Day 28: Rika


Rika works in an office by day but in real life, she’s an artist.

I met her when I stumbled into a little square-roomed gallery in a little annex attached to Omotesando Hills, a shopping complex swarming with Louboutin-heeled women in their forties trouncing from store to store in their Burberry trenchcoats and Hermes scarves with labels turned nonchalantly (but conspicuously) outward. I’d just nearly gotten run over by one such fine specimen in a rush to exit the elevator we’d shared; with just a flick of her hand (not even a glance backward) she tossed a “sumimasen” into the air behind her, directed at me, I think.

Welcome back to Tokyo, I thought to myself, and wandered out onto the street when I spotted a little sign for a gallery. I climbed the stairs, where a perfectly-coiffed bright-smiling girl in a navy and white polka-dot dress, white and navy polka-dot shoes, and (she later showed me) navy and white polka-dot earrings popped her head around the corner. Her perfect coif didn’t move one millimetre. Neither did her smile.

Hallo, she said, konnichiwa! I answered. The room was filled with flowers of some form or other, it was her first exhibition in Tokyo, she said.

She’s from Osaka, went to university in Kyoto, did a lot of drawing and painting and had exhibited work down that way before but hadn’t done much art since moving to Tokyo; all her paint had dried up, she said, and when she decided to start painting again she had to go out and buy a new set of paints.

When I had finished looking at the art on the walls – bubblegum-hued, themed of life and death and lies and truth – she sat me down at a little desk and showed me a portfolio of sorts, full of cutesy drawings and paintings of ice cream flavours as feelings. Mint-chocolate as loneliness, for example.

I stopped on one picture, a painting of a head with a map where the brain should be. She must’ve noticed me staring at the map for ages, because she stopped and told me, back when she was in high school, before everyone used Google maps, she used to study maps all the time, try to figure out where things were, commit them to memory. Maps, and train schedules, she said. So etched in her head were roads and train tracks, stations and buildings, colours and lines and directions. What about this map, is it anywhere in particular, I asked. No, nowhere really.

Someone else said, it must take a really extraordinary kind of person to be able to translate what’s in your mind to this kind of picture. But I’m an ordinary person, said Rika. I mean, I get drunk and complain about people just like everyone else!

I liked her, a lot. She asked for my details. I asked for this photo. I wished her luck, we parted ways.


Day 26: Modan-yaki

I went out for okonomiyaki* with my host mother and father. It was DIY okonomiyaki, pretty common in Japan, where you mix the okonomiyaki batter at the table and cook it yourself over a teppan grill set into the table.

The menu was several pages long, with different combinations of okonomiyaki filling – mochi and cheese, seasonal mushroom, kimchi and squid – but what first caught my eye was the Hiroshima-yaki, a variation on okonomiyaki with noodles I’d had ten years ago on a student trip to Hiroshima.

Beneath the Hiroshima-yaki I saw something called modan-yaki that I’d heard of, but never tried. Both had noodles, and filling, and egg. What’s the difference? I asked the waiter. He explained: Hiroshima-yaki is made differently, with a thinner batter, and you add the ingredients in layers. Modan-yaki also has noodles, but the batter is like normal okonomiyaki batter, with the fillings mixed in. Plus modan-yaki comes with extra eggs.

Yep, sweet, sold.

The tray of ingredients arrived and the steps were as follows: heat oil on the teppan, place noodles on the teppan together so they form a roughly circular shape. Mix the batter well and pour over the noodles. Cook for five minutes, flip, cook another five minutes, flip, cook another five minutes. Crack the eggs on a clear surface of the teppan and transfer the noodle-crusted pancake on top of the eggs. Fry briefly until eggs are set. Slather with okonomiyaki sauce, give it a squirt of mayo, sprinkle over plenty of aonori and katsuobushi and eat.

It was good, solid (two-carb), tasty food. To be honest I don’t think it differed too much from a normal okonomiyaki because the noodles sort of embedded themselves in the batter and were only really discernible by their texture (slightly chewier than the rest of the batter). Still very good though. I love okonomiyaki, I love noodles, really this was an ideal dinner.
*a savoury Japanese pancake of sorts, with fillings like cabbage and squid and ham and green onion, cooked and then topped with a thick, sweet(ish) okonomiyaki sauce, Japanese mayonnaise and aonori flakes (a bright green, dried seaweed) and shaved, dried bonito flakes. It’s the kind of Japanese food even a rice- or fish-hater can get on board with. It’s very good.

Day 25: Yamanashi houtou

I’ve been waiting for this day for this whole trip. Before then, even, for it’s been years since I’ve been to my old home Yamanashi, years since I last tasted houtou, the uniquely Yamanashi dish of thick, flat noodles simmered with meat and vegetables in a hearty miso broth. And it’s been a really long time – ten years, perhaps – since I last had houtou at the best time of year, autumn and winter, when it’s cold outside and the pumpkin is especially sweet.

After a frantic rush to get to Fukuoka airport after sleeping through my alarm (though it was a marvel that in such a metropolis I could get from my city-centre hotel room to the airplane, seatbelt fastened, in less than an hour), a flight, a two-hour wait in Narita airport and a four-hour bus ride to Kofu, the day was nearly over, it was dark and cold and I was hungry.

The families who hosted me as an exchange student ten years ago had gathered at a new restaurant, one I didn’t recognise from before, but, my host mother assured me, their houtou was good. So it was.

Each person got an individual tetsu-nabe pot filled to the brim with the heartiest-looking houtou I had seen in a while: noodles, chunks of pumpkin, pork mince, mushrooms and eggplant and sweet potato.

You know how sometimes when you haven’t had something in a long time you elevate its deliciousness in your memory so much that when you finally have it you can only be disappointed? Not this dish. I had worked myself up quite a bit, and was worried I’d expected too much, but on the contrary, it was even more delicious than I recalled. The noodles were hand-cut, slippery and soft and toothsome all at once. The miso broth was rich and comforting, the faintly sweet pumpkin almost demurely melting into the soup, the eggplant bursting with juices.

I realised then that after weeks of travelling, and despite being in a city I hadn’t lived in in a decade, I finally I felt at home. Familiar faces, familiar noodles. They’ll do that to you. Very good.

Day 24: Ichiran, Fukuoka

Back in Fukuoka, home of tonkotsu ramen. I thought about going on a ramen adventure to the city of Kurume about forty minutes southwest of Fukuoka city, where I’d been told one can find the richest, most intensely porky tonkotsu ramen in all of Kyushu. But I was kind of tired and sweaty after a day of rushing to Incheon Airport in my big brown coat and heavy wool scarf and nearly missing my flight back from Seoul. So I stayed in Fukuoka. It wasn’t like I didn’t have options.

When I was last in Fukuoka, Koji had told me about Ichiran. Go there, he said, if you like ramen, you’ll like that place. You have to decide how you like everything though: the texture of the noodles, the intensity of the soup broth, white or green pieces of negi, etc.

Ichiran has a number of branches throughout Fukuoka (and possibly elsewhere in Japan, though I’m typing this on my phone and can’t be bothered googling right now). I went to the one Koji recommended, near the Tenjin subway station.

It’s tucked away down this little alley, with a big red lantern and a ticket vending machine outside. You insert your money, punch in your order, and are led inside along a corridor of cubicles to your seat: walled on both sides to keep distractions out, a bamboo curtain separates your booth from the kitchen. It’s kind of like those study cubicles you might find at a university library: this is serious ramen, ramen you’re meant to concentrate on. Also it’s a very good setup for a solo diner who wants to take notes and photos to her heart’s desire.

Once seated, you’re given a piece of paper on which you customise your bowl of noodles: how hard or soft you want your noodles, how light or strong you want the soup flavour, how much garlic, how much chilli paste, etc. I picked the middle of the road option for almost everything, except the noodles, but more on that later.
First impressions: yep, this is serious ramen, serious tonkotsu to be precise. The thick, milky soup gave off the unmistakeably porky smell that’s typical of a rich, kotteri tonkotsu soup; the first spoonful was one of the best first spoonfuls I’ve had on this trip. It has a soup-like consistency but a gravy-like mouthfeel; it’s creamy, almost peanut-buttery, you can taste the marrow and collagen that have broken down over hours of cooking into deep, rich flavour.

The noodles are thin and straight and hard – I’ve ordered the extra-hard noodles for which this Tenjin branch is known – “on the dente side of al dente”, I’ve scrawled in my notes, whatever that means. Toeing the line between cooked and undercooked, maybe. But they’re really good. And perhaps because of the low moisture content or the straight shape, the noodles don’t carry too much of the intensely flavourful soup with each slurp, keeping the overall experience from becoming just too overwhelming.

The toppings are simple: soft, tender charsiu slices, sliced negi onions (I’ve picked the green portion of the onion), a dab of chilli paste that adds a pleasantly prickly heat.

Soon I’ve finished the noodles and it’s time for a kaedama. The good thing about having a broth so intense is that it takes longer to finish: perfect for a second helping of noodles. I tear off a little sheet of paper labelled “替玉” hanging in my cubicle, pick how hard or soft I want my noodles (this time, I go for “kihon” – Ichiran’s standard) and press the little button in front of me. A bell rings out, the bamboo curtain is raised, the paper slip taken away and soon after, a bowl of plain noodles arrives at my cubicle.
These are still thin and straight and relatively al dente, but with more give than the extra-hard noodles. I like them a lot. Before I know it, they’ve disappeared. Rats. I still have soup left.

So I do what seems like the only rational decision at this point: tear off another kaedama slip, order another helping of noodles. And, for the sake of completeness, I order the extra-soft noodles. These are an entirely different experience altogether. Almost overcooked, bordering on slimily chewy, but they’re an ideal vehicle for the rest of that gravy-like soup, which now clings for dear life to each clump of noodles as I slurp.

I finish the noodles. I’ve nearly finished the soup. Just a spoonful or two remains at the bottom, and as I drain my bowl I notice on the bottom of the bowl is written, in gold lettering: この一滴は最高の喜びです。Which roughly translates to: this single drop is the greatest of joys.

Truer words were never written on the bottom of a ramen bowl. I won’t be forgetting that last drop of soup anytime soon.


Day 23: Seoul street noodles

Are you a Russian? the waiter asked. (It was a novel experience having table service at a street food stall.)

No, I laughed, and realised I must look like some stereotypical caricature of what a Russian might wear in a cartoon: big brown coat, fluffy wool hat, wrapped up against the elements.

But my getup was justified: it was damn cold. And a steaming bowl of noodles was the best possible thing I could have had. Clear, light broth, thin wheat noodles, a bit of fishcake-like substance and a dab of chilli. Cheap, filling, good.


Day 22: bibimbap (just kidding!)


This blog is fast becoming a noodle-only blog, I’d better find some strangers, and soon. But it hasn’t been easy.

On the 22nd day I tried to talk to a lady gathering gingko berries along the footpath near Noksapyeong Station. It was a fresh autumn afternoon, the weakening sun illuminated the golden gingko trees and their wind-blown leaves dancing to the ground. The footpath was covered in bright yellow leaves and as I shuffled along I noticed a few crushed berry-like things and then, later on, a woman in a hat and gloves, doubled over picking up something from the ground which she quickly tossed into a plastic bag. She found more, again and again, and as I walked closer I could tell her bag was heavy with these somethings – whatever they were, fruits, or nuts, or what. She looked up. I smiled. Anyonghaseyo, I said. She huffed and scowled and, never once getting up from her squatting position, sort of half jump-shuffled so that she was crouching in the other direction. I stood there for a second but it was pretty clear she didn’t want to talk gingko nuts. Okay, then.

I went to a cafe full of Westerners thinking they might be easier, less of a language barrier. There were a couple people my age sitting at a big, long shared table with a few empty seats at one end. I went to ask if a seat might be free, thinking these people might be good to chat to. Oh, no, they said, there are some more people coming, so I ended up having my coffee at the only free seat left, in a corner facing the wall, while this group of Americans read out their short story ideas to each other in order, one by one.

After that I met up with my old flatmate Fiona who now lives in Seoul and, preoccupied with catch-ups and gossip and hangover-relieving Korean tacos (oh yeah, there was that hangover) I didn’t manage to flag down any strangers.

But after a big walk up a steep hill to look at the lit-up cityscape from Namsan Tower and a movie screening of sorts we were kind of hungry. Perfect. Noodle time.

We went to Hongdae, a neighbourhood swarming with students who were all (at 11 at night on a Saturday, at least) lining up to get into bars and clubs of some sort and holding impromptu street celebrations when a car crawled by blaring ‘Gangnam Style’. Also there were a fair few young types eating at a 24-hour noodle bar we passed by. So we went in too.

There was an illustrated menu of sorts on the wall of the restaurant, from which I could tell there were a few different noodle dishes available, one of which was like a noodle version of bibimbap, a rice dish with various vegetables and seaweed and egg and meat and sauce that you mix into the hot rice.

So we went up to the ticket-dispensing machine to order. The buttons were only in Korean, but had helpful pictures to show which button went with which dish. So far, so good. I found the button with a picture that looked like the noodle dish I’d seen on the wall. Then there was another button, with an almost-identical picture – only this one was a bit more expensive, and seemed to come with an egg. Sweet, I thought. I like eggs. I put in my money and pushed the button and handed my ticket to the guy behind the counter.

But when my food came, Fiona looked at me quizzically. Did you get noodles, she said, or is that rice? She was right. Underneath the colourfully-arranged meat and vegetables was not noodles, but rice. I’d ordered my old favourite, bibimbap, not its noodle equivalent. So much for confidently pushing buttons on a vending machine ordering system.

Anyway the bibimbap was delicious, and I’m glad I had it. And luckily Fiona had ordered some kind of noodle soup with twisted strands of fried tofu and nori and sesame seeds and little bite-sized mandu floating in the soup, and gave me a bit so I wouldn’t fail at this project (thanks, Fi!). The soup was refreshing and light – a seaweed-based broth, maybe? with a little bit of that ubiquitous red sauce – the noodles plain and pale, like Japanese somen in flavour but a little bit thicker. It was good, and cheap (about $4 NZ for a big bowl). And I’m a big fan of dumplings, so the little mandu were a plus.


Day 21: ddeokbokki


I went to Korea! And now I’m a few days behind in blog posts. So while I’m on a train for the next hour or so heading back into Tokyo I’m going to try and catch up.

I admit I’m pretty ignorant when it comes to Korean food – beyond galbi and bulgogi and bibimbap and kimchi-laden tofu soups I don’t really know what’s what. So, I don’t profess to know anything at all about what I’m talking about here (if you know more please enlighten me in the comments!). Without doing a bit more research I doubt I can accurately describe exactly what I had. It was all very good though.

But anyway, it had been 21 days since leaving New Zealand. I was with my friend Momoko who’s studying Korean in Seoul. She took me to this place to eat ddeokbokki, though I really had no idea what we were about to eat, or what any of the food was called. Nevermind. Momoko’s Korean is great. I followed her lead.

We scratched down our order on a little slip of paper and put on the aprons hanging on a hook behind our table. Not long after, a waiter came to our table with a big wide pan full of a fiery red stew-like concoction that we cooked over a little gas burner at our table.

The way it works is this: you sit down, there’s a little pad of paper with some optional ingredients, you tick what you want, they put it together in the kitchen, you cook it at your table. So we got a bunch of things: mussels, prawns, squid, cheese, these chewy, mochi-like rice sticks, cellophane noodles wrapped in nori and fried, and of course some noodles.

It was delicious. It wasn’t very spicy, despite the scorching shade of crimson, but it was full of flavour and probably salt and MSG. As the sauce bubbled away, everything took on that sort of warm, hearty stew-like flavour, strands of melted cheese worked their way into every mouthful. The seafood was succulent, the fried nori-noodle things a bit weird, the rice sticks indulgently chewy and wholly addictive.

And the noodles? I’m not sure what these are called. (I could look it up, but no internet access as I write this.) Clear and slightly chewy, slightly thicker than spaghetti, they started to get almost gluey towards the end when we’d overcooked everything a bit (forgot to turn off the burner), but they were really satisfying, absorbing the slight tingly heat from the sauce.