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If there’s one thing Japan loves, it’s ramen, and if there’s a second thing, it’s hot springs (or onsen in Japanese).

We recently found a place in Tokyo’s Suginami Ward that combines both.

Roughly 15 minutes by train from Shinjuku is the suburban neighborhood of Asagaya. There you’ll find the unassuming restaurant Toriyoshi, which for the last 19 years has served as a pleasant place for locals to relax and shoot the breeze while munching on yakitori (grilled chicken skewers) and knocking back a few cold ones. But we weren’t here for bird. Instead, we came to try Toriyoshi’s unique ramen made with water from a hot spring.

Part of the fun of a trip to Toriyoshi is its locale. The restaurant is located on a decidedly old school street corner, with kids and housewives passing by on their way home or to the market. And while it would be overly generous to call Toriyoshi’s exterior beautiful (or even particularly clean), it has a definite aura that drew us right in.

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All the restaurant’s seats are along its counter, and everything in the place, from the chairs to the handwritten menus posted on the walls, contributes to its down-to-earth vibe. As we stepping inside, we were greeted by the restaurant’s sociable owner, who cheerfully chatted away while he prepared our food.

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So how did a yakitori restaurant end up with ramen on the menu? Toriyoshi’s owner simply thought some of his customers might like a bowl of noodles to go along with their chicken skewers. But if he was going to serve ramen, he was going to serve good ramen, so he trained under a Chinese chef to acquire the necessary culinary skills.

Once he had the fundamentals down, Toriyoshi’s owner hit upon the idea of trying something a little different with his ramen, something that people would make a special visit to his restaurant to eat, even if they didn’t live in the neighborhood. Toriyoshi’s prototype ramen, which is still available, includes natto (fermented soybeans) and tempura.

“Nobody ever orders the natto tempura ramen,” the owner told us.

Figuring the restaurant’s regulars know best, we passed on it too and instead ordered the 430 yen (US$4.45) onsen ramen.

We knew the onsen ramen contains genuine hot spring water, but we were surprised by the owner’s offer to tell us the entire list of ingredients for the broth, as such recipes are usually closely-guarded secrets of ramen chefs. “As long as you’re confident that you’re the best at cooking it, why does it matter if other people know the recipe?” he told us. “I can’t see why other restaurants feel the need to keep that information to themselves.” Although impressed by his openness, we declined, choosing to focus instead on the most enjoyable aspect of any bowl of ramen: eating it.

As our bowl was placed in front of us, we were impressed by the numerous slices of eggplant and pork. Eggplant is an unusual choice for ramen, but this just added to its appeal, making it seem more like a home-made dish. A half-boiled egg is also dropped into the bowl, where it cooks in the steaming hot broth.

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As we took a bite, our first sensation was not of the taste of the noodles, nor that of the seasonings or pork. It was the flavor of the eggplant, brought about by the delicate combination of the juices extracted from the vegetable during cooking blending with the rest of the broth. This interplay is part of what sets it apart from ordinary soy-based ramen broths.

The other is, of course, the presence of hot spring water. Toriyoshi originally used water from a spring in Yamanashi Prefecture, but after becoming unable to procure continuing shipments, switched to water from a spring in southern Kagoshima Prefecture.

It’s also worth noting that the broth contains very little oil. “A lot of ramen restaurants that are popular these days get all of their flavor from the oil they use. It’s an easy shortcut to make the product taste better, but especially as you get older, you can’t eat that kind of stuff all the time. That’s why I set out to make my ramen have a little oil but still a lot of flavor,” the owner explained.

Aside from adding minerals to the broth, the hot spring water also has the pleasant effect of warming you up nicely from the inside. Between that, the friendly banter from the restaurant’s owner, it’s low-key décor, and of course full menu of alcoholic beverages, Toriyoshi is a great place to mellow out for a couple hours. We may not have time to go all the way to the hot springs as often as we’d like, but we’re more than happy to meet the onsen half-way in Asagaya.

Restaurant information
Restaurant name: Toriyoshi / 鳥よし
Address: Tokyo, Suginami-ku, Asagaya Kta 2-23-1 / 東京都杉並区阿佐谷北2-23-1
Hours: 6 p.m. – 3 a.m.
Open every day of the week (closed around New Year’s)

Photos: RocketNews24
[ Read in Japanese ]