting with the owner and his wife. For a lot of local customers, this shop is a taste of nostalgia that has lasted for 3 generations and still continuing. They have a pet turtle in the shop, and it makes me wonder how long he has been alive along with the shop.
We finished our noodles, very satisfied. It’s not common that you can enjoy a shop and witness its history right in front of you. Here is a shop that is not only the origin of a specific ramen dish, but also generations of a same long standing taste that hasn’t changed for over 70 years, fulfilling the stomach and heart for locals in the center of Takayama.