Brian Oh: {food, travel, photo}

Japan (vii): Ramen, Ramen, &... Ramen... (Day 7-9)

My final stop in Japan was Fukuoka in the Kyushu region just off the main island. Before I start, though, I have to make a disclaimer. As I've mentioned before, I was becoming increasingly exhausted everyday. By the time I got to Fukuoka, I was almost completely out of energy. My time there consisted entirely of shuffling around, zombie-like, from place to place eating ramen and drinking beer. So I didn't do a whole lot else (besides ramen) and have minimal photos of anything else.

Fatigue notwithstanding, the ramen in Fukuoka was incredible. Fukuoka is famous for its Hakata-style tonkotsu ramen, which is the milky pork bone broth. It's also the home of Ippudo. So, when I got off the train around noon and found my hostel, I dropped my bags and rushed out to find the original Ippudo in the Daimyo neighborhood. There are actually 7-8 Ippudo locations just in Fukuoka (with many more around Japan), but the first shop is tucked away in a small back alley (as so many of these places were). I actually had marked its location on my map incorrectly (one street over) and got a bit lost. But when I finally found it, in a tiny, nondescript storefront, it blew my mind. It could have been the exhaustion and the expectations, but it was probably the best bowl of ramen I've ever had. I ordered the Akaniku, which is the familiar Akamaru ramen with extra meat (niku), and devoured it. A lot of people comment on the general mildness of Japanese food, but this ramen was so intensely flavorful and rich. The pork melted in my mouth and I drank the congealed fat and oil. My only regret is not ordering another bowl.

After I stumbled out of Ippudo in a euphoric haze, I wandered around the shops for a while. It was my intention to just hang out around the Daimyo neighborhood all day eating ramen, since there were a few shops in the area I meant to try. I window shopped and walked aimlessly. I hardly took my camera out because it was all I could do to just keep myself on my feet. I found myself at an arcade and I watched some kids play a game involving cards placed on a surface that controlled armies on the screen. Some kind of Yu-Gi-Oh wizardry. I played a little Tekken and was thoroughly trounced. I'm not at all ashamed to admit my days of 10-hit combos and endless juggles are behind me.

After giving myself a few hours to digest, I made my way to Shin Shin ramen. But before heading in, I stopped by a temple across the street to rest for a second. Sitting on the stone steps, a family of cats scrambled by me to attack a discarded container of food. I watched them for a bit until the mother herded the kittens into a nearby corner. A minute later, an old woman lured them back into the open with small fish. She smiled at me and asked me if I liked cats. I nodded and she turned back to her friends.

Shin Shin is a much more pared down affair than Ippudo. No specials or complicated bowls. They have just two items on the menu. Tonkotsu ramen and tonkotsu ramen with egg. I walked in, sat down, and my bowl was in front of me within two minutes. I slurped it up and felt the onset of a food coma. Feeling on the verge of over-satiation, I headed back to the hostel for a break when it started raining. I ducked into a convenience store and bought an umbrella for about $5.

When I got back to the hostel, I met an Australian guy, Max, that was just checking in. After some small talk, he, his English-speaking Japanese roommate, Yosuke, and I decided to check out the famous yatai. Fukuoka is also famous for the legion of street food carts (yatai) that pop up all over the city after dark. There's a large concentration of them along the banks of Nakasu Island in the middle of the canal that bisects Fukuoka and they're usually packed. We made our way there and I ate another bowl of tonkotsu ramen. My third for the day. The thought of turning around and throwing up into the canal over the railing did cross my mind. Fortunately I kept it down and had more happy, broken conversations with my table mates. One group of young guys were really excited to try out all of their English on me. A couple across from me regarded me with curious expressions while I took pictures of my food and offered to take a picture for me when I had finished.

Max and I had a heated debate over whether or not Japanese girls were attractive. I held strongly that they were decidedly not. Max disagreed. I'll spare you the details, but we agreed to disagree. After the yatai, it was decided that we'd try and help Max and Yosuke try to talk to some girls. We spent the night bar hopping, but the whole talking to Japanese girls in English was not really happening. We'd manage to capture the attention of girls for a minute with the "I'm from America/Australia!" routine, but they soon grew bored and blew us off. Max was disappointed. Yosuke tried his best, in his own right. While walking down the road, he'd approach girls and drop to one knee, hold his hand up, bow his head, and yell "CLUBBUUUU!!!" He was not successful.

I also discovered that dancing is ILLEGAL in Fukuoka. It's Footloose, literally. There were a series of laws passed some years ago "governing businesses that affect the morals of the people." Businesses are not allowed to promote dancing from sunset to sunrise because it encourages loose morals. We discovered this when we found ourselves at a small club, Infinity, that some guys brought us to. There were strobe lights, electronic music, the usual. Usual except everyone was standing around motionless. It was bizarre. It's apparently because clubs are allowed to stay open under the pretenses of being a bar. Max and I laughed about this and pretended to be dancing without moving our feet, which drew the attention of one bouncer that made it clear that we were to stop lest he eject us. After a night of this, we stumbled back to the hostel. I scribbled some illegible notes in my notebook and crashed.

The night before, Max and I agreed to wake up at 9 am to try and make the Asahi brewery tour that was just a few train stops away. Obviously those plans were nonstarters from the beginning. I woke up near noon and it was pouring. I was absolutely exhausted, so my plans for the day were minimal. I walked up the street a few blocks to Canal City, a giant shopping center adjacent to the Hakata train station. I made my way to the 5th floor to "Raumen Stadium," a food court, similar to Ramen Street in Tokyo Station, that houses eight ramen shops that represent regional styles from all over Japan. Again I just stood in the longest line, which happened to be for Hide-Chan (another export to New York). My 4th bowl of tonkotsu ramen in Fukuoka was fairly standard except for a heap of fried pork fat on top. Fatty. Delicious.

I was getting on a train back to Tokyo at around 9 pm, so my plan for the rest of the day was to just hang out in the giant shopping plaza, eat more ramen, then grab my bags from the hostel and get on the train. I spent the next couple of hours wandering around Canal City. I bought some souvenirs, played Mario at an arcade, and randomly found a couch in a quiet corner of the mall and actually fell asleep for a little while. At around 3 pm, I was so drained, that I decided to just watch a movie to kill time. I watched Safe House with Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds. It was OK. At least I got to sit and do nothing. After that, I headed to the basement of Canal City to check out Ichiran.

Ichiran is different in that it's not a standard restaurant. Ordering is done by filling out a slip of paper and selecting the level of richness and oiliness of your broth, the firmness of your noodles, and various other options. You then proceed to a tiny cubicle where you pass your order through a small window. A minute or two later, the curtain pulls up and your ramen is placed in front of you. You don't see a single person the entire process. The idea is to be able to enjoy your ramen in peace. Tranquility aside, I ordered my ramen rich and oily with soft noodles and it was spectacular. Extremely flavorful (because I ordered it that way) and a small dollop of Ichrian's special chili sauce gives it a nice kick. A fitting cap to my gastronomical tour of ramen around Japan. I really liked it. I'd place it just behind Ippudo for best ramen of the trip/my life.

After Ichiran, I felt somehow complete. I ran back to the hostel, took a shower, grabbed my bags, said bye to the cute Korean attendant (who spoke English and was in Japan on a study tour), and headed to the train station. I always feel an inexplicable sense of relief when a long trip is over and I've settled into the return journey. At the Hakata Station, I got on a sleeper train back to Tokyo. It's an eight hour train ride (because no one needs a rapid train over night?) in compartments stacked with long, narrow, carpeted spaces for sleeping. It was the most uncomfortable eight hours of my life. But I did get to see a breathtaking sunrise from the coast as hills and villages rolled by. I saw a large temple perched a top a sheer cliff by the sea, just as the sun crested the horizon. It reminded me of something out of a Ghibli film. I was sad that I wasn't quick enough to get a picture of it. It was haunting and mysterious. As much as I had done in Japan, it reminded me of how much I still had not seen.

When I got back to Tokyo, I had a solid five hours before I had to be at the airport. I had no desire to do anything else, so I just went to the airport, ate McDonald's again, bought a bunch of special Japanese Kit Kats, and passed out at my gate. When the attendants began announcing boarding, I was surprisingly relieved to hear native English again. I got on the plane and tried to sleep, but at some point I had woken up to find I had developed a severely sore throat. The rest of the flight I spent re-watching season two of Game of Thrones and pestering the flight attendants for hot tea.

I'm actually not sure why this post ended up being so long. I might have to attribute it to 4 am delirium. Nevertheless, Japan was an amazing time. Exhausting, but amazing. I'd love to go back, but I think my next excursion will either be to South America or Africa. Being back home (for a month now!) makes it hard to imagine that I was ever there. I suppose that is the problem with travel. It's fleeting and only makes one want to travel more. Time to start planning my next hypothetical trip.