Saturday, October 26, 2013

Ramen-ya (The Ramen Shop)

Wow!  It's been a really long time!  I apologize for the long break!  My son, in getting more and more mobile, is now learning how to get into more and more trouble.  And so, without further delay.....

Japan is full of delicious foods.  There are so many delicious things to eat in Japan, from simple snacks to filling meals, and delightful desserts.  Sushi, shabu-shabu, okonomiyaki, all of these taste treats are tempting me as much now as when I first came to Japan.  The different areas of Japan also boast of local dishes that are well worth looking into as you travel around Japan.  In Hiroshima, okonomiyaki reigns supreme as the local food and momiji manjuu is their (delicious) snack.  Oksaka offers a different variation of okonomiyaki, takoyaki, and kushikatsu.  Nagoya claims miso flavored pork cutlet, kyoto has hot tofu, the list goes on and on.  Each area has it's own dish, and most of them are well worth trying at least once.  And just like in America, Japan has taken local foods of other countries and subtly changed them to suit the Japanese taste. And from this comes, Ramen!

Ramen is Chinese noodles in soup, usually with a piece or two of roasted pork and some vegetables as a topping.  If you've seen Kung-Fu Panda (and if you haven't you should, as it's a very worthy movie) the panda, Po, and his father own a ramen shop.  This amazing noodle/soup combo came over to Japan, and is now one of the most loved foods around.  Many areas in Japan have customized the combination of ingredients to make their own special tastes, but almost all of them are worth a try.

The most basic form of ramen comes in four "flavors" based on the type of soup used.  These are miso, shouyu (soy sauce), shio (salt), and tonkotsu (pork bone).  The toppings are generally the same, including the pork slice, bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, sometimes a piece of roasted seaweed, and often a half or whole egg.  Almost any ramen shop will offer several of these options.  From these basic tastes, many variations have been created.  Tan Tanmen has a spicy soup seasoned with ground beef.  Tsukemen has the noodles and the soup seperated, and you dip your noodles before eating them.  Hiyashi Chuka is a chilled version without soup popular in the summer.

A typical bowl of ramen with (from the top clockwise) seaweed, bamboo shoots, green onions, pork slices, fish cake, and an egg

Hakata, in the north of Kyushu, is a regional variation on the tonkotsu soup base, though the noodles are slightly different than the norm.  Onomichi ramen in the east side of Hiroshima prefecture adds little white clumps of pork back fat to the soup.  Sapporo ramen is miso flavored with a topping of corn and butter.  And there are many more besides.  Almost ever area in Japan boasts its own style of ramen.

My first winter in Japan was terribly cold.  Even today, most of Japan does not use central heating.  Instead, a kerosene or electric heater is set in the room where people are gathering (for example, the dining room, or the living room) doors are closed to hold in the heat, and the rest of the house is left unheated.  Which for me, coming from a central heating culture, was REALLY cold.  It was not uncommon for me to wake in the morning and find frost on the insides of my windows.  I had a kerosene heater loaned to my by my company, but you can't leave a kerosene heater running while you sleep, or you might risk not waking up at all.  Another chilling factor was my lack of car.... I had a bicycle I was borrowing from the company, but it was the first time since I was 16 that I didn't have a car of my own.  Riding a bike through the snow, rain, wind and weather was had for me to get used to.  On days that my classroom was quite far (like in another town) my company would let me use one of the company cars, but if the distance wasn't too great, they insisted that I make my way there by bicycle.  This was Japan, after all, they liked to say.  And this is how the Japanese get to work.  Biting back my reply that Mimi herself had a car, as did the owner Jerry, and both of the secretaries, I just smiled and bundled up.  Oh joy.

Tsukemen, where the noodles are dipped into the soup before eating.

Tuesday nights I was teaching at an electric company not too far away from our school.  On a warm sunny day, with lots of time to kill, I could make it from school to the company in about 30 minutes.  On a cold day, trying to hurry, It could take about 15.  And just one time, when I forgot my pass to get into the company compound and had to turn around halfway to grab it, I was able to make it in 12.  There were a lot of interesting things to see on the way, but the thing that jumped out at me the most were the delicious smells wafting from a small family run ramen shop.  At that time, I had never had ramen, and also never dined out by myself.  My inability to read the menu or speak Japanese intimidated me to eat at home more often than not.  But as the nights got colder and colder, I finally decided that I would have to go.  The day I finally decided I would give it a try, I cornered Tall Dea who had been in Japan for a long time and asked his advice.  Thus prepared, as I peddled my way home after a night of teaching, shivering the whole way, I parked my bike and went in to get some noodles.

Fried rice, a popular side dish when eating ramen.  Nothing goes better with carbohydrates than carbohydrates!

The restaurant was really cute.  The windows had been painted yellow with little cutsie dragons flitting around them.  Inside was a long counter that faced the kitchen, and two tiny tables crowded against the wall.  The walking space between the counters and the tables was barely enough to walk between, but luckily besides myself was only one older fellow, already tucking into his bowl.  A bookshelf of comics was pushed against the wall next to the door, and reached almost all the way to the ceiling, with what looked like hundreds of well thumbed copies of the all kinds of manga from Slam Dunk to Naruto to Majors.  A mother and daughter were behind the counter making the noodles, while a 2 year old played at one of the unoccupied tables.  Thanks to all the boiling water, the shop was pleasantly warm and humid.  The ramen itself was delicious, and it was very relaxing to have a book in one hand and chopsticks in the other, taking my time before heading back outside into the cold.

I don't know why, but I never did go back to that shop, though I passed it to and from the company three times a week.  About a year ago, I returned to Fukuyama to visit some friends, and decided to drive by and get lunch, only to find an empty building with the painted dragons slowly chipping away into nothingness.  But even though the shop is gone, it will always be a yellow colored memory of warmth in a very cold winter.  Since then, I have had innumerable bowls of ramen of all types and flavors, but it was that first time, when I had to work up the courage even to go in the doors that started it all.

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