TOKYO • The end of Japan's four decades of rice-market control could be good news for noodle lovers.
That is because rice farmers may plant alternative crops like wheat once government control ends by March 31 and look to tap into 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 is 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 in cities 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 Raumen 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 Mr Yuji Yamaguchi, counsellor at Tofuku Flour Mills Co, 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, Mr 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 Professor Motoo Kawabata, who teaches global marketing at Kwansei Gakuin University in Nishinomiya.
The number of foreign tourists visiting Fukuoka city rose 24 per cent last year 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 Ms Yukari Shibayama, a spokesman for 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."
"Tonkotsu ramen is the best Japanese food for me, along with sushi," said Mr Jeon Byeong Hyun, a 34-year-old office worker visiting Fukuoka from Busan, South Korea. "I came here to introduce my favourite shop to my friends."
Farmers may also be encouraged to grow ra-mugi wheat as it offers higher returns.
Mr 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 8-ha 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 premium of 2,300 yen (S$27.20) per 60kg bag compared with conventional wheat. Growers are also eligible for a 35,000 yen subsidy for every 0.1 ha of wheat planted as the government seeks to curb its reliance on imports.