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Niigata residents spend the most on ramen among Japan families when dining out

A ramen shop is seen crowded with customers in Niigata's Higashi Ward on March 26, 2022. (Mainichi/Mayuka Ikeda)

NIIGATA -- The average household in this central Japan city spent a total of 13,734 yen (about $107) on ramen when dining out in 2021 -- the highest amount among families in major cities across the country.

    According to an annual family budget survey by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, whose results were announced in February, the city of Niigata came out on top for the first time, surpassing the eight-time defending champion city of Yamagata, Yamagata Prefecture, in northeast Japan. An expert suggests that the results can be attributed to the fact that Niigata Prefecture is one of the country's largest rice producing areas (so people prefer something else when dining out) and a snowy region, in addition to being a "ramen kingdom" where five major types of ramen are beloved by locals.

    The ministry's survey was conducted on some 9,000 households consisting of two or more family members in the capital cities of Japan's 47 prefectures and other major cities across the country.

    In 2021, the average family in the city of Niigata spent 300 yen (approx. $2.30) more on ramen when eating out than a standard household in the city of Yamagata, which spent 13,434 yen (roughly $105). People in Niigata spent roughly 2.4 times the national average at 5,647 yen (about $44).

    Takahiro Katayama, 43, a local media company employee who is responsible for the "Takuhai Niigata Mennoichi" online store that specializes in Niigata Prefecture's ramen, analyzed the survey results, saying, "Noodles are preferred here when dining out because people can eat tasty rice at home." He also suggested that another reason for ramen's popularity may be that the dishes warm up people in this cold region which receives a lot of snow.

    While five major ramen noodle types are popular in the prefecture, its capital city Niigata has a particularly large number of ramen restaurants, and the number per population is also one of the highest in Japan, Katayama pointed out. He added that various types of ramen are available in the city. "The standard is high here as there are old-style ramen houses as well as ones that incorporate the latest trends," he said.

    Katayama also highlighted that Niigata Prefecture residents like noodles in general. Local specialties in the prefecture include stir-fried wheat noodles flavored with a condiment similar to Worcestershire sauce and topped with ketchup -- called "Italian" -- and "hegi soba" noodles made from buckwheat flour and seaweed. The internal affairs ministry's survey also revealed that the city of Niigata spent the most on instant cup noodles, and came in third place in terms of the amount of money spent on pasta in 2021, following the cities of Hiroshima in west Japan and Yokohama in east Japan.

    While Niigata Prefecture's five major types of ramen -- soy sauce and thick miso flavors from the city of Niigata, curry flavor from the city of Sanjo, noodles topped with a lot of pork backfat from the city of Tsubame and ginger soy sauce flavor from the city of Nagaoka -- tend to gather attention, new types have also come to the forefront.

    Katayama pays particular attention to the Joetsu-Myoko area's "tonkotsu" pork bone broth ramen. Omori ramen, which is said to be the original version, has a history of more than half a century and household packets of the product are sold at supermarkets. While southwest Japan's Hakata-style tonkotsu ramen, whose soup is milky and noodles are firm and thin, are predominant in the country, the Joetsu-Myoko version of tonkotsu ramen is characterized with clear soup and thick noodles. Furthermore, Katayama said that he is also focused on other types of ramen including one that uses mapo noodles in the area centered around the city of Niigata, and pork miso soup ramen which is popular in the city of Myoko.

    (Japanese original by Mayuka Ikeda, Niigata Bureau)

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