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Types of Hokkaido Ramen: Which City Has the Flavor You Crave?

Ramen has become more and more known in the world as the “Japanese Soul Food”. In various parts of Japan there are unique styles of ramen that are specific to the area. It can be said that Hokkaido is one of the areas where the people have a particularly deep affinity for ramen. Of the tangible and intangible treasures of Hokkaido, in October 2010, the ramen has been named one of 25 in a list of “Hokkaido Heritages” as a treasure that the people of Hokkaido want to preserve and pass down to future generations.


Hokkaido and the History of Ramen

There are a few key points in the history of Japanese ramen that have a deep relation to Hokkaido. So much so that the history of Japanese ramen cannot be told without the mention of Hokkaido.

First and most important is the name of the dish itself. It is said that the birth of the word ramen was in a restaurant in Sapporo called the Takeya Shokudo. It has now become a name that is known worldwide!

The second is the white-translucent soup from “tonkotsu” (pork bone marrow). When we hear “Tonkotsu Ramen”, many people often associate it with the ramen of the Hakata area which also use a tonkotsu based broth. It is said that the use of tonkotsu based broth in the Hokkaido ramen has been passed down from the Inuit people who have lived in the area long ago.
The difference between the broth used in the Hokkaido ramen and the Hakata style ramen is that the Hokkaido ramen uses the tonkotsu broth but season it with soy sauce, salt or miso based sauce. The addition of these flavors may be why the Hokkaido ramen is not called “Tonkotsu ramen”.

The third point is that it is said that the very first ramen in Japan was developed in Hakodate. It was advertised in a newspaper from 1884 under the name “Nankin (Nan Jing) Soba”.

The fourth point is the birth of the “Miso Ramen” in Hokkaido. It is said that the miso ramen was developed in the 1950s at a restaurant called “Aji no Sanpei”. This will be explained in detail later on.

As you can see, there are many stories about Hokkaido that are closely intertwined with the history of ramen itself.


Types of Ramen in Hokkaido

The three major cities of Hokkaido are Sapporo, Hakodate and Asahikawa. All three cities have distinct and important ramen cultures.

1. Sapporo: Miso (Soy Bean Paste)

Sapporo is the birth place of the miso flavored ramen. There are many restaurants that pride themselves on the miso ramen. The major style of soup is either tonkotsu based or tonkotsu + chicken stock based with a strong flavor from lard and garlic. The soup is poured over a stir-fried vegetables and a miso sauce is mixed in the soup. The soup and vegetables cooked together in a Chinese wok, poured over the noodles in a bowl is the Sapporo style.

The birthplace of the miso ramen is said to be a restaurant called “Aji no Sanpei” as briefly explained earlier. It is said that the idea of the miso ramen was inspired from the comment made by the president of the American soup company Maggie. He commented on Japanese food culture on an issue of Reader’s Digest. He said “Japanese have a wonderful sauce called miso which is not being leveraged to its full potential”. Another source of inspiration was a customer asking to be served “noodles in tonjiru (miso-soup with pork)”. In 1955 they started testing recipes with their customers and in 1961, they had officially put it on their menu. This was the start of the miso ramen, which has now become a standard type of ramen.

Later in 1968, the Sanyo Foods Corporation came up with a product called “Sapporo Ichiban Miso Ramen”. This became a big hit, spreading the popularity of the miso ramen all over Japan. This is still a long-hit best seller that is popular to this day.

For the topping, Sapporo ramen adds green onion, char-siu (roasted pork), menma (seasoned bamboo shoots) and stir fried vegetables. It seems people envision ramen topped with corn and butter when we say “Sapporo Ramen”, but in Sapporo, it is not so often that you see ramen topped with these ingredients other than restaurants frequently visited by tourists. Of course there are many restaurants that have corn and butter available as optional toppings because in general, it tastes good with the ramen. Also, restaurants that are looking to attract tourists will sometimes have luxurious versions of the ramen that are topped with seafood caught in the area such as crab, prawn and scallops.

The Sapporo ramen has soup that is thick and rich due to the lard used in it. Because of this, even one serving can be quite filling. There is actually a reason to the soup being heavy on the lard. A layer of lard covering the surface of the soup prevents the heat of the soup from escaping. I’m sure you know if you have experienced the winter in Hokkaido, but the area is known for their harsh winter weather. This type of ramen was developed so that people could enjoy the piping hot ramen even when it’s cold, and eating it can really make you feel toasty from the inside. You could say that the cold of the winter is an important element in fully enjoying the flavor of the Sapporo ramen.

Local Sapporo Ramen Restaurants: Rairaiken, Aji no Sanpei, Junren,

2. Hakodate: Shio (Salt)

When people say ramen in Hakodate, they are often referring to the Shio (salt) Ramen. The clear soup and the relatively straight-style noodles are derived from Chinese soup-noodle dishes.

Hakodate was a city that had opened its ports relatively early in Japanese history. For this reason, it is said that Hakodate was the first or second city in which the ramen arrived. The Sapporo ramen and the Asahikawa ramen, (which will be explained later) are rich and have a relatively high content of animal fats as it was also eaten as a cold-weather remedy. Perhaps due to Hakodate having a milder climate within Hokkaido, the Hakodate ramen contains less fat and is known for an overall lighter style of ramen.

The soup is clear and seasoned with salt using a tonkotsu or chicken stock base. There are not very many restaurants that use fish/shellfish in its broth. When we hear tonkotsu based, we often think of the soup being a milky white color. However, the soup of the Shio ramen is clear; in most cases you could probably see the bottom of the bowl if it weren’t for the noodles. The transparency of the broth depends on how the flavors are extracted from the bone marrow of the pork. If it is cooked in high temperatures, the gelatinous substances of the marrow will melt out into the soup and the soup will look cloudy in color. If however the marrow is cooked in low temperatures without bringing to a boil, the soup will not become cloudy, but will have a lighter taste.

Hakodate is also a known producer of kombu (kelp, seaweed). Kombu is often thought to have good flavors to use for soup stock. However, there are not many restaurants in Hakodate that use kombu as a stock base. It is said that the reason for this is because the people have preserved the traditional noodle-soup making processes of the Chinese dishes. Chinese noodle dishes are generally salt-based. They rarely use soy-sauce or use seafood such as kombu or bonito flakes in the stock. The noodles are straight. Other than the local adaptations of topping the ramen with char siu and menma, and of course changing the name to “ramen”, the Hakodate ramen has remained relatively true to the original Chinese dish.

Local Hakodate Ramen Restaurants: Horan, Ajisai

3. Asahikawa: Shoyu (Soy Sauce)

The ramen of Asahikawa has a long history. What’s even more surprising is the number of ramen restaurants for the number of people. Among cities in Japan with a population of over 100,000 people, Asahikawa ranks second in the number of ramen restaurants.

The characteristic of the Asahikawa ramen is that it uses a tonkotsu and seafood (i.e. dried horse mackerel, etc) based soup with soy sauce seasoning. Asahikawa is located in the central part of Hokkaido so it has traditionally been a logistics hub within Hokkaido. Even though it is not close to the sea, there was a lot of seafood that was transported through the area. The abundance of seafood lead to the seafood being used in their soup. The addition of seafood in the stock gives it a lighter aftertaste.

Because the main base of the soup is tonkotsu, there are some restaurants that serve Asahikawa ramen that is similar to the Tonkotsu ramen of Kyushu, with a white milky-looking soup. The fats in the soup form a layer over the surface of the soup and trap in the heat so the ramen stays hot even in the cold.

The characteristic of the Sapporo ramen is the miso flavor and thick, yellow noodles. On the other hand, the Asahikawa ramen uses a whiter, wavy type of noodle. The toppings are quite simple and there are not many store that use vegetables as a topping as Sapporo ramen does.

Local Asahikawa Ramen Restaurants: Hachiya, Aoba, Santoka


Enjoy Different Kinds of Ramen at Once!

Ramen Dojo @ New Chitose Airport

The Ramen Dojo at Shin Chitose Airport in Hokkaido lets you enjoy different kinds of ramen in one visit! Located on the 3rd floor of the domestic terminal, there is an area that has about 10 famous ramen restaurants of Hokkaido. Information: Hokkaido Ramen DojoMap

Asahikawa Ramen Mura (Ramen Village)

The Asahikawa Ramen Mura which opened in 1997 is a facility that has 8 well-known ramen restaurants from Asahikawa. It is also close to the Asahikawa zoo! Inside the facility there are also other types of entertainment like a shrine?! Information: Asahikawa Ramen Mura : Map

Isn’t it amazing that there are this many kinds of ramen just within Hokkaido?
If you are a fan of Japanese cuisine, seeing the pictures and reading about it is for sure, not enough! In fact, doesn’t it increase your hunger for ramen? Of the ramen we introduced today, there are some you don’t even have to make the trip to Hokkaido to try! We hope you get to try some of these delicious ramen!

Related: Kyushu Ramen: Differences by Region and Great Local Restaurants

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About the author

Kimi is a Japanese living in Tokyo. She has spent half her life living overseas in New York, Los Angeles and Hong Kong. Her hobbies are traveling, eating, drinking and beautifying. She enjoys yoga and has a daily goal of running 6.5 km to offset her love of beer and junk food.

View all articles by Kimi