How the art of tsukemen became known

Kazuo Yamagishi, founder of the ramen shop Higashi-Ikebukuro Taishoken in Tokyo and the inventor of tsukemen noodles with dipping soup, passed away early this month.

Known as a "god of ramen," Yamagishi trained more than 100 apprentices who then went on to set up branches of the same shop throughout the country. He had a gentle personality and continued to greet customers in front of his shop even after retiring from the kitchen.

Around noon on April 3, about 20 to 30 people lined up outside the main shop despite the strong wind. There have been twice as many customers as usual since the news of Yamagishi's death, and letters and flowers have been delivered, according to the shop.

"There were lots of fans who came to his shop because they were fascinated by the man who was always smiling. I'd like to eat the ramen in his memory," says Katsumasa Takaishi, 67, a part-time worker in Nishi-Sugamo, Toshima Ward, who has been a fan of Yamagishi for more than 30 years.

Takaishi still remembers how Yamagishi was so devastated after the death of his wife that he thought of closing down the shop. That was in 1986.

The blank spaces on the closing notice were filled with messages from customers who wanted to see the store continue. Takaishi had also written in the spaces, "I want to eat your tsukemen again."

Six months after the death of his wife, Yamagishi "had lost the will to live but was moved by the customers' passion" and resumed operating the shop.

"He was someone who really put the customers first," Takaishi said. "I was happy when he reopened the shop."

Yamagishi retired from the front lines in 2007, when it was decided that the main shop would close due to redevelopment in the area. The following year, Toshihiko Iino, 46, Yamagishi's leading apprentice, opened the current main shop. Yamagishi sat on a chair outside the store almost every day and thanked each customer with a smile.

Futaba Sekiya, 42, who runs a nearby company, visited the shop with her family of five on April 3 and stared at the chair still placed in front of the store.

"I'll never forget how he sat there smiling, saying, 'My knees hurt, but it's important that everyone get the chance to eat this great tsukemen,'" she said tearfully.

Yamagishi had been in and out of the hospital for the past three years and died of heart failure at a hospital on April 1. He was 80.

According to Iino, who visited Yamagishi regularly in hospital, he was in a dazed state a few days before he died, murmuring, "Welcome, welcome!" and "Thank you very much!" as if he were still at the shop.

Created from leftovers

Yamagishi was born in Nagano Prefecture. After losing his father to World War II, he moved to Tokyo to support his family, and trained at a ramen shop owned by relatives and others.

Tsukemen was created in 1955. Yamagishi gathered leftover noodles from bamboo baskets to boil in the kitchen and began eating them dipped in a special soup with soy sauce and sweet vinegar. Tsukemen took off when customers saw this and asked if they could try it.

In 1961, Yamagishi became independent and opened his own shop. With his wife's support, his business thrived. Yamagishi, who had no children, said: "I welcome anyone who likes ramen. My apprentices are like my children," and groomed many apprentices. He did not take any royalties from any of the more than 100 shops that branched out from his.

According to ramen critic Hiroshi Osaki, 56, who introduces about 40,000 ramen shops throughout Japan on his "Ramen Bank" website, the industry initially considered tsukemen to be a "novelty and unusual item," and it did not spread widely to other shops. It only came to be known throughout the country when the media covered tsukemen and fell in love with Yamagishi's personality as Taishoken was closing its old main shop in 2007.

There are now 10,000 to 20,000 shops that offer tsukemen in Japan.

"There is no one in the industry who does not know Mr. Yamagishi. His contribution to the ramen industry is immeasurable," Osaki said.