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Before we get into this list, I think it might be important to give a little historical context of the dish and how it all began. Tsukemen is what I like to call a deconstructed ramen. The noodles and soup are served in separate bowls and the idea is it allows customers to dip the noodles into the soup at their own pace. The dish was said to have been created by Yamagishi Kazuo, former master of the famous Higashi Ikebukuro Taishoken and is a beloved figure to this day, six years since his death.
The initial Tsukemen served by Yamagishi-san was a rather light, thin soup with a strong vinegar note. Throughout the years, the soup is said to have thickened which led to many aspiring Tsukemen chefs taking the intensity to new levels of richness, building the groundwork for the thick, creamy soup we often see today. As the dish evolved, a couple notable shops added new twists to Tsukemen which led to the invention of the now popular Tonkotsu Gyokai Tsukemen, or pork bone and seafood based Tsukemen.
First was Aoba with its original location near Nakano station. Here they began using a W soup, or double soup, mixing together a separate pork stock with a seafood heavy broth. What separated the Tonkotsu Gyokai Tsukemen from the one served at Taishoken was the Gyokai, or seafood element which is typically Niboshi dried fish, Bushi which is a smoked and fermented dried fish product, and Gyofun which is a ground fish powder. The Gyokai elements intensifies the umami profile and provides a funky, savory element to the dish
As more shops began serving this Tsukemen style, the dish became progressively more popular leading to hundreds, if not thousands, of Tonkotsu Gyokai Tsukemen shops opening around Japan. For the most part, many of the shops are centralized in the Kanto area as this is where the dish first came in to fruition, so the following shops will tend to be in the area. For first timers to Japan, the sheer number of shops serving this dish can be overwhelming so in order to help you find that perfect bowl, here are what I consider to be five of the top Tonkotsu Gyokai Tsukemen shops in Japan.
Ganja makes this list as both a pioneer in the Tsukemen world and as one of the top shops in Japan. Ganja was actually the first shop to introduce Gyofun, or ground fish powder, into the soup for an umami enhanced flavor explosion. A now common addition, prior to Ganja, the addition of pure fish powder into the soup was non-existent. The idea was quite simple, the Tonkotsu adds fats and collagen for a creamy, emulsified soup, but the fish powder was an easy solution to enrich the soup to give it an unforgettable, gritty thickness as well as a heavier umami punch.
Since they first opened in 2000, Ganja has expanded with restaurants all around Japan, but continues to pump out the Tonkotsu Gyokai Tsukemen at their HQ location in Kawagoe, Saitama, which gave them their initial boost in popularity. In addition to the Tonkotsu and Gyokai base, Ganja also adds chicken to their broth for another layer of flavor complexity. Shoyu tare helps season the broth and the house made noodles are constructed to perfectly balance with the heavy soup. Kawagoe is known as Coedo, or little Edo, a historic city in Japan. For a history lesson in both Japanese cultural history, and in Tsukemen history, Ganja should definitely make an appearance on your itinerary.
Soon after Ganja’s explosion in popularity, Rokurinsha opened their doors in 2005 in the Osaki area of Tokyo. They have since moved to the famous “Ramen Street” located inside Tokyo station, but only after gaining fame for the addition of the Gyofun fish powder as a topping placed carefully on a slice of dried seaweed. The almost obvious addition sparked a number of copycats, but the origin at Rokurinsha continues to be a popular item among tourists and travelers making their way through Japan via Tokyo station.
As the name of the article would suggest, Rokurinsha uses a Tonkotsu and Gyokai base with chicken added for an extra punch. The broth is simmered for 10+ hours and combined before serving with a ladle of their shoyu tare seasoning. Soup bowl is then topped with pork chashu, menma, negi, naruto fishcake, and their iconic gyofun fish powder over their nori dried seaweed. The Gyofun gives the soup a more impactful, initial bitterness, but multiplies the umami sensations unlike any without it. Noodles are made medium thick and served after being shocked in water for a fantastic pairing with the rich soup.
Chuka Soba Tomita (中華蕎麦とみ田)
You’d be hard pressed to find any ramen enthusiast who hasn't heard of Tomita, but the list of top Tonkotsu Gyokai Tsukemen shops wouldn’t be complete without it’s addition. The shop truly lives up to their lofty recognition which was highlighted by the popular documentary “Ramen Heads” released in 2017. Tomita is run by Osamu Tomita-san who is a former disciple of the inventor of Tsukemen, Yamagishi-san and has continuously churned out award winning Tonkotsu Gyokai Tsukemen since he first opened in 2006.
Tomita’s soup consists of pork and Gyokai seafood elements, with additions like pig heads in addition to the pork femur bones for a more complex flavor profile. What results is a rather dark soup and a lot more viscous and creamy than any of his competitors. Shoyu tare season the stock and is also topped with the Gyofun fish powder, naruto, negi, and dried seaweed. Noodles are made in house and have a roasted, wheat flour aroma to them which meshes with the soup incredibly well. Most first timers make this mistake often, but the chashu set is sold separately to the tsukemen. If ordered as is, you will not get Tomita’s full array of toppings, which includes different cuts of pork chashu, ajitama soft boiled egg, and chicken chashu, so definitely make sure to include it when you purchase your tickets at the machine.
Chuka Soba Uwezu (中華蕎麦うゑず)
Looking at the photos of Uwezu, you might be thinking that you’re looking at the same dish as Tomita, but it is because the master trained under Tomita-san before opening his own restaurant. Located about a 15 minutes bus ride from Kofu station, some ramen fanatics have called this the best Tsukemen outside of Tomita. It’s hard to argue as Uwezu is making some comparable soup that battles with the best of them.
Much like Tomita, Uwezu incorporates pork and gyokai stock base. The soup has a bit of its own unique flair separating itself from Tomita, but uses their DNA to give it a backbone to build upon. Soup comes adorned with a heavier use of the Gyofun fish powder than Tomita which coats the surface of the soup ensuring that every dip of the noodles results in an intense rush of umami and bitterness. The bitterness is quickly dampened by the creamy pork and fish based soup which clings to the noodles perfectly. Speaking of which, the noodles, made in house, have a strong aromatic flavor profile evident with every bite. The long strands allow customers for a deeply satisfying and almost never ending slurp for an unforgettable tsukemen experience.
Tsukemen Michi (つけ麺道)
Koya Nagahama-san was one of the youngest Tsukemen shop owners when he first opened Tsukemen Michi in 2009. At the age of 21, he began his ramen career working at Kashiwa Taishoken in Chiba prefecture, a lineage shop of the famous Higashi Ikebukuro Taishoken, the inventor of Tsukemen. After four months the shop master had an unfortunate accident and Nagahama-san took the helm of the restaurant before branching out on his own to open Michi. While the base flavors Nagahama-san drew inspiration from came via his training at Taishoken, the final product served at Michi is a rather refined, creamy Tonkotsu Gyokai, more in line with the other shops featured in this list.
Using chicken and pork for the animal portion of the stock and dried fish elements such as Ago (flying fish) and Katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes), Nagahama-san created a phenomenal tsukemen which he serves alongside his omotenashi (Japanese for hospitality) flair. The dish is carefully presented on a platter with all the key elements of the Tsukemen plated separately. For the full experience, be sure to order the Tokusei which comes with all of the separate toppings. Soup is flavored with a shoyu tare and is served piping hot alongside a portion of golden hue, thick noodles made carefully to balance with the intensity of the soup. The highlight for most diners is the seasonal condiments which in the photo was a spicy shoyu infused sesame oil to pair along with either the soup, noodles, or both.
Since the inception of Tsukemen by Yamagishi-san almost 70 years ago, the dish has taken on countless iterations and moved through a handful of different trends. One that doesn’t seem to be slowing down is the Tonkotsu Gyokai which, as you can see from the list, has expanded throughout Japan with top shops in Tokyo, Chiba, Saitama, and Yamanashi. Japan is filled with countless more that couldn't fit in this short list and is a can’t miss style for any traveler’s visit in Japan.
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