Mac on Tokyo: Brian MacDuckston
Brian MacDuckston is a true Tokyo luminary. Over the last nine years he has built up his brand, ‘Ramen Adventures’, from scratch to become the premier source for English-language ramen information. He has been featured across international and domestic media, and collaborated with the likes of Yoshiki from X Japan, Kairi Pamyu Pamyu and AKB48. Brian joins Mac, Founder of Maction Planet, to talk about the history of Ramen Adventures, his upcoming projects and his latest collaboration – working with Maction Planet to produce a range of ramen-themed T-shirts.
Maction Planet: Hi Brian. Welcome to Maction Planet. First of all, I am really glad we are working together on this apparel collaboration.
Brian MacDuckston: Me too, actually, I was designing (unsuccessfully) a line of my own when we started talking about this.
MP: We definitely have lots to talk about there. But first, perhaps we can go back to the beginning. How did Ramen Adventures begin?
BM: It began because of the lack of information about ramen in English. There is this shop in Ikebukuro that always has a huge line, and I had passed it many times. I had been in Japan over a year at that point, and finally decided to wait and see what the fuss was about. It was amazing. I went home and searched for more info about Japanese ramen shops. Nothing (in English at least).
MP: I remember those days. To some extent it is still true now. Even though there are a lot of English-language information sites about Tokyo, for the truly local experiences there is almost invariably no English language information.
BM: This is true. I find that most sites or tour companies choose tourist-friendly chain shops with English menus. It makes life easy for everyone. But I wanted a real experience, somewhere with no English, no tourists, and really amazing ramen.
MP: So, I guess you decided to create the very thing which you felt was missing in the market!?
MP: When you initially created Ramen Adventures, did you have any longer-term goals? Did you ever imagine it would take you to the places it has, both proverbially and physically?
BM: To be honest, no way. Initially, it was just a blog. My early posts are so poorly written that it is almost embarrassing. I didn’t research, didn’t fact check, didn’t even take that many photos. But then, one day, a writer from the New York Times, Matt Gross aka the Frugal Traveller, hit me up and asked if I would help him on a week-long ramen binge piece he was working on. When it was published, I suddenly had millions of potential ramen lovers interested in my site. The Japanese media took note as well, and things kind of spiralled out of control. I took the site seriously from that point.
MP: Thanks for your honesty. It is always heartening for people beginning any venture to know that even the greats had to start somewhere.
I find it interesting how well-regarded The New York Times is in Japan. In the Cup Noodles Museum in Yokohama, the editorial tribute that Momofuku Ando got from the paper is highlighted as a source of real pride in his video biography, and it hangs in pride of place as one of the final displays, despite the fact it is (although affectionate), quite sardonically written!
BM: Yeah, I noticed that. Even to this day, Japanese media usually mentions my New York Times article, even though it is from January 2010.
MP: So, you now had a bigger readership, and by your own admission your posts and writing were getting more professional. I assume you also started to interact with your readership more?
BM: Yeah, there was a fair bit of interaction. A big one was from the budding community of chefs and restaurateurs who were looking to open ramen shops overseas. They would get in touch, and ask me to show them around Tokyo’s ramen scene. This was how the ramen tours came about. I had so much fun with this that I developed some smaller, tourist friendly ramen outings that my readers could join.
MP: Incredible. And, as you’ve already said, it also got your name out there to the domestic media too. Talk to us about those first appearances on Japanese TV.
BM: Japanese TV is, as expected, strange and wonderful. The average shoot for me is taking some news anchor around to ramen and them watching me shoot photos and eat. Kind of boring, in my opinion, but the in-studio announcers would be making goofy comments about my chopstick skills, or the fact that I can read the menu. Sometimes I get a completely random media gig. Last year I shot about 40 episodes of a show with some pop idols from the group AKB48. We would go around and eat, me in a jinbei (summertime Japanese wear) and them in their schoolgirl outfits. Super weird.
MP: I feel like there is so much contained in those last three sentences, we could easily make that the focus of this interview. I will have to twist your arm to write more about that at some point.
BM: Sure, anytime!
MP: Getting back to our RA timeline, at what point did the blog branch out into other media?
BM: About 3 years ago (or is it 4) I started a YouTube channel. I treated this like any media gig, as I had a small crew that would handle all the filming and editing. The channel took off about a year ago, when my video for Michelin-starred Tsuta went viral. Now, I do all the shooting and editing for the Ramen Adventures YouTube channel on my own. I also released a book two years ago through a Japanese publisher.
MP: Have you enjoyed being a YouTube celebrity?
BM: It has its good points and bad. There are a lot of haters on the Internet, but the good outweighs the bad tenfold. I think media outlets respect video more than the written word, and YouTube has definitely led to some interesting gigs both in Japan and abroad.
MP: Tsuta recently opened a branch in Hong Kong. And of course we have Ippudo and a number of joints that have taken their business overseas. How do you rate the international expansion of these shops?
BM: It’s all good, though the same few chains are getting all of the attention. But it means that people are enjoying ramen overseas and coming to Japan looking for the real deal.
MP: I completely agree. It creates a starting point. Guests sometimes approach Maction Planet with a list of things they want to do, and many of course involve food requests. Afuri has become quite well known overseas and some people want to be head to the honten. It at least allows us a context to say “Afuri is good, but would you like to go to the best Yuzu Ramen in town, where I guarantee you will see no tourists, but a long line of locals” (We always make sure to get there just before it opens to avoid said line!)
BM: Nice. I’m always confused when I see tourists eating ramen that they could probably get back home.
MP: I am glad you mentioned your book – a true bible for any ramen lover in Tokyo. For me, the part I love the most is that the book is available in both English and Japanese. You have earned true credibility as a commentator on the ramen scene, and that has been rewarded by the public here.
BM: Thanks. It’s many bloggers’ dream to put out a book, so I’m really happy to hear that.
MP: Any chance of a second volume?
BM: It’s with the publisher now!
MP: Fantastic. Hopefully that will hit the shelves soon!
A broad questions I know, but in the time that you have been covering the scene, what would you describe as the major changes in the Tokyo ramen scene that you have witnessed?
BM: Shops have really gone gourmet. There is a deep focus on ingredients and technique, something unexpected from a very casual food like ramen.
MP: Given you have tried every ramen under the sun, do you actually have a favourite style? Or is it, as Stan Lee answers when he is asked which is his favourite superhero, like picking a favourite child?
BM: I like the searching part, so my favorite bowl is the next one on my list. People really hate this answer, though!
MP: Ha. That’s how I feel about Japanese craft beer, amonst other things!
So, a blog, YouTube channel, TV appearances, Facebook, Instagram, Books… It was only a matter of time before Ramen Adventures Apparel became a thing!
BM: Yeah, as the Ramen Adventures brand is important to me, it’s something I really wanted to have out there.
MP: Well, I am honoured that you have chosen Maction Planet as your partner in this venture.
BM: Yeah, I was impressed with the attention to detail, beyond just getting a logo onto a shirt, that you put into your product.
MP: We have launched six different designs in the initial wave. Three revolve around the classic Ramen Adventures logo. I have of course been lucky enough to have some shirts already, and wearing them around town always gets a reaction from people!
BM: Yeah, people really notice them. I get recognized by a lot of Japanese people when I wear the Ramen Adventures (written in Japanese) shirt.
MP: Then we have the ‘Ramen Rider’ shirt. Talk to us about this. I understand this is a very important and personal project for you.
BM: I spend a lot of time on my motorcycle in Japan, touring the countryside. There are some amazing ramen shops in the most unlikely places, spots with not only great ramen, but important history. I want to document both the shops and the amazing riding to be had in each prefecture around Japan. The goal is to make 47 videos, one for each prefecture. (although Hokkaido might warrant 3 or 4 videos)
MP: This is going to be epic. Even the colour scheme of this shirt is particular to the project.
BM: I ride a KTM motorcycle. About 95% of their bikes use the company’s signature orange, so it’s really cool that the shirt matches the bike. We’re also homaging the Kamen Rider logo which always sparks conversation wherever I am in Japan.
MP: Last but not least, we have two more designs straight from the Maction Planet team. ‘KOKORO: Ramen’ – which fits in nicely with our existing KOKORO collection, and ‘Tokyo Ramen‘, a unique and funky design which has proven incredibly popular already. We previewed this range to existing customers and I have to say we were overwhelmed with the pre-orders here. I was in Hong Kong recently for a whirlwind business trip and saw someone in the line for the aforementioned Tsuta wearing it!
BM: Nice! I get a lot of comments on YouTube from people asking me where to get the ramen shirts I wear sometimes, and now we have a place.
MP: We have one limited edition shirt available – a Black and White variant of the “Ramen Adventures: Katakana” shirt, limited to 100 pieces. You’ve already been sporting this in one of your new promotions, haven’t you?
BM: I’m working with a ramen shop, Ramen Kagetsu Arashi (らぁめん花月嵐) to promote their September limited ramen, a nice creamy tori paitan. I’ll be posted all over their 250 shops nationwide wearing the ‘Maction Planet x Ramen Adventures’ shirts – the B&W Limited Edition variant and the three white-bodied logo shirts.
MP: Great! Tori Paitan has really come into its own in the last 18 months, which is great because it is a stye I personally love. Congratulations again on another great collaboration.
BM: Thank you!
MP: It is important to let people know that this initial collection is just the start of Maction Planet and Ramen Adventures working together. I am always told off by my team for being unable to keep any plans secret, so I won’t reveal too much! Suffice to say, we are looking to add more designs to the range, and… Aargh – I’ve already said too much!
Any final words to sign-off with?
MP: It is going to be lots of fun. Thanks for joining us Brian. I am really excited that we made this happen, and I cannot wait to see what the future brings.