The Hot Air used car dealership in Tottori offers ramen cooked by its owner, Katsumi Yoshida. Yoshida says he will continue selling both noodles and automobiles. (Video by Tsubasa Yokoyama)

TOTTORI--Started by a French tire maker, the Michelin Guide seemingly took a wrong turn in including a used car dealer here in its latest edition on the top eateries in Kyoto, Osaka and Tottori.

Indeed, at Hot Air, a sign shows Alto, Wagon R, Swift and other names of vehicles just like other used car dealerships. However, a banner offering “ramen” stands modestly beside the sign.

Katsumi Yoshida, 53, opened Hot Air in 2002 after working at another automobile dealer in Tottori.

While running his used car business, Yoshida also worked intently to cook meals free from artificial additives so he could serve “quality food” to children.

He felt so much confidence in his skills to make "dashi" stock that he offered his ramen at a local festival, winning high praise.

Determined to pursue a second career as a chef, Yoshida set up a kitchen at his used car store and renovated a meeting space into an eat-in corner equipped with counter seats and tables. He started serving his ramen there around 2012.

However, as there is almost no seeming connection between secondhand vehicles and ramen, the bizarre eatery often had no customers immediately following its opening.

Still, Yoshida kept working to further improve the taste of his ramen.

“He (Yoshida) has groundless confidence that ‘all things must go well,’ and I had no choice but to go along with him,” said Yoshida’s wife, Kaori, 51, who helps manage Hot Air.

Not mimicking the cooking of other ramen chefs, Yoshida repeatedly changed the recipe to achieve his ideal broth.

He combined locally produced chicken bones with dried small sardines and other ingredients. As Yoshida deemed the importance of harmony of all the ingredients, he did not let “any one ingredient” dominate.

Yoshida also used a digital thermometer and scale to make adjustments as small as one degree, or 0.1 gram.

Due to those efforts, the eatery’s reputation spread by word of mouth, resulting in a growing number of customers. Kazumi Kuramitsu, 68, said he frequents Hot Air for its ramen.

“The flavor is not too strong and it is easy to eat,” he said. “To be honest, I do not like ramen but I can easily eat it here.”

The turning point for the dealership restaurant to transform from a nice local shop to a nationally renowned eatery came in mid-February, when a man in a formal suit--the type of person rarely found in casual eateries--visited Hot Air.

After finishing a bowl, the man of an “unusual stature” showed his ID, indicating he was from Michelin.

Yoshida, interviewed by the Michelin official for an hour or so after the restaurant’s closure, said he was impressed that the man carefully took photos of the eatery and asked knowledgeable questions.

Released in October, “Michelin Guide Kyoto Osaka + Tottori 2019” lists Hot Air as a “Bib Gourmand” restaurant, which offer exceptionally good food at moderate prices.

While a total of eight ramen shops were selected in Kyoto and Osaka prefectures, Hot Air was the only ramen restaurant in Tottori Prefecture that received the honor.

“It is like a miracle since my restaurant is in Tottori Prefecture, which has the lowest population (of all prefectures) across Japan,” Yoshida said.

Publicity from the Michelin Guide mention generated so huge a response that the ramen is currently quickly sold out every day. The main offerings are salt-flavored ramen priced at 800 yen ($7.10), including tax, and one featuring soy sauce for 800 yen.

Yoshida said up to 60 bowls can be served at Hot Air daily.

However, he is not satisfied with resting on his laurels. While continuing his core business--selling used cars--Yoshida keeps working to improve the taste of ramen in hopes his shop can be awarded stars in the Michelin Guide someday.

Only two ramen restaurants in Japan have been given Michelin stars.

Yoshida, who dreams that “music star Koji Kikkawa will visit here for my ramen as I am a big fan of his,” said he named his shop Hot Air out of a desire to make it a “passionate” store.

“Now the name will also remind customers of hot steam from ramen,” Yoshida said.