Part Gordon Ramsey, part Seinfeld soup nazi, and part Bataan Death March general, where Gordon Ramsey can be an unconscionable ball breaking pr**k, this guy is a sadistic back cracking psychopath. Having read an article recently about the popularity of YOUTUBE in Japan, I started throwing the names of my old favorite shows I used to watch when I lived in Japan, into the YOUTUBE search engine and came across postings of my favorite food-oriented guilty pleasure- watching the guy we knew as the RAMEN NAZI on "Gachinko Ramen Michi"- which translates as something like "Ramen Challenge Road".
Minoru Sano ran an infamous ramen shop in Fujisawa, a seaside town south of Tokyo. I lived nearby in the mid-90's and kept hearing some expat friends rave about the Ramen Nazi's eccentric ways and tasty soup. (These friends were getting Seinfeld tapes mailed to them every few weeks- hence his nickname.) After learning the location of the shop, I peddled over there one weekday afternoon. Disappointingly, I found the place shuttered and closed. "Oh well", I thought. Must be the off day. Next week I went back, different day, different time, and had my initial encounter with the Ramen Nazi. The shop shutter was half open. A middle-aged man was hosing down the area in front of the shop. In Japanese, I
asked him if he was open today. "Does it look like I'm open?!” he snapped. "The shutter's open," I said. "In one hour," he growled. So I went to play some Daytona 500 racing game, which was 100 YEN for 20 laps at the video store nearby. An hour later, I return to find the shutter down and no sign of the Nazi.
Ok, so I try again a week later. The shutter's up and there's people cued up outside. Chaining my bike to a post, I enter into the Ramen Nazi's world- which begins in front of the actual shop, where some female minion is already taking your order. You need to make your basic decision here- shoyu or miso. Depending on which you choose, you’re assigned a particular area to wait. Eventually, I make it in through the door. It's standing room only. There's a u-shaped counter with about 10-12 stools crammed around it and about a two foot clearance with the wall. The only sounds are clinking of dishes and slurping of noodles. Lined up behind those stools, in near firing squad posture, are the standing reserve of the next line of ramen patrons. At the door I'm asked to make a final decision- my toppings. Do I want negi, chashu, or negi and chashu. I opt for chashu, on top of my miso decision earlier, so I'm given some particular colored plastic chip and told to wait in a certain area, queued up behind someone at the counter. I think I paid when I received that chip.
So I'm standing behind some guy and taking the scene in. There's no talking at all. And there's no female patrons. And no one is smoking- which is odd for Japan. The reason, I quickly discover, is because of the sign that was posted on the wall with 3 rules a la some bizarre Orwellian twist on dining conventions: Rule #1- NO TALKING ALLOWED. Rule #2- NO PERSONS WITH STRONG PERFUME ALLOWED. Rule #3 NO SMOKING. I thought about having a beer with my bowl, but another sign read something to the effect of "The soup served here is prepared with various vitamins and minerals and alcohol does not mix well with them, therefore alcohol is not served in this shop". Err, ok. Thanks for, err, looking out for me...
Behind the counter was the master psycho himself serving broth. There was another guy working on the noodle station, a guy washing dishes, and one more guy standing at attention "Tomb of the Unknown Solider" style with his legs spread shoulder width apart and hands behind his back. I think his role was to give the scene symmetry and possibly to cane whip people who didn't finish their food.
Once someone in my designated zone, which I guess was the miso-chasu zone, finished his food, he placed the empty bowl on the counter, said the requisite meal finishing expression- "Gochisosamadeshita", and sheepishly exited the shop. I waited for a nod from some shop person and finally sat down, placing my chip on the counter. The cook took the chip, sounded out my order, and moved on.....Yes, the ramen was good. For a long time it was in my top five. But that was a long time ago. One particular and famous distinguishing Nazi-esque habit the Ramen Nazi had, I had heard, was berating and yelling at customers who left food in their bowl. Not wanting to incur his wrath, I slurped and sipped my way to the bottom and made my way out of the shop. I DID try to go back, but his hours were just too unpredictable and I never seemed to make it when the place was actually open.
Fast forward a few years later. I lived in Tokyo and was watching the previews for the next installment of the "Gachinko" series of "reality" programs on tv. Gachinko means something like challenge and they had already had a "Gachinko Fight Club" series which had an ex-boxing champ mentoring a group of up-and-coming boxers. Imagine my surprise when I saw that "Gachinko Ramen" was coming and the featured mentor was none-other-than the Ramen Nazi, Sano-san from Fujisawa. The premise was that the winner or winners of the competition would be able to open a branch of Sano-san’s ramen chain.
Having experienced him first hand, I thoroughly enjoyed the first season of the Ramen Nazi's wacky antics which I'm sure were partially scripted as all Japanese "reality" shows are, but nevertheless captured the uniquely bizarre manner with which the Japanese can take something as innocuous as cooking soup and noodles and turn it in to a semi-violent martial art. Containing all manner of unpredictable obtuse cooking lessons, acts of supreme humiliation, people getting hot water poured on their heads, and lots of laugh out loud moments. Watching Gordon Ramsey, you can at least gain takeaways and insight into success in the kitchen and the restaurant business. But "Gachinko Ramen" is more about one guy's often unflinching, amoral, and slighting sadistic approach to Japan's favorite dish.
For those interested and able to understand Japanese, the third season of “Gachinko Ramen Michi” has been posted on YOUTUBE, complete with a wrap-up from season two. Sano-san seems to have softened some and things seem a little bit more scripted, but it’s still funny stuff. If there's any interest, I can post English synopsis of episodes. And of course anyone with updates, please share.
The episodes on YOUTUBE:
Japanese Wikipedia entry for Sano-san which you can try to throw into a translation site:
Sano’s photo from the Yokohama Ramen Museum website (he has a shop there):