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 20: Koji

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This is Koji. I met him in his clothing shop in Daimyo, a neighbourhood of Fukuoka dotted with little boutiques and bars.

He says he was born in 1965 but I can’t really tell if he’s joking or for real. I spot one or two white strands hidden in his jet-black ponytail, so, who knows.

He likes rock climbing and has never been to New Zealand but he’d like to go. They have good rock climbing there, right? he asks. I think so, I reply (I hope I’m right?). Good surfing? I think so, I reply. Good snowboarding? When conditions are right, it can be very good, I say.

Koji’s shop is pretty cool, the kind of shop that can afford to space out the clothes hanging on its racks, the kind of place that makes you feel a bit special just looking around. Koji goes to London, Paris, New York for buying trips. (So lucky.) Paris is his favourite. At night, it’s a magical place, he says. I don’t disagree.

I ask Koji what his favourite food in Fukuoka is. He thinks for a moment:

In Fukuoka, everything is delicious. Fish, vegetable, rice, everything. Can you eat noodles?Then Ichiran. You write your order, and then, (he gestures handing a slip of paper over the counter). Everything you can choose: noodles hard or soft, soup strong or light, white or green sliced negi, how much garlic.

He tells me the name of a good cafe (do you prefer a cool place with not-so-good coffee, or a not-so-cool place with really good coffee, he asks; I pick the latter) and the name of his favourite restaurant and asks me to add him on facebook. If you weren’t flying off to Korea I’d say you should come out for dinner with some friends tonight, he says. Maybe next time.

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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