Asa Ramen - Japan's Breakfast Ramen Culture Explained
While ramen is traditionally thought of as a lunch or dinner food, did you know that you can eat ramen for breakfast as well in Japan? Some restaurants even specialize in this early morning ramen, serving customers as early as 6:00 am. Sure, it's no secret that Japan loves ramen, but how did such a heavy food end up as an item on the Japanese breakfast menu? In this article, we explain the morning ramen culture of "asa-ra," short for "asa ramen."
Jul 29 2022
How "Asa-Ra" Culture Started
"Asa-ra" is a contraction of the Japanese word for morning (asa / 朝) and ramen (ラーメン).
The first usage of this term is said to have started in Fujieda City, Shizuoka Prefecture, during the Taisho Period (1912-1926), when ramen stores began setting up shop early in the morning to cater to the demanding schedules of tea plantation workers.
Located barely one hour away from Tokyo, Shizuoka is famous for its green tea, with around 40% of Japan’s total tea production stemming from the prefecture. As a result, many people in Shizuoka work tirelessly year-round to supply the ever-growing demand for Japanese green tea worldwide.
However, producing world-class tea is no small feat. Perfectly balancing the flavor of tea leaves is an incredibly delicate matter, which is why the workday for tea plantation workers begins far before the sun even rises, as this is the ideal time for harvesting tea leaves.
Like many today, these workers felt that a nice steaming bowl of ramen was just the thing to hit the spot after a long day of hard work. However, there weren't any ramen shops around that met that demand.
Eventually, one ramen store - Marunaka Ramen - caught on and in 1919, they became the first to open their doors bright and early in the morning at 8:30 am to catch those tea plantation workers right after their shift.
Shida Ramen - Shizuoka's Most Famous Asa-Ra
While the only so-called “qualification” for a bowl of ramen to be considered asa-ra is that it has to be served and eaten in the morning, the most well-known type of asa-ra is Shida ramen. Named for the Shida District where the original asa-ra started, more than half of the asa-ra shops in Fujieda City, Shizuoka Prefecture, specialize in Shida ramen.
Shida ramen is characterized by its bonito and soy sauce-based soup; its smooth, flat, medium-thin noodles; char siu meat that has very little fat; and being served with no spoon. Another distinguishing trait of Shida ramen is that you are served not one, but two bowls of noodles! That’s right, you will traditionally get one bowl of hot ramen and one with cold noodles.
While no one knows exactly where this tradition started, some say that it became a thing because so many customers couldn’t decide which of the two styles they wanted. Serving both hot and cold Shida ramen as a set made the most sense so that customers could get the best of both worlds.
The traditional order of eating Shida ramen is to first enjoy the hot ramen and then move on to the cool one. The hot ramen has a light broth and smooth, old-fashioned noodles. It's easy to eat early in the morning as it's not too heavy. The cold ramen is customarily served in a glass bowl with red pickled ginger and wasabi. The soup is typically sweeter, and by mixing the wasabi into the broth, it takes on a taste that is more akin to the soba that is eaten in Japan during the summer.
Asa-Ra Culture in Tohoku
While the original asa-ra may be from Shizuoka Prefecture, there are many people who strongly relate asa-ra with the northern region of Tohoku. In part due to its chilly winters, ramen is particularly popular in the Tohoku region, which has the highest consumption rate of ramen in Japan.
Kitakata City in Fukushima Prefecture in particular is well known for its asa-ra culture. Similar to Fujieda City, Kitakata is home to many agricultural workers who get up early, tend to the fields, and then replenish their stamina with a hearty bowl of Kitakata ramen.
Kitakata ramen has a soy sauce base, green onions, and lots of char siu meat and bamboo shoots. It is characterized by having particularly thick noodles, unlike other styles of ramen found in Japan.
While most ramen shops are open between 12:00 pm and 2:00 pm for lunch, and then again from 5:00 pm until late at night for dinner, around Tohoku, you’ll find many asa-ra shops open regularly from 6 or 7 in the morning until noon.
Asa-Ra in Other Parts of Japan
Today, asa-ra is not just popular in rural areas such as Shizuoka and Tohoku with large populations of agricultural workers, but can be found all around Japan and is enjoyed by a much wider audience.
Many people in bustling cities such as Tokyo and Osaka enjoy asa-ra as a morning convenience or on the way to work. It’s especially popular with people who play sports such as baseball in the morning and need a bite after practice. Another key demographic of asa-ra enthusiasts are those who have enjoyed Japanese nightlife to the fullest. Many of them swear by asa-ra as a hangover cure!
Interestingly enough, in response to the COVID-19 business restrictions put in place by the Japanese government, an asa-ra boom occurred in Tokyo. Ramen shops were one of the hardest hit by the late-night operating restrictions, so when they figured out that they could effectively stay open longer if they simply opened earlier, they ran with it.
Even post-peak pandemic, however, the convenience of asa-ra seems to have stuck, and many ramen shops around Tokyo have still kept their morning hours.
Eat Ramen for Breakfast
While noodles for breakfast may not sound appealing to some, asa-ra culture is a living testament of just how much Japanese people love their ramen. If you come to Japan, why not expand your culinary palate with a nice bowl of asa-ra first thing in the morning? While you may have to wake up just a little earlier than usual, starting your day with asa-ra is a fun way to experience Japanese culture in a uniquely local way.
Thumbnail credit: tokyo_nemo
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.