TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - The end of Japan's four decades of rice-market control could be good news for noodle lovers.
That's because rice farmers may plant alternative crops like wheat once government control ends by March 31 and look to tap rising demand for ramen.
Fukuoka, on Japan's southern island of Kyushu, is expanding production of a locally-developed variety of grain known as Ra-Mugi that's designed to be perfect for tonkotsu ramen - a dish of cloudy white pork broth, with noodles and slices of pork that originates in the region.
Ramen demand has climbed in recent years with restaurants opening from London to Sydney, challenging the ubiquity of Japan's other well-known food export - sushi. The number of shops outside the country more than doubled to over 2,000 in the two years to early 2015, Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum says, with the expansion supported by the government-backed Cool Japan Fund.
Asia's second-biggest wheat importer relies on grain from the US, Canada and Australia to produce ramen noodles domestically.
"What is ideal for our ramen noodle is a chewy, sticky one that can preserve its texture in a soup," said Yuji Yamaguchi, counsellor at Tofuku Flour Mills, which developed the wheat jointly with the Fukuoka prefectural laboratory.
"Ra-Mugi is designed to meet our requests."
Tonkotsu ramen was invented in 1937 by noodle-shop operator Tokio Miyamoto and was initially eaten by fish-market workers in Fukuoka as fast food.
Two decades later, Momofuku Ando invented the instant ramen noodles beloved by college students. The global retail value of instant noodles rose 11 per cent since 2012 to US$33 billion (S$44 billion) this year, Euromonitor International estimates.
In Japan, tourists are also driving demand and ramen now ranks alongside sushi and Wagyu steak as one of their top menu choices, according to Motoo Kawabata, a professor for global marketing at Kwansei Gakuin University in Nishinomiya.
The number of foreign tourists visiting Fukuoka city rose 24 per cent in 2016 to 2.57 million, a fifth straight record. Korean tourists accounted for about 40 per cent, according to the city government.
"After seeing photographs and videos of our outlets via social media, they come here to have a real one," said Yukari Shibayama, a spokesman at Ichiran's flagship shop in Fukuoka city.
"We have seen a surge in foreign customers to our shop, mainly from Taiwan, Korea and Hong Kong, in the past three years."
Farmers may also be encouraged to grow Ra-Mugi wheat as it offers higher returns.
Yukio Endo, 49, who grows rice, wheat and barley in Fukuoka, must spray crops with fertiliser for a fourth time with a heavy machine on his back about a month before harvesting Ra-Mugi on his 8ha paddy. That compares with three times for other wheat, but is necessary to maintain a high level of protein. Millers request at least 12 per cent.
"It requires us to work harder, but rewards us better," he said in an interview. Farmers producing Ra-Mugi can get a premium of 2,300 yen (S$27) per 60kg bag compared with conventional wheat. Growers are also eligible for a 35,000-yen subsidy for every 0.1ha of wheat planted as the government seeks to curb its reliance on imports.
Producers are unable to keep up with local demand. Fukuoka, Japan's second-biggest wheat grower, wants to raise Ra-Mugi production by more than 30 per cent to 8,000 tonnes soon, which would be enough to supply about half the ramen shops in the prefecture, said Tadayuki Matsumoto, director at the local government's agricultural department.
Hakata-Sanki, the biggest user of Ra-Mugi wheat, uses the variety even though it's 20 per cent more expensive than flour made from imported grain because it helps attracts customers, according to Akira Nakano, the manager of the company's noodle-making plant in Dazaifu. Sales of Ra-Mugi noodles are set to increase to 300,000 units a month by March from about 230,000 in November and will double by 2019 as it moves to supply more than just its own 14 stores, Nakano said.