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The Ramen Lover's Guide to Niseko
From my time in Japan so far, I’ve realised there are only a few questions you can ask to really spark a heated debate among native Japanese and foreigners alike, and I think I’ve narrowed it down to the most divisive one - “what is the best ramen in (insert location here)?”
Ramen is a food that is held close to the heart for almost all people that have come into contact with Japanese culture. It’s hearty broth, delicious chewy noodles and endless selection of toppings makes it a food that can truly be as unique and the person slurping it, and this means almost every shop in the country will have a few diehard fans that have found their perfect bowl.
From working in Guest Services last Winter, I figured one of the most requested recommendations for people new the area was where to find great ramen in Niseko. At first, before I’d tried them all myself, I turned to my colleagues, who each described their favourite place in the area with unexpected passion and fervour. More confused than ever, the only conclusion I could come to is - the best ramen in Niseko is the one that speaks to your unique tastes.
For those who are only just starting to dip their toe in the massive ocean that is ramen culture, here’s a breakdown on the options you have when finding the perfect ramen for you, as it would be extremely rare to find a shop that does just one kind!
Next to noodles this is arguably the most important choice when choosing your ramen. The usual suspects are Shio (salt broth), Shoyu (soy sauce broth), Tonkotsu (creamy pork bone broth) and Miso (a Hokkaido specialty, usually has an additional Spicy Miso option). If you travel around Japan you will find towns that have their unique specialties and there you can find broths that are hard to come by like seafood, seaweed and spicy Chinese-style with ground beef. Each kind of broth will differ in its thickness, richness, saltiness and umami flavour, so be sure to consider your preferences in other cuisines and your hunger levels (typically Miso and Tonkotsu will be more filling!) so you can choose the right one for you.
In most ramen restaurants, they will give you the option for how firm you would like your noodles. You may be surprised to know that ramen is a dish served hot and fast - noodles will typically be cooked for only a couple of minutes, so finding 4-5 exact firmness levels in that time is truly an art! If you’re looking for chewy, moreish noodles be sure to have them cooked on the firmer side and if you’re after silky, easy-to-slurp noodles then opt for softer, longer cooked noodles. Sometimes you may also get to choose the thickness of the noodles - I recommend thick noodles with broths like Miso, Chinese-style and Tonkotsu since they cling together well.
Each kind of ramen will have recommended toppings to suit the broth and compliement it’s flavour. There are also special toppings that you may only find in particular areas in Japan, for example Hokkaido’s speciality is corn and butter which is a great combination for a sweet and rich ramen. In almost every ramen though you will find common ingredients that are rarely omitted such as pork (either ground, cubed or sliced), bamboo shoots, seaweed, green onion and a soft boiled egg. If you have a hankering for a certain ingredient, be sure to ask as most places will let you add toppings for a small fee.
Now that we’ve broken down what goes into a bowl of ramen, here’s some of the spots in Niseko that are coined as favourites among locals.
Niseko Ramen Kazahana, Hirafu
The TripAdvisor favourite Niseko Ramen is easily one of the most popular in the village, with lines out the door almost every night in high season. It’s draw card - the special potato ramen that uses local Kutchan potatoes to create a mashed potato-like foam that sits on top of miso broth (served regular or spicy). It’s definitely worth a try since it is truly unique to the area, but beware of long wait times out in the cold as they do not let people wait inside: rug up and get there earlier than usual!
Perfectly situated on the main drag of Hirafu-zaka, Tozanken is favoured for its variety of options and relatively affordable price point, making it a perfect lunch spot. There is a ramen for everyone here as well as rice bowls and side dishes like gyoza. Some special options include the vegetable ramen (unfortunately not suitable for vegans), karaage ramen with fried chicken and Genghis Khan ramen with grilled mutton. Due to it’s attractive prices and central location, Tozanken is often packed to the brim so be prepared to wait, and be sure to put your name on the list before joining the line!
This local’s favourite spot is very special as it is mentioned in the Michelin guide and has a Michelin plate rating. Considering a small shop in sleepy Kutchan received a nod from such an internationally recognised institution is no small feat! Nakama is a traditional shop with the usual suspects on the menu, executed perfectly. With a counter overlooking the chefs at work and a few small tables, you will feel real ramen culture here, with locals dropping in for a quick bowl at lunch and slurps all around (slurping your noodles is considered a compliment to
the chef in Japan, as well as cooling down the piping hot noodles).
Bar Moon/Otsukisama, Hirafu
As a popular spot to grab a beer on a cold winter’s night, Bar Moon in lower Hirafu can sometimes be overlooked as a great place to grab lunch or dinner. Ramen is definitely their specialty, but you can also find classic izakaya food like gyoza and seafood on the menu. Here you can find generous servings of soup and noodles with bean sprouts, green onion and of course cha-shu pork. You can watch the masters at work behind the bar as you sit at the traditional wooden counter. A special feature of their menu is the spicy miso ramen, which can be customised to be slightly spicy or fire-hot (they call it the "devil ramen"). If super spicy soup isn’t for you, keep an eye out for other punters in the cosy, rustic shop who have dared to try it - they can often be seen with bright red faces and sweaty brows, Bar Moon doesn’t mess around with heat!
My personal favourite in the region, Daishin in Kutchan town is hands down one of the richest, most tasty bowls you’ll find in Niseko! Slightly unassuming in a wooden building just down from the MaxValu supermarket, you’ll be greeted with warm interiors and friendly service once you’re inside. You can choose to sit at a western-style table or get immersed in Japanese eating culture by taking a seat in the lowered tables towards the back. With a wide variety of broths and topping combinations at one of the lowest pricepoints in town, its value is incomparable to more expensive places in the village. Across the board you’ll receive richly flavoured soup that will leave you full for hours with tempting flavours like roast pork ribs, cheese tantan (Chinese style) ramen, and the sweet corn and butter miso. The second-best dish on the menu? The creamy soft serve ice cream made from Hokkaido milk and served in a delicious crunchy cone, it’s the perfect way to cleanse the palette and end a tasty, umami-licious meal.
Ski in-and-out izakaya above the Holiday Pair Lift. Be sure to drop in here for a great bowl of ramen on the way down to the Gondola Base!
Famous Amsterdam chain right out the front of Homac. Locals say it's one of their favourites!
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