OSAKA - Visit any major Western or Asian city and you're sure to find a ramen restaurant, with over 2,000 establishments worldwide serving the noodle dish.
Ramen's global popularity has prompted many foreigners to study recipes and cooking techniques at training schools in Japan, with their sights set on opening their own shops.
Joseph Lau, a Malaysian living in Perth, Australia, took a course at Miyajima Ramen School in Higashiosaka, Osaka Prefecture, in late June. He asked the school's owner, Rikisai Miyajima, why chicken carcasses are used to make soup for ramen, in addition to pork bones.
"They are meant to bring out umami in the broth," the expert chef replied through an interpreter.
According to Lau, 57, ramen shops have opened in succession throughout Perth, with tonkotsu ramen - a variety using a broth made from pork bones - being the most popular.
The school offers packaged programs lasting five or seven days, in which students can obtain essential knowledge about ramen - from the broth and chashu, or roasted pork served as a topping, to how to make noodles.
The programs cost ¥250,000 for five days or start at ¥300,000 for seven days. The entire trip costs a fair amount after accounting for the cost of staying in Japan, plane tickets and other expenses. However, Lau believes the soup recipe he learned at the school will guarantee his success back in Australia.
Miyajima, 52, who previously ran a ramen shop, opened the school in 2001 with the aim of teaching Japanese the secrets of the trade.
Yet these days, foreigners make up 90 per cent of his students. Americans, Chinese, Filipinos, Thais and people of other nationalities account for many of the 300 students who have completed the course thus far.
A former student, Stanislav Balaz from Prague, said he fell in love with Japanese ramen after trying it during a trip to Germany.
After completing a course at the school, the 36-year-old Czech experimented with his own version of soy sauce-based tonkotsu ramen. He has operated pop-up restaurants at events held in Prague and other locations since March.
Balaz said he hopes to raise the profile of ramen in his country by presenting the dish's authentic Japanese flavors.
CATCHING UP TO SUSHI
According to a survey conducted by the Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum in Yokohama, there were more than 1,000 ramen shops abroad in 2012, with the number currently exceeding 2,000. In addition to the United States and China, countries like Britain and France have experienced a proliferation of ramen restaurants.
The surge in restaurants abroad began in the late 2000s when a famous ramen chain outlet expanded beyond Japan. The dish has become so popular that words like tonkotsu and kaedama - or a second serving of noodles - have entered the lexicon of overseas ramen fans.
Its booming popularity has likewise threatened sushi's standing as the most famous Japanese food abroad.
Some bitten by the ramen bug have opened their own ramen shops, contributing to its spread.
The ramen storm swept into New York City thanks to the Momofuku Noodle Bar, which is run by Americans who trained in Tokyo. The shop's dishes have been altered to suit American preferences, with bacon and other ingredients often added to broth recipes.
Success stories like that of Momofuku, which is thought to have inspired the American ramen craze, encourage more non-Japanese to study the art of the noodle in Japan.
Meanwhile, Tokyo Ramen Academy (Shoku no Dojo) in Yachiyo, Chiba Prefecture, which has accepted about 60 students from 26 countries, boasts a roster of instructors who run popular ramen shops in Japan.
"When we receive requests from graduates planning to open ramen shops abroad, we dispatch instructors to support them," said Shigekatsu Akimoto, 55, a representative at the school.
Those making ramen abroad occasionally have difficulty acquiring certain ingredients common in Japan. The dispatched instructor helps research locally available ingredients and comes up with recipes incorporating them.
One such restaurant, which opened in Canada two years ago, has become wildly popular and attracts 500 customers a day, according to Akimoto.
"If you learn the basics of ramen, you can arrange it in a lot of different ways," he said. "I hope foreigners come up with recipes inspired by local flavors and help spread the dish worldwide."