Day 25: Yamanashi houtou

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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.
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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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