FRANKFURT, Germany -- A new breed of Japanese establishments have opened their doors here lately, bringing flavors and craftsmanship from regional areas of Japan into the international spotlight in this European financial hub.
Proud of its roots
"I wanted to take on the challenge of opening a ramen restaurant in Europe, rather than in Asia or the U.S.," said Junichi Matsumoto, president of Shumentei Jun, an operator of 11 ramen noodle shops in Niigata Prefecture, Tokyo and elsewhere.
The company established its first overseas presence in Frankfurt in mid-June. The new outlet wears its regional Japanese origins on its sleeve, with its storefront proudly displaying the logo of the Tsubame-Sanjo area in Niigata, where the Ramen Jun restaurant chain began.
Because Japanese dried sardines cannot be imported into Germany, seabura (pork fatback) soup, which made Tsubame-Sanjo ramen famous, is not offered in Frankfurt. Instead, the restaurant's menu focuses mainly on ramen in soups based on tonkotsu (pork bone).
The new store also offers Frankfurt-only items, such as ramen topped with avocado and roasted tomato. Possibly because Germans love pork, the restaurant has been a hit with locals, with Germans accounting for 70-80% of the customers in this highly international city.
"German people accepted our ramen better than we anticipated," Matsumoto said.
Ramen Jun's Frankfurt store is more than just a ramen eatery. The outlet's interior features bronze decorations from Gyokusendo, a centuries-old copperware maker in Tsubame, as well as outdoor products from Snow Peak, a company based in Sanjo.
"We want to spread Japanese food side by side with local industries" in the Tsubame-Sanjo area, Matsumoto added.
Shumentei Jun is considering offering steamed edamame from Niigata Prefecture at the Frankfurt shop. Plans for a second location are starting to take shape.
Sake and craft
A little more than a month later, Mayuko Mukaide, a Japanese woman who has lived in Frankfurt for eight years, opened a boutique sake bar with her friend Chihiro Shimamura.
J'epoca SAKAbar serves sake from local breweries, as well as umeshu (plum wine) and yuzushu (yuzu liquor). Sake on offer include Shinsen, a brand produced by a brewery in Ishikawa Prefecture, where Mukaide's hometown of Kaga is located.
The fashionable bar, furnished with Nordic furniture, provides a space for enjoying a variety of sake in a relaxed atmosphere.
"Further down the road, we want to stock 20-25 sake brands from the Hokuriku region," Mukaide said.
During the daytime, J'epoca SAKAbar sells traditional Japanese crafts, including Yamanaka Shikki (lacquerware) and Kutani Yaki (Kutani porcelain) from Ishikawa and copper goods from neighboring Toyama Prefecture.
Many locals drop in casually. Germans make up a little over 40% of the customers.
Frankfurt is home to the second-largest Japanese population in Germany after Dusseldorf. Because it is a European financial center, Frankfurt's community includes people from all over the world, giving its residents a high level of openness toward different cultures.
In Japan, competition among different regions to attract foreign tourists is heating up. If regional tourism promotion and businesses offering Japanese regional specialties overseas work hand in hand, they may be able to create a new way of revitalizing stagnating regional economies in Japan.