Two years ago, if you were driving down Fair Oaks Avenue in Pasadena, California you might’ve found yourself rubbernecking when that red light turned green. Ogling the line that had formed outside of a small, ramen shop which went on to wrap around the block, you might’ve shrugged your shoulders, brushing it off like the hundreds of other trends that LA natives leaped onto bandwagons for. After all, didn’t that stuff come in plastic wrappers? Just add water, right? Wrong.
The ramen shop located at 16 N Fair Oaks Avenue, is not just another ramen shop. It is home to Ramen Tatsunoya, a Japanese establishment that hails from a town called Kurume in Fukuoka, Japan, where tonkotsu ramen (whose thick and creamy broth is made from pork bone) was born 80 years ago. Its founder, Ryuta Kajiwara, grew up in Kurume and he inevitably developed a penchant for this specific type of ramen. Little did he know the food of his youth and would become the sustenance of his livelihood. We had the pleasure of speaking with Mr. Kajiwara from his home of Japan with help from Tomoko Imade Dyen, a Los Angeles based director, writer and PR agent, who translated Japanese to English and vice versa making for a palpable, cultural exchange.
Mr. Kajiwara was in the retail industry before he decided to pursue a career in passion. His place of employment was comparable to WalMart in America and while Smiley wasn’t there to virtually slash prices before the eyes of consumers, Mr. Kajiwara decided that there should be more to his quotidian than markdowns and providing customers with the lowest prices. “He always thought the business of retail in selling something was always about human-to-human and heart-to-heart connections. Even though he tried to sell it better, giving 100%, people always went where the price was cheaper. He didn’t want that competitive nature of price, as it was sort of not human so he decided to start Ramen Tatsunoya,” said Tomoko in translation.
Starting a ramen shop in Kurume was no easy undertaking. The existing shops had loyal followings and rightly so, after all this was the birthplace of tonkatsu ramen wasn’t it? Ramen Tatsunoya struggled in the first few years of its existence but because Mr. Kajiwara strived to create something to give back to his beloved hometown, the monetary setbacks did not roil his morale. It is this same spirit that has gone onto set Ramen Tatsunoya apart from its competition in one word: Kando.
Kando translates from Japanese to mean, “an awe-inspiring feeling”. Yet this feeling cannot be achieved without “manzoku” or “satisfaction”. These two concepts are the anchors for Ramen Tatsunoya’s business operations and ensures not only a crowning meal but that a community is built when sincere connections are made. Food here is only a mirror for the beauty of those connections and those at Ramen Tatsunoya “can see that in customer’s expressions on their faces and in how they talk to” the staff. In the words of Mr. Kajiwara, “our customers feel kando but we, as a ramen shop, also get kando from looking at the customer’s expressions so the cycle of all this kando is more than satisfaction.”
These bowls of ramen first traveled across the Pacific Ocean to California in 2009, finding their place among all kinds of Japanese fare at a pop-up at the Mitsuwa Marketplace. Californians were enamored, showering Ramen Tatsunoya with verbal praise, “it’s delicious! Please come back,” they’d say. And so, Ramen Tatsunoya did, for five consecutive years, Mr. Kajiwara and his bowls of ramen grew its fan base annually with pop-ups 6,321 miles away. “Of course because there is a language barrier and cultural differences, it wasn’t just about bringing the ramen business to America, but the ultimate goal for Tatsunoya is to teach what ramen is, through the craftsmanship of ramen,” explained Tomoko. Which in turn, would reflect a larger picture and loftier goal, in teaching Americans what ramen is, Ramen Tatsunoya would also give Americans a better understanding of Japan and Japanese culture itself.
Exhaling deeply, for a moment, Mr. Kajiwara was overwhelmed, not only by the sheer size of LA and life amidst pressed-juices, Hollywood and traffic on the I-405, but also by the cultural nuances that had no real explanation — the things that just were. “First, when he came here, he wanted to serve Japanese ramen that he created in Japan that was perfected for Japanese people. But when he came here and started the restaurant or pop-ups, serving this perfected ramen, it didn’t always agree with people. This was his journey, [Ramen Tatsunoya] had to localize and you have to listen to what the community of people who come to your restaurant says or prefers even though you’re serving something you think is the best,” said Tomoko.
As Mr. Kajiwara listened to his new clientele, whether they were on their phones or conversing at a table, he realized that what his Californian customers wanted was not just a 24-karat, bowl of ramen, but instead it was an authentic, dining experience in an atmosphere that catered to the same human-to-human, heart-to-heart connection that he had sought to provide during his days in retail. “In Japan, people think that ramen should be eaten quickly so that the noodles won’t get soggy, or the soup doesn’t get cold but in America it’s more like sharing time together with friends and family. Through ramen, they have a good time,” said Mr. Kajiwara in translation.
This understanding is what has allowed Ramen Tatsunoya to evolve and why those people waited in that line on Fair Oaks Avenue. Yet in this evolution, one thing stays the same: Kando. “He doesn’t want that to change no matter where he goes. It’s something you can provide by being the better service or creating a nice, warm environment,” translated Tomoko. That being said, Ramen Tatsunoya’s recipes might not be the same wherever you go, the noodles in Japan might be thicker, the broth in California might be a bit more salty, but one thing is for sure, Mr. Kajiwara is spreading love, sharing the spirit of his hometown one bowl of ramen at a time.
*Photos courtesy of Ramen Tatsunoya & Tomoko Imade Dyen
**First photo is of Koku or “rich” tonkotsu to be served at our LA Feast, get your tickets here