Day 24: Ichiran, Fukuoka

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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.
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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.
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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.

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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.

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Day 19: Nagahama ramen

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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.

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Day 18: Yufuin jidori ramen

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I was in Yufuin, this onsen (hot spring) resort town in Oita prefecture that must be supremely popular with daytrippers and people who eat dinner at their ryokan because while during the day the main street was packed with people and shops and restaurants and little food stands, when I went out in search of dinner that night there was nothing. Everything shuttered and dark, no people on the streets, just the sound of my footsteps and the wind whistling. Yep. A veritable ghost town, Yufuin at night.

The only places that seemed to be open were a handful of ramen shops. Okay, fine. I had no problem with that. But how to tell which one to choose, when no one was in any of them? I couldn’t see any lines out any doors telling me this place is popular, this place is probably good. So I went for the one that had a lone diner in it the first time I walked past (but was totally empty by the time I went in around 8pm). Little place called Fukusuke. Turned out to be a good choice.

The specialty of this shop was local jidori ramen. In Yufuin probably 75% of restaurants had banners out the front advertising jidori – it’s a big thing there. I knew jidori was chicken but wasn’t sure what set it apart from normal chicken, so I asked the lady at the ramen shop. It’s a special breed of chicken, she said, and it has a bit more of a chicken flavour and is more lean and toothsome. And! Jidori makes an excellent stock, perfect for our ramen.

(After I got home I did some Wikipedia-ing, couldn’t find an article in English but there was a very helpful page in Japanese: in order to call chicken jidori in Japan, there are strict regulations: the chicken has to have at least 50% blood of one of the 38 breeds of chicken that were introduced to Japan up to the Meiji period (up to 1912), they have to be free-range with a regulated minimum amount of space per chicken, they’re raised to 80+ days (a lot longer than the normal lifespan of a commercially produced chicken), etc. They’re produced in various regions of Japan and are prized for their leaner meat and well-defined chicken flavour.)

The soup broth – clear, yellow, a little oily – tasted distinctly of chicken, an almost crisp savouriness in contrast to the rich, milky pork bone broth that is so common in this region. The bits of thinly sliced chicken atop the noodles almost reminded me of bacon: dark, slightly chewy, full of flavour. Just really very good.

The place was run by this lovely (I presumed) husband-and-wife duo. They worked seamlessly, without speaking much, but with a lot of smiles and small gestures that made it seem like they enjoyed making ramen together. I would’ve liked to talk to them more but I was sitting behind a rather tall counter not really conducive to over-the-counter chatting. The man did recommend I add some of the yuzu pepper (a salty-citrusy yellow paste) and black pepper to my ramen. I did; it created this bitter-tangy complexity that accentuated the chicken flavour of the soup, an experience very different from other ramen in these parts, but very good.

The noodles themselves were fine; I don’t think they were homemade, but pretty good nonetheless: yellow and thin and slightly wavy, slightly chewy.

After the noodles were all gone I tipped this little bowl of rice into the leftover chicken soup. A thing that’s popular in ramen shops in Kyushu (and seems to be popular in other parts) is kaedama, which is an extra helping of noodles you can order if you’ve got soup left over. This shop, though, had kaemeshi instead, a bowl of rice topped with shredded egg, nori, garlic chips, bits of peanut, and spring onion that you mix into your leftover soup, turning it into a slightly Japanese chicken soup with rice, an entirely different experience altogether. It was the perfect thing for a cold night in the mountains. Damn, I could get behind this.

The verdict? Jidori = good. Jidori ramen = excellent. Jidori ramen with kaemeshi = best ever. I went home very happy after this meal.
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Day 16: Kumamoto Ramen

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Of all the ramen I’ve eaten so far this trip, this bowl of Kumamoto-style ramen I had (in Kumamoto) may have been my favourite.

Kumamoto prefecture is on the island of Kyushu which is famous as the home of tonkotsu ramen, with a broth made from pork bones simmered over a long period of time. The soup is silky, almost creamy in consistency and opaque in colour; it often smells really strongly of pork (almost so much so that it stinks) but the taste is something completely different, rich, salty, savoury, one of the best things known to man.

It was my first time in Kumamoto and my first time couchsurfing and I’d just spent an afternoon wandering around Kumamoto Castle in the rain with my host, a Salinger-loving, noodle-eating girl around my age called Moegi who loves ramen maybe even more than I do (she earned my respect very early on in our conversation when she said “I could eat ramen every day and be happy!”). I asked her to take me to her favourite ramen shop and we went to this place just off the main shopping street. Stupidly, I forgot to write down the name. I think it was Tatsu no Ya.

We ordered two bowls of their Kumamoto ramen. Big, steamy bowls heaving with oil-laden soup arrived not long after. It was a glorious sight: viscous-looking opaque tonkotsu broth with a layer of rich, dark ma-yu (burnt garlic oil) floating on top. And when we tasted a spoonful of the soup both Moegi and I let out a squeal of ramen-lovers’ delight: holy shit this was good.

Unlike other versions of tonkotsu ramen (which can be intensely rich), this Kumamoto ramen had a broth that was at once kotteri (strong, thick with rich umami flavour) and assari (light, salty, almost refreshing). The garlic oil and fried garlic chips floating atop the soup gave it just the right amount of allium-y pungency. The pork was fattier than any I’ve had in any other ramen – it practically melted into the soup. And the noodles – square-cut, straight, medium-thick, slightly chewy – if I were Moegi and I lived in Kumamoto I’d want to eat them every day, too.

On the table were three jars of condiments: pickled takana greens, ginger and delicious, lightly pickled chilli bean sprouts that we kept greedily adding to our bowls until the jar was nearly empty.

Very good. I’ll remember this one for a long time.

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Day 3, Part 2: swanky black-broth ramen at Gogyo

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The name of the shop is Gogyo and I think there are a few around Tokyo but the Nishi-azabu outpost is, I think, the original, or at least the most well-know, or at the very least it’s the most well-known to me. (No, this is not a well-researched blog post, unfortunately; I’m travelling!)

The shop feels posh, unlike the bright, no-frills ramen-ya I’m used to: dark, red and black-panelled walls, big wooden shared tables, leather armchair-like seats. It’s more like a fancy bar than a frenetic ramen joint; the clientele are well-dressed and imacculately groomed. Yes, it’s unmistakeable: we’re in Azabu. But the ramen itself is relatively inexpensive – the standard bowls are around ¥850, which is more or less standard.

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I’d heard about Gogyo from a ramen shop owner I’d interviewed a while back, and then at my hostel in Tokyo I saw a write-up in this magazine I found devoted entirely to ramen shops in Tokyo. I wasn’t even that hungry after finishing that whole serving of tsukemen at lunchtime, but when I found myself in the neighbourhood after a late-night jaunt up to the Mori Art Museum and observatory in Roppongi Hills, I couldn’t pass it up.

Gogyo specialises in kogashi (burnt) miso and shoyu soup. It’s striking in appearance: artfully arranged toppings in stark contrast to the oily, black (yes, black) soup.

The soup itself – I got the miso – has this sweet, light, smoky charcoal flavour, a slight gingery tang hiding beneath the earthy miso umami. There’s a thick layer of black-flecked oil on top which helps the soup retain its heat. So: it’s hot. I burnt my tongue. I didn’t really care.

This oil also gets everywhere if you’re slurping noisily as is customary in these parts, so if you’re wary of black-flecked oil splatters on your clothes there are bibs, of which I hastily availed myself after getting ramen soup on my top on my first mouthful.

The noodles are beige and straight and just a little bit flat and rectangular, medium-thick and chewy. Moisture content probably higher than Hirugao’s noodles, lower than the tsukemen from earlier in the day. The runny yolk from the egg spills out into the soup. The charsiu is relatively small compared to other shops, but delicately seasoned and entirely delicious.

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Just when beads of sweat are starting to appear on my forehead, a guy comes over with a complimentary unsweetened peach iced tea. It’s just what I needed. I’m impressed by the level of service.

Now this is kind of gross, but hear me out. I think you can judge the quality of a bowl of ramen (or at least the soup) by the resulting burps each bowl produces. (I told you this was going to be gross.) So for instance, with that bowl of instant cup noodles I had on the plane, every time I burped afterwards it was a queasy reminder of just how average and artificial that experience was. Not so this bowl; I’m writing this as I walk back to the Roppongi metro station (the long way to walk off some of that full-stomach feeling) and, get this: every burp, and there have been a few, has carried with it a delicious memory of that delicate smoky taste, the gingery-sweet miso, the depth of that broth. Ew, I know. But. Good quality ramen, good quality burps.

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Day 3, Part 1: tsukemen in Oji

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Yesterday I had lunch and a massive catch-up with my old friend Sarah in her home neighbourhood of Oji in the northern area of Tokyo. Sarah has a brand-new baby (six weeks and just perfect and I’m so in love) so our quest for a lunch spot that would accommodate Tai-kun’s giant pushchair led us to Gosaburo (つけ麺屋 五三郎), this little neighbourhood tsukemen* shop not far from Oji station.

I got the kokugoma (or was it gomakoku?) tsukemen. This was a good choice. The soup was rich, thick with tahini-like sesame paste and chilli oil that clung to the noodles. The slices of pork (submerged in the photo above) soaked up the salty, unctuous soup: holy shit this was really good. And, also hiding beneath that thick layer of sesame and chilli: bits of sour-spicy kimchi. Awesome.

The noodles were on the fat side、chewy in texture, almost like a cross between udon and spaghetti; they were a good match for the intensely flavoured soup. Any thinner and I think they’d have gotten lost.

Here’s a tip when getting tsukemen: if you order the noodles atsumori they’ll come out hot. I learned this trick from Sarah and am definitely converted: with hot noodles, the soup takes longer to cool down, the noodles stay warm, it’s an all-around good thing. Thanks Sarah!

And! With a bit of chair-shuffling there was plenty of room for baby, who slept through the whole thing. A perfect outing.

*For the uninitiated: tsukemen is a variety of ramen where instead of noodles in a soup, you have a plate of ramen noodles that you dip into a concentrated tare sauce, which usually has the usual ramen toppings – charsiu, beansprouts, etc – in it too. It’s really good. I highly recommend it.

Day 1, Part 2: Hirugao and the friends that could’ve been

Noodles with Strangers: shio ramen at Hirugao, Tokyo Ramen Street with Kumika, Yujiro and Shimajiro

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This was a really, really good bowl of shio ramen.

Tucked away in the labyrinthine warren-like tunnels beneath Tokyo Station there is a little arcade called Tokyo Ramen Street, with outposts of some of the best ramen shops from around Tokyo, each with its own specialty ramen style.

You make your selection from a vending machine outside each shop and then get in the queue for a seat. When I got there just before closing the place was still packed and I took my place in line behind these three friends on their way home from a night of drinking. Are you alone, they said. Come sit with us. This whole strangers business was going to be easier than expected, I thought.

There was Kumika, 28, works in international sales for a large company (Southeast Asia division), she’d been to Melbourne for a month in high school and studied in Bangkok during university and was keen to practice her English. Best friends with Yujiro (pictured) a telephone operator (“I hate my job”), who kept cracking jokes about Kumika’s five boyfriends (one for every day of the week) and trying to drunkenly flirt with me (“you are a pretty girl!”) Kumika meanwhile shooting me apologetic looks and rolling her eyes at him.

Dutifully sweet Shimajiro (I suspect that was his nickname as he’s from Okinawa – shima means island in Japanese) was a lot younger (22) and stayed quiet for most of the conversation though he seemed to enjoy the antics of the other two. He’s a software developer and still had that youthful, unjaded enthusiasm for his job (“I love my work!”). I said I was going to Okinawa on Thursday. He: “I really wish I could show you around but I work in Tokyo, but I’d be really happy if while you’re over there you tried some Okinawa-soba”; me: noted.

As jokey as this trio was, they all knew their noodles. They weren’t your typical boozed-up group looking for any sort of end-of-night feed. They’d come out of their way to hit up this well-known shio ramen shop, leaving the bar slightly early to get to Hirugao before closing time. When the steaming bowls arrived the chatter stopped and the slurping began, punctuated by the occasional “umai!” (which dutiful Kumika would translate: “yummy!”; she was at this stage totally aware I could speak Japanese but too far into her simultaneous interpretation shtick to let it go). A brief pause in slurping saw some serious commentary on the noodles (thin, straight, with a lower moisture content than a lot of other places, a really good vehicle for the salty, oily yet still somehow clean-tasting broth).

I wanted to pay more attention to how incredibly perfect each element of this dish was – thick, flavorful charsiu, texturally intriguing bits of sea vegetable, the lightly salted, soft-yolked egg, the yolk of one topped with a tiny, plump shrimp – but the banter soon resumed and I wasn’t about to miss out. The important thing was that the ramen was good, and I liked these guys; somewhere in their lighthearted manner and affability I could see my own circle of friends. If I’d been Japanese, or if they’d been in Wellington, maybe we would have been friends too.

As we were leaving Yujiro tried several times to give me his number, trying different approaches (him “what’s your ideal man like?” Kumika “so sorry, don’t listen to him” me, looking over at him perhaps a bit cruelly “um… tall?” at which he proceeded to walk on his tiptoes for the next ten or so meters “see? Tall!”).

If he had been fifteen or twenty years older, or any more or less drunk than he was I’d have found it a bit annoying or weird but there was something so jovial and lighthearted about his advances (and something comical about Kumika whacking him with her wallet every time he said something) that I politely shrugged him off and got back on the subway, lost in a sea of people and the happy afterglow of genuine human interaction and a good bowl of ramen. Success.

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