(Please note that the above shop, Chukasoba Sato, hasn’t closed. I just visited them on their day off . . . twice)
Recently, in November 2020, there have been a few high profile news articles discussing how Japan’s ramen industry was hit by COVID-19 (called shingata corona virus or 新型コロナウイルス). I was even asked to comment on the matter for one of them. Are Japan’s ramen shops in peril? Have your plans of eating the best ramen in Japan become mere dreams?
Here are a few of those articles. A Bloomberg article mentions Kouraku Honpo (ラーメン王 後楽本舗). An article in the Guardian says that 34 ramen chains filed for bankruptcy. An article on Nippon.com includes this great graphic showing a spike in bankruptcies in 2020, with the January to September number almost eclipsing the previous year’s record.
Japan never had an officially enforced lockdown in effect. While then-Prime Minister Abe called for caution, mayor of Tokyo Yuriko Koike set a closing time of 8:00 pm for bars and restaurants. This wasn’t enforced, but most shops complied and a hungry person had to settle for the convenience store in the evening. This suggestion of closing times was raised to 10:00 pm and eventually removed.
Ramen shops do a lot of business in the evenings, so they were definitely hit. Many changed to a lunch-only system with social distancing guidelines in place. It was never six feet, but plastic sheets were hung and shops started supplying alcohol spray for customers to use.
I’ve met with a few shop owners recently and causally asked about it. The number I got most often was around 60%. At the height of the pandemic, ramen shops were doing 60% of their normal business. Overseas, their branches were doing in the neighborhood of 20%. Remember, Japan never had the kind of lockdown measures many other countries endured.
Scouring the Japanese internet for articles, I found a few. This one (on a camping car website?!?) shows shops that have closed around Japan. In Tokyo:
- The Shimbashi branch of Koraku Honpo mentioned in the Bloomberg article.
- Ramen PePe (らーめん ぺぺ) #pepesad
- Taiwan Mazesoba Akashiya (台湾まぜそば あかしや)
- A branch of Menji Aburasoba (麺爺あぶら 早稲田店)
Please ignore my bed in the background. Maybe it’s time to invest in a proper live streaming setup.