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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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 17: Taipi-en in Kumamoto

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I’ve just spent a day wandering dazedly around the highlands of Aso, blanketed in a thick, smothering fog and then two frustrating hours trying to print out and fax in my write-in absentee ballot for the US election and I’m not even hungry but Moegi suggests we meet up for dinner.

So we meet outside McDonalds and she says let’s go eat taipi-en and suddenly my appetite returns. Yesterday on our way to get ramen Moegi had pointed out to me a plastic display bowl of noodle soup in the window of a Chinese restaurant. This is taipi-en, she said. Have you heard of it? I shook my head. It’s a Chinese-style dish, but maybe it developed in Kumamoto, and it’s one of the foods Kumamoto is known for. Instead of normal noodles, taipi-en uses bean thread noodles, so it’s a bit healthier than, say, ramen. It’s one of my favourites, she said.

We go upstairs into the dining room, all bright spotlights and dark wood, and without looking at the menu Moegi orders us two taipi-en set dinners.

The noodles are in a light, brothy tonkotsu-based soup that has the pungent aroma of white pepper. It’s not too rich, but still packed with flavour. The toppings are a mix of seafood and vegetables not unlike those in the champon I had in Nagasaki the other day, but they seem to have been steamed or simmered or just very lightly stir-fried, as opposed to the sautéed mix of toppings in champon. The noodles are thin, clear, slippery and a bit squeaky. It’s a nice, light change from the heavy wheat-based noodles I’ve been eating.

Moegi and I talk work and travel and international relations and dreams and Catcher in the Rye and soon the restaurant is closing and it’s time to go home; the fog in my head has all but disappeared. Good stuff, that taipi-en.
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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 15: Nagata-san

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Mum and I had actually met Nagata-san a couple days before, on Sesoko Island in Okinawa where he and his wife have just built a house; they’re from Sasebo in Nagasaki prefecture but they’re retiring soon and have just moved to Okinawa. I said I was coming to Kyushu and he called up his travel agent friend who made me an itinerary. (I’ve more or less followed it.) If you come to Sasebo, Nagata-san said, give me a call, I’ll show you around. Not normally something I’d do, but on the train on the way to Sasebo I found the little paper with his number and “K. Nagata” written on it, so I did.

It was a Saturday morning; he picked me up from Sasebo station in a shimmering silver Mercedes, brand-new by the looks of it, immaculate black leather interior. Unlike the jeans-wearing Nagata-san I had met the other day, this Nagata-san was clad in an equally immaculate, crisp black suit, a gold watch peeking out from under a cuff, polished shoes, gold-rimmed glasses. I’ve just been to a funeral, he explained.

He had to call into work before we could set off. He parked the car on an angle on the street, just a shadow of a suggestion that it was meant to go in the already-full parking lot. Konnichiwa, the parking attendant said, that’s fine, I’ll keep an eye on it.

As we walked, (or, rather, I walked and Nagata-san strode, shoulders back, head upright) he pointed out the buildings: this is my brother’s store, that across the road is another of my buildings, see where it says Nagata. And this – turning the corner to a glittering, polished-marble storefront – is my jewellery store.

I was seated at a desk in the waiting area. Nagata-san picked up the phone at the desk: I’ve got a guest, can you bring me a coffee, and a few minutes later a girl with a smile as crisp and clean as her uniform emerged from a back room with a cup and saucer, fine china, good coffee. A young man in a well-tailored grey suit sat down and introduced himself, in flawless English, as Nagata. I lived in Sydney for five years, he said. We talked New Zealand and Australia and then Nagata-san emerged and we set off again.

I said to Nagata-san, is that your son, he speaks excellent English. No, he’s my nephew, Nagata-san said; I have two daughters but neither one is interested in taking over the business, so I’ve put that kid in charge of the store, he’s pretty capable. I’m getting ready to retire, which is why my wife and I built that house in Okinawa, but I’m not ready to quit work just yet, so I’m going back and forth for now. There’s a direct flight from Naha to Nagasaki, and then it’s not far by car to Sasebo.

What do you want to see in Sasebo, asked Nagata-san, and then he noticed the pamphlets I’d picked up at the train station: a flier for an oyster festival near the Kujukushima islands, a map of all the Sasebo burger shops. So we went to Kujukushima, where a thousand people were squatting around little concrete-block charcoal grills, grilling oysters, jumping back from the splattering oyster juices bursting out when the shells popped open. We don’t have to grill oysters, I can just eat some somewhere later, I said, gesturing at his suit. He hesitated. I wondered if this wasn’t really his thing. There’s a free spot right there, he said, pointing at a grill that had just been vacated. Why don’t you wait there and I’ll go get us some oysters.

He came back with a sack full of oysters and a box of charcoal. We lit the fire, put the oysters on the grill, ate them one by one. We must’ve been a funny sight among the casually-dressed picnicgoing families around us: a Japanese gentleman dressed for a funeral, a somewhat-bewildered foreign girl, squatting around a little fire in the hot mid-autumn sun, cracking open plump, briny oysters one after another.

How strange, he said, that you and your mother were just at my house in Okinawa, and now we’re here eating oysters in Sasebo. Funny, isn’t it, I said. But if you hadn’t come, he said, I would’ve never come to something like this. He gestured widely at the crowds squatting around us. This is really good, let’s get some more, and he went off to buy another sackful of oysters.

We drove in the silver Mercedes to a hillside overlooking the 208 islands of Kujukushima and then Nagata-san dropped me off at a dock where I boarded a tour boat. I have to go to a wedding now, he said, but call me if you get into trouble. Of course, I said; he bowed, I bowed, he disappeared into the glimmering afternoon sun.
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