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.