Even if he sold only 11 bowls of ramen on the first day, or was beaten up by yakuza and bled to death, Tsutomu Kimura, the founder of Tenka Ippin, has been dedicated to his chicken-based rich soup for 50 years. The company has grown to 233 ramen stores across the country (as of November 2021) with annual sales of about 20 billion yen while captivating the taste buds of customers.
However, the times have changed, and we are now entering a winter era of food and beverage. About two years ago, a new type of coronavirus broke out worldwide, and although the damage was far less than that of the major chains that were forced to close a large number of stores, Tenka Ippin was forced to endure the same period.
“This is the first time in our 50-year history that we’ve had an emergency like this. No one can control Covid-19 anymore, so we can’t just blame the politicians. I think the leader should have stepped forward and taken action. If I were a minister, I would go around with a stick and slap people on the butt, telling them not to go outside.
Of course, it’s a democracy, so it’s obvious that you shouldn’t do such a thing, but in a pinch, a leader has to act. Tens and hundreds of trillions of yen are already dead. Everyone is working hard. We are working hard. The leader must show them the direction so that they do not make the wrong effort.
This is the motto that Mr. Kimura has cherished all his life, as it is written in his 233 Tenka Ippin stores nationwide (as of November 2021).
“No matter how hard you work, if it’s the wrong kind of effort, you can’t do anything about it. For example, if you work hard and accomplish something during the day, you can’t do anything about it at night. If you work hard during the day and accomplish it, but then drink too much alcohol that night and miss work the next day, the effort you made during the day becomes a wrong effort. Everyone is working hard. It’s about whether the effort you’re making is right or wrong.
There are those who say, “I can’t stand the hard, heavy work,” and need to be beaten on the buttocks, but there are many young people today who are doing their best. But many young people today are doing their best. If you want to start a new ramen shop, that’s fine. But that is also a direction of effort. In the end, imitating others is not good enough. If you want to start a ramen shop now, you can’t just buy a book and start making soy sauce, miso, or tonkotsu. You have to make something new. You have to develop it yourself.
Decades ago, someone asked me to teach them how to make soup for 500 million yen, but I refused, saying it was not a matter of money. Soup is life. Tenka Ippin is still alive today because we developed “Kotteri” and kept our faith in it. That’s because we had to work hard to do something that no one could have imagined, no matter what the idea, and we couldn’t have done it.
Even though he retired from the business three years ago to become the chairman, he still energetically visits Tenka Ippin stores, walks for an hour every day outside of work, and has been appearing on KBS Kyoto TV for more than 20 years on weekend nights. His passion for making soup is as strong as ever, even in his later years.
“It took me two and a half years to get permission from the government to cut down the shore of the lake there, but now I’m thinking of building a glamping site. In summer, we’ll have a barbecue while watching the fireworks display over Lake Biwa. Wouldn’t that be great?
Pointing to the beautiful shore of Lake Biwa outside the window of the chairman’s office, Kimura talks about his dream. The way he started his business from a food stall and swept across Japan with the only ramen in the world, and even changed the shape of Lake Biwa, is just like a person under heaven.
Why is he able to be so active? The answer, he says, is that he still eats Tenka Ippin’s “Kotteri” every day.
He says, “I always go to a restaurant and have at least one cup of koteri every day. I always go to a restaurant and have one cup of kotteri every day, with a spoonful of garlic. I’m too old to eat kotteri. There are people who say, ‘I’m too old to eat rich food, I’ll just have a light one. I want to say that they are mistaken. If you can’t eat it, it means you’re lazy. Even if you are old, if your stomach is empty, anything tastes good. People nowadays don’t exercise enough. I’m the same way. I’m too lazy to walk these days. If I’m not hungry, I eat less. Recently, I’ve been asked to help out with the “rich” food. This is not good. I have to move.
The post-Corona world is expected to become more and more difficult. In order to survive in this post-Corona world, it is natural to be healthy and “work hard,” but we need to know the direction of our efforts. We also need to have a pioneering spirit that no one has ever done before. According to Mr. Kimura, the key to surviving in this era is to have a “strong” conviction that overturns conventional values.
“It’s hard to think of any food that exists in the world today. In baseball, I would say Shohei Otani. In baseball, it’s Shohei Otani, the two-faced baseball player. I like baseball and watch Major League Baseball a lot, but he’s a genius. He pitched in the majors, hit so many home runs, and in the end, no one wanted to play with him. He played fair and square. That’s what it means to turn values upside down. It’s a great thing. I’m not a two-faced person, but I’ve been doing koteri for 50 years. It would be great if I could continue for the next 50 years and 100 years.
Interviewed and written by： Hidenobu Murase Photography： Kei Kato