It’s Wednesday night, around 10pm. I’ve been walking around Fukuoka’s Nakasu area for a frustrating couple of hours in search of the famed yatai, or food stalls, that make this area one of the great street-food destinations of Japan. I’d read about the yatai on the internet but every guide on the subject has been irritatingly vague: just take the bus, said the most specific website. Great. So I did, not really knowing where to get off the bus.
Clearly I’ve missed something really obvious because these yatai are supposed to be easy to find and I’ve been wandering up and down narrow streets of what appears to be an incredibly bright, well-lit red light district, lined with seedy-looking men in suits guarding massage parlours with names like Bubble Love Jack and Erotic Trip. Nothing for me here. I walk on, hunger waxing, patience waning.
At an interminable wait at a crosswalk I can feel it: my forehead tightening, eyes fighting to stay open without realising it, I’m hungry but more tired and stubborn than anything else. I’m glad I’m travelling alone at this very moment because I wouldn’t want to be around me right now. I could just give up and go back. But not after I’ve come this far. I walk on.
And then, at the next corner, there’s someone playing the saxophone, a willow-lined canal, it’s pleasant. Okay. This is okay. I stop and listen. It’s not like I’m in a hurry. Okay this is actually quite nice. I can smell something good. There’s a ramen shop just there if I don’t find the yatai. I have options.
I stand there for a while, until the spell is broken. A man spits over my shoulder into the canal below. The saxophonist starts playing Stand By Me. Time to go! I’ll find these stalls! (I hope.)
I retrace my steps, back to where I started, look in the opposite direction, and there they are. A row of brightly-lit stalls, lanterns and flags reading ラーメン. There, across the river, some more. They were there all along, in the most obvious spot.
I pick the most popular-looking stall. I sit, wait. There’s a line, but I’m at the front of it. Soon a seat is free and the obachan running the show beckons me in, sorry to make you wait, she says. I sit, there’s only really one thing to order, ramen.
With a well-orchestrated clatter of pots and lids and condiments the obachan and her silent ojisan counterpart put together the dish: bowls out, tare poured in, pork bone broth ladled from a big, stinking, steaming pot and strained into the bowls, noodles cooked and drained, toppings arranged with a haphazard precision, hai dozo, omatase shimashita.
The style of ramen is Nagahama ramen and it’s popular among these yatai. It’s a milky but not too heavy tonkotsu soup, with thin straight noodles, negi, pork and kikurage mushrooms. It’s simple food, no unnecessary embellishments, just pure flavour. It’s addictive and before I know it I’ve finished the whole bowl, whoops, no broth left for a kaedama, though everyone around me is ordering a second helping of noodles.
When I’m done the obachan pulls up a stool and stops for a chat, where are you from, she says, and I explain there is no decent ramen in Wellington. I’ve always wanted to go to New Zealand, she says, come open a ramen shop, I beg. She laughs, pulls me behind the counter for a photo, and I’m on my way. Damn that was good. I’m happy now.