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Noodle seller tells how faith helps him relish his life

'The ramen wouldn’t sell, so I prayed,' says vendor

Noodle seller tells how faith helps him relish his life
Koji Sugai with his wife Atsuko correspondent, Tokyo

February 12, 2013

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Ramen is almost an icon of Japanese popular cuisine, even though it is actually a Japanese take on a Chinese dish. Hence its other name: chuka-soba, or “Chinese noodles.”

One ramen shop in Tsuruga City, about 330 kilometers west of Tokyo in Fukui prefecture, has stood the test of time. Ichiriki Ramen is more than 55 years old, and its founder Koji Sugai, now 80, still gets up at 4:30am each day to get a jump on the workday.

“It makes me happy to hear people say, ‘That’s good!’” he says.

Koji starts the day by making sure the shop is clean. Then he makes broth from pork and chicken bones and fat. “I check the pots regularly. The broth can change quickly — even the color. I practically defend it with my life. And you might say I’m alive thanks to my broth, too.”

Even before Ichiriki opens, a long line of customers appears. Quite a few license plates on cars in the shop’s parking lot bear the markings of other prefectures, showing just how far people have come for the noodles that wait inside.

When Koji was about 20 years old, he was eating ramen in Kyoto and thought to himself, “This is really delicious!” He taught himself how to make the noodles and, soon after he married Atsuko, he laid out the money to get a share in a ramen stand.

Another fateful event in Koji’s life about that time was almost an accident. Koji dropped in to Tsuruga Church just because he happened to be walking by. The pastor there was a foreign priest from the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart.

“I ended up having to go to church because if I didn’t, the priest would hop on his bicycle and come find me at my house. I guess you could say I became a Catholic because a priest made me study Catechism.”

After nearly 20 years of playing his shawm (a double-reed wind instrument used by street vendors and strongly associated with ramen in particular and hawking hot noodles, Koji and Atsuko’s ramen stand was looking desperate.

“The ramen wouldn’t sell. Sometimes I even resorted to prayer,” Koji said.

The couple didn’t have any place to stay, so they borrowed a tent from their ramen-stand partner and pitched it in some nearby woods so they could have somewhere to lay their heads.

“I really put [Atsuko] through a lot,” Koji laments. But she brushes it off, saying, “Well, we just didn’t have any money, and really I enjoyed it. It was the same as if it’d been a camping trip.”

In an age before refrigeration, Koji would ride his bicycle to a town 30km away every day to buy pork. He didn’t become successful until he moved into his current shop.

But when success finally came, it came in leaps and bounds. A ramen museum in Yokohama even invited him to sell his ramen there for about a year.

“There have been times when we were so busy we couldn’t make it to church for months on end, but we’ve managed to live on this business for 50 years now, thanks only to God’s grace,” says Atsuko.

Koji agrees: “Yep, I think so too.”

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