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Brian Oh: {food, travel, photo}

Japan (viii): Noodles, Coffee, and Whisky

It's been a long time since I'd felt as excited as I did to go back to Tokyo on my way back from Timor-Leste in November (which could have something to do with how ready I was to leave Dili after 5 weeks there). It was also the first time I had returned to a city for leisure travel. Having been in Tokyo before, I no longer felt the pressure to cram is as many things each day as I could (not that I've done everything already). In between some amazing meals, I spent my days walking through some smaller, quieter neighborhoods like the interior of Omotesando. One of the things that makes Tokyo so great is that it's so dense that even the less traveled streets are filled with boutiques and restaurants that all look so cool and inviting and rich with stories that I imagine take place there.

I'll make one call-out to a specific meal I had because it was one of the best things I've ever eaten in my life. Daisuke, who owns Daikaya and is thus an immediately trusted authority on Tokyo dining, turned me on to a little tendon shop in Asakusa called Tendon Masaru. Just steps away from the Sensojin Temple, Masaru is a 50+ year old tendon shop that basically serves one thing-tempura over rice. Only open a few hours a day for lunch and sometimes not at all if the chef can't find the best ingredients at the market on a given morning, it's the kind of shop that I love about Tokyo-such unwavering dedication to craft and quality. I arrived just as they were opening and stuck my head under the noren to make sure I was in the right place. A petite woman waved me in and seated me at the counter with just the phrase, "edomae tendon?" I nodded vigorously and minutes later was presented with a perfectly composed bowl of beautifully golden, lightly fried tempura eel, fish, and prawn over a bed of tiny jewels of rice and a bowl of rich, smoky miso soup. So incredibly simple, but absolutely delicious. It's hard to imagine such unembellished food having such a range of quality, but each component of this meal was utter perfection and complementary. I'm often reluctant to recommend restaurants in Tokyo to people that ask because, though I've been to a decent number, there are still hundreds if not thousands of noteworthy places I haven't been to, but I have no qualms about recommending Tendom Masaru. Go to Tokyo. Eat this food.

I also spent a good amount of my time scouring the city for bottles of Japanese whisky. I came out with a few Chichibu releases and a couple of cool Suntory bottlings, but pickings were pretty scarce. The popularity of whisky has skyrocketed in the past few years that everything sells out immediately. Not a bad haul for just a few days looking though.

Other highlights: tsukemen at Fu Unji in Shinjuku with broth that was so rich I would have thought it was pork, but it was actually roast chicken and fish, and perhaps the most flavor rich ramen noodles I've ever tasted; the coolest little coffee shop in Omotesando, called Omotesando Koffee; and Zeotrope in Shinjuku that had the largest selection of Japanese whisky I've ever seen where I was able to sample a number of the Hanyu playing card series bottlings.

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.

Japan (vi): Kyoto & (Temple) Fatigue (Day 5-6)

The sun was just creeping over the mountains surrounding the Kiso Valley as I woke up that Thursday (September 13) morning. I had since become used to the prevailing caws of crows and did not find the absence of song birds at dawn out of place. I sat up as dusty beams of light slanted through the open window and took some time to chronicle the previous days in my notebook. At 6:30 am, I heard a bell toll somewhere in the distance, but not a traditional bell. It was a series of electric tones mimicking the peal of a metal bell. It was odd, but somehow perfectly appropriate. Shortly after 7 am I went downstairs to find my host waiting outside with his small van. The night before, he had offered to drive me to the Nagiso train station in the morning to save me another 3km walk. He greeted me with a small, tied off plastic bag and just one word, "bento." He smiled as I took it and motioned for me to get in the car. Once at Nagiso Station, I waited for about half an hour in the warming sun while waiting for the train to Kyoto. I opened the small bag to find a banana, packaged sweet roll, and small coffee beverage. I savored these on the quiet, deserted platform.

While looking back on my photos from Kyoto, one of the clearest memories was of just how tired I was at this point. While the hike in the Kiso Valley was peaceful, it was also tiring. And after three hard days in Tokyo, I hadn't had much time to recover my strength. As a result, I took fewer shots in Kyoto than I should have. Some of the shots in this post were actually culled from my phone to compensate for gaps. This was also slightly exacerbated by "temple fatigue." I had read and heard that this happens to visitors to Kyoto. Once I had seen a couple of the major temples and castles, my desire to see anymore dropped precipitously. I arrived in Kyoto at around noon and, after situating myself at the hostel, I rented a bike and set out on an ambitious route hitting five or six sites. I only made it to two. I started with Nijo Castle and the Golden Pavillion. Both were famous and impressive, but it became very much a "seen one, seen them all" case. So I spent the rest of the day riding my bike aimlessly around the city.

One thing I did notice all around Japan, and most prominently in Kyoto, was that there are Japanese tourists everywhere. I found that a little odd because I'd have expected most people in Japan would have seen everything in Kyoto already given the ease of access via rail. Everywhere I went there were hordes of picture taking, ridiculously posing Japanese tourists. It was strange for me, coming from a town where tourists are so reviled by locals.

The bike was a very welcome change. My feet and shoulders needed a break. I deposited my backpack in the basket and just cruised around Kyoto's streets at my leisure. Some people are aware that I tend to sing in the car a lot. I found myself absentmindedly singing while biking around. More than a few people turned to look at me quizzically. I imagine the American tourist speeding by, singing in English is not a normal thing. At one point I had gotten myself sufficiently lost, but managed to find an older woman to take a look at my map. She kindly pointed out that I was actually about 50 feet from where I was supposed to be and I was just an idiot.

That evening I went to another ramen shop that I had read about, Men Baka Ichidai. I hadn't planned on eating ramen in Kyoto ahead of the impending ramen binge in Fukuoka, but I read about Men Baka Ichidai and their famous Negi Ramen and decided I had to try it. The Negi is a shoyu ramen, but the twist is that it's set on fire before serving. When ordered, the chef and his apprentice begin covering the counter with wet towels and hand you a paper apron to cover yourself with. The chef stood in front of me and presented me a series of cards with English on them instructing me not to: a) get up, b) make a fuss or scream, and c) touch the bowl for five minutes. He then proceeded to pour a giant flaming plume of hot green onion oil all over the bowl. The end result is a slightly smoky, greasy bowl of shoyu ramen that was quite tasty, though it didn't quite taste as explosive as one might have expected. I also took a video with my phone of another couple's Negi Ramen (see it here). I held my phone in my left hand and my SLR in my right hand, trying to stay very still. Please try to imagine how much of a doofus I looked while double-fisting my gear.

The next day, I took the train out to the outskirts of Kyoto. I had planned on visiting the famous Arashiyama foot bridge and bamboo path. When I got off of the train, I consulted a map posted outside the station and set off on what should have been a 10 minute walk. Now is the best time for me to explain that all of the maps in Japan are oriented in the direction that you face while reading them. A map facing east will have a compass with north pointing to the left. This confused me, but I had done a good job of correcting for this up until this morning. The map outside the Arashiyama Station turned me around and I went north when I should have gone south.

What followed was two hours of wandering around a rural farming village, convinced I was going the right way. Several people I consulted even pointed me in the wrong direction, confusing me even further. Nevertheless, it was a pleasant morning detour. At some point, I was overtaken by a procession of uniformed school children walking to a nearby middle school. It was interesting (in the least perverted way possible) how some of the girls wore their skirts the full length, while others rolled them up to more provocative lengths. When I finally arrived at the bridge, the morning was gone and I had more or less lost any interest in its significance. To be fair, it was quite idyllic and there were cormorant fishermen just down the river. I then went to the famous bamboo path and lasted maybe 10 minutes there. It was more or less just an asphalt paved path surrounded by sparse bamboo on either side. I confess I didn't even make it down the entire length of it. I took a few shots and headed back to the train station. The walk back took me all of seven minutes. Some detour. Then I came across an adorable troop of elementary aged school children. They all looked like little Japanese cartoons.

Back in central Kyoto, I grabbed lunch at the Nishiki food market. A famous stretch of covered alleys lined with small food vendors selling everything from fresh fish to cooking knives. I got an overflowing container of deep fried beef and onion skewers for $3. A coal grilled rice cake (dduk for the Koreans) skewer that's served with a swipe of soy, sesame sauce and a sheet of seaweed. And a bunch of other small, cheap things. Then it started raining, so I retreated to the hostel for a bit. When it looked like it was going to die down, I tried biking to the Fushimi Inari Shrine (the famous site of the trails covered by red gates), but it started pouring halfway there. I turned back after waiting under a covered bus stop for a bit to see if it would stop. When it didn't, I returned to the hostel with an excuse to do nothing and just spaced out for a bit. Then, with little energy to seek out something notable, I just ate dinner at a nearby McDonald's. It was surprisingly good. The chicken looked like chicken.

The next morning I left Kyoto knowing that i hadn't particularly seen and done as much as I could have, but not really regretting it. I was going to be eating a lot of awesome ramen later that day, so I wasn't worrying about seeing more temples.