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Quest for Japan’s Best Ramen

Kyushu,island,Japanese Archipelago,archipelago

Photo: Tetsuya Miura

I am on a plane, crossing an ocean to eat a soup made of pork bones. Mid-flight, I dream of my first encounter. Of the first slurp, revelatory as a first kiss. Of steam rising off the fat-slicked surface, the hot mishmash of chewy noodles and the just-set egg spilling its sunsetty yolk into the porky depths that are touched with the tang of sea and soy and miso and whatever proprietary, body- and mind-altering secrets have been stirred into the mix by the cooks at that pocket-size, second-floor shop in Omotesando that has a line up the stairs and down the block.

You don’t forget your first time with tonkotsu ramen. Mine happened a decade ago. Cold, gray Tokyo lunchtime in December. The first, skeptical spoonful. (What’s all the fuss about?) Then the full rush of pure rendered meaty umami-ness. (Where has this been all my life?)

It is not a normal smell, the smell of tonkotsu ramen. The odor (no one would call it a fragrance) does not tip gently up the nasal passage. Rather, it sticks like a blow dart in the bridge of your nose. A sour, worrying foulness that speaks of some ancient, ancestral revulsion: this is how you first become aware of the proximity of true Hakata-style tonkotsu ramen. And it’s precisely this strange funk that—once you’ve overcome the initial, misleading impression and fallen hard for the stuff—you find yourself dreaming about.

Since that first encounter, I’ve slouched over countless bowls of ramen, traditional and otherwise, in Tokyo—and sometimes in New York when the weather turns cool and I miss it. I’ve taken the train to Yokohama to visit the Ramen Museum. But I’ve never made it south to Fukuoka, a seaside city on the island of Kyushu, at the southwestern end of the country, to find the spiritual home of tonkotsu, the style of ramen that first opened my mind and staked its claim there of permanent longing. Memory propels me back. And also the plane. A plane is a must for crossing an ocean in time for dinner.

Adachi Ward

12:45 a.m. Somewhere in the northern outskirts of Tokyo

I land in Tokyo late—and hungry. Happily, ramen shops keep insomniac hours, so I use my one-night layover to begin my ramen mission before flying to Kyushu in the morning. Tokyo’s is a culture of everythingness: every regional variety of ramen delivered to the big stage of the capital city, then endlessly remixed and reinvented. You could fill every issue of this magazine for a year trying to describe the shape-shifting universe of Japanese ramen and you wouldn’t get close to a complete picture. There are, in fact, many magazines devoted solely to ramen—and ramen TV shows, comic books, competitions.

Among the legion of ramen bloggers is my guide tonight, a 33-year-old California transplant named Brian MacDuckston. Gangly, personable, head shaved, smile full of braces, MacDuckston supports himself doing educational dance- and sing-alongs for kids; at night he documents his noodle addiction on his site, Ramen Adventures.

I ask MacDuckston to paint me a picture of the state of ramen in Tokyo these days. “There’s a place called Papapapapine,” he says. “Its speciality is pineapple ramen. Pineapple in the soup, pineapple in the toppings. What’s goofy is, it works.” Picture painted.

Rather than wade into the torrent of the new, I want to get right into the classical Kyushu swing of things, so MacDuckston steers us, by multiple subway connections, to the moonlit streets of a semi-industrial suburb. This is big-sky country by Tokyo standards.

We’re looking for Tanaka Shoten, an out-of-the-way shop celebrated for its traditional Hakata-style ramen. We smell it before we see it.

Inside, we take our place at the bar and order a round of foam-topped draft beers. When the ramen is set before us, we lean our faces into the piggy shvitz of rising steam before getting to work slurping, splattering, and spooning up the milky, mouth-coatingly rich soup. Down the line, every head in the place is bowed in identical communion.

Noodle neophytes take note: ramen as it is served in the many thousands of steamy little shops and multiplying chains across Japan has nearly nothing in common with the denatured supermarket variant—brittle noodle-bricks and MSG-laced flavor dust. This kind of ramen exists in Japan, of course, in a vast universe of categories that would make even our novelty-addicted American minds explode. But the undergraduate-sustaining, just-add-water stuff has as much to do with real ramen as freeze-dried astronaut food has to do with flying to the moon.

Real ramen knocks you back a little and then sets you right on your feet. What we register as the “soup” component is really two things: the stock, which is cooked for many hours, and the tare, a reduced soy- or miso-based flavor-intensifying sauce that is introduced in small quantities just before the boiled noodles are dropped into the bowl. The stock is the soul of ramen; the tare its animating spirit. The stock is the steady thump of the rhythm section; tare, the soaring improvisational riffs of the horns. Tonkotsu refers to pork bones—and it is those long-boiled, marrow-rich, collagen-imparting pig parts that give the Hakata style (named for a neighborhood in Fukuoka) its distinctive stank and opaque creaminess and have spread its fame and influence to every ramen-crazed corner of Japan.

Behind the bar, a thick-armed dude with a towel tied round his head agitates a roiling cauldron with a wooden spoon as big as an oar. His damp T-shirt says Power of Bones. “He’s beating the flavor out of those bones,” MacDuckston says, dreamily.

Mengekijo Genei

12 p.m. Tenjin Area, Fukuoka City

Japan’s seventh-largest city has much to recommend it to the curious traveler and little evidence that anybody’s been heeding the call. There are beaches, curving canals, sparkling shopping centers, and sweet, squat blocks of hip boutiques and coffee shops. Monocle magazine ranked it 12th in its Global Quality of Life Survey. Rem Koolhaas did a striking housing project here; Michael Graves, a lovely Hyatt.

Despite these charms, the city is not high on the foreign visitor’s circuit. Even Japanese in the north seem to admire the idea of this relaxed southern city more than they actually come here.

My friend Shinji Nohara agreed to travel down to Kyushu from Tokyo, mainly because he knew we’d eat well.

Tonkotsu is Fukuoka’s most famous culinary export and fans of the form will not be disappointed by the towering sight of the 12-story Ichiran building. Ichiran pioneered a style of ramen consumption that might be called solitary confinement with benefits: diners sit alone, separated in their sweaty-slurping-soup-inhaling isolation from one another by red-curtained dividers. Only in Japan could such a setup spawn a successful countrywide chain.

Ippudo is another estimable Fukuoka-founded brand, with outposts in Tokyo, Sydney, and New York City. The Manhattan shop is authentic down to the long lines out the door.

The originals are excellent, necessary stops on any tonkotsu pilgrimage. But I want to eat things I can’t find elsewhere.

Mengekijo Genei, which occupies an angular, corrugated-steel structure that looks as if it might house a small architectural firm, fits this definition well. Inside, the seats are arranged like a tiny theater in the round, or a college science lab, each row higher than the one in front so that every diner has a clear view of center stage: the man boiling the noodles and ladling out the soup.

Hideki Irie, the charismatic chef-owner, wears a large gem pendant necklace at the neck of his tight black T-shirt and oversize black sunglasses perched on his smoothly shaved head. He has the bearing of a club DJ or a featherweight boxer. Before finding his true calling, he was a private investigator.

“I wasn’t enjoying my work,” he says. “So an old friend asked me to take a look at his ramen shop. I saw that for 500 yen people could be happy. So I became an apprentice for five years to learn to make ramen.”

Eventually he opened his own shop, but soon realized he could no longer enjoy ramen: the MSG, he felt, was making him sick.

“It took me a year to create my own ramen without MSG, a year of studying dashi and making my own soy sauce to get the balance right.”

The noodles at Genei are made in-house daily. They’re springy, with a nice bit of chewiness due to an unusually high water content. Irie-san demonstrates his method of getting them just right: “I love you,” he says, smacking a handful of noodles against the counter, gently squeezing and rolling them together, then pulling them apart and shaking them out again. The noodles now are curlier. “No stress,” he says.

“I love you.” Smack. “I love you….”

Shinji and I order a classic tonkotsu and another girded with shrimp oil. Each is finished with thin seared slices of pork, sliced negi (large Japanese scallion), and a plethora of greens. Irie-san’s tare is the result of his yearlong quest to replace MSG with an umami oomph of his own devising. In addition to the proprietary shoyu, or soy sauce (which he says costs him nearly $200 a liter), the tare incorporates kombu, bonito, a special sardine called irune, mackerel, dried shrimp, dried scallop, and dried abalone.

Activated by this blend, the soup is slightly frothy, the flavor massive, deeply, envelopingly meaty, but clean. Despite or perhaps because of its innovations, it’s everything you’d want from an ideal tonkotsu. Everything but the traditional telltale brow-wrinkling stink.

Irie simmers his broth for 20 hours using only the bones from the heads of pigs. Pigs’ heads, it turns out, smell sweet.

Kurume Train Station

2 p.m. Kurume, 25 miles south of Fukuoka

The Bridgestone tire company was founded in this midsize industrial city on the Chikugo River in the 1930’s. Outside the central train station, between the taxi queue and the parking structure, there is a monument to another of the city’s claims to history.

The bronze statue is shaped like a yatai, an old-style street-food cart popular in Kyushu and found nowhere else in Japan. Erected by the local Committee of Ramen Renaissance, the statue marks two signal moments in the development of tonkotsu ramen and the establishment of the region’s preeminence in the evolution of noodle soup.

The short but complex story here is that in 1937, a gentleman from Kurume went to Yokohama and found in the stalls of Chinatown a noodle broth made of chicken bones. He had a hunch that pork bones would be even tastier, and opened a yatai called Nankin Senryo, thus establishing the local craze for ramen.

A few years later, another yatai owner’s mother left a pot on the fire for too long. The overcooked soup turned creamy, cloudy, thick. Traditional Japanese dashi-based broths are valued for their clarity. Here was something else altogether. But it was good, and from this happy accident the long-cooked Kyushu variant was born.

After paying our respects by the train station, Shinji and I board a short local train called the Yellow One-Man Diesel Car. In a sleepy village a few stops away, the original Nankin Senryo still stands. Here, Miyamoto Chieko, the daughter-in-law of the originator of the tonkotsu style, makes soup every day with her sons. Despite the global export of ramen, despite the vogue for new styles, the family hasn’t changed the recipe in 75 years.

On the train ride home, Shinji and I read through a whole issue of Ramen Walker magazine. I am pretty sure none of this is a soup-induced dream. It all really happened.

Yatai Nagahamaya #1

1 a.m. Nagahama District, Fukuoka City

Shinji and I are joined by some friends of friends, reporters at the local paper whom we got to know over a pre-ramen yakitori feast and several rounds of beer and sake. The reporters guide us to Nagahama, a neighborhood known for its distinct but hard-to-define style of ramen. Ganso Nagahamaya, a famous local shop, doesn’t look like a restaurant; it looks like the loading bay of a factory. And it runs like an industrial operation for getting noodles and soup into mouths as efficiently as possible. Buy a ticket from the machine, and by the time you find a seat at one of the communal tables in the brightly lit space half open to the night air, the bowl is already in front of you. Nagahama style is lighter, the broth a little sour and salty, the noodles very thin and hard, the meat boiled and slight. It is not an immediately alluring bowl, but there is something about it that makes you want more. One of the reporters claims to be on a diet. He finishes his bowl in two minutes. The other, a confirmed Ganso-phile, explains, “There is nothing special about this place but I find myself thinking about it always. Not because it’s so tasty but because I am addicted. It can’t be explained. Like love.”

The addicted reporter estimates he’s been here 200 times, and he can’t stop coming back. We pat him on the back and tell him we understand.

From Ganso we walk to a nearby street lined with yatai. Yatai are miniature mobile restaurants. In the evenings they’re unpacked for dinner business at the side of a canal or on certain blocks where they’re licensed to operate in little clusters. The late drinking and snacking hours of the morning are the busiest; before sunrise, the yatai will be folded up and rolled out of sight. Each is no bigger than the kind of cart that would sell sunglasses in an American mall, but unfurled, they’re somehow big enough to sit six or eight tightly around a little bar.

Japan doesn’t have a culture of street food, so there is something festive and liberating about ducking into a yatai. It’s like entering a compact, self-contained jovial private-party-in-progress.

At Yatai Nagahamaya #1 we order a lot of shochu on the rocks, some oden (braised vegetables and gooey-textured fish-cake things bathing in broth) and a final bowl of rustic ramen. The dieting reporter finishes his without incident.

Ramen as a form is like the yatai: a space where the Japanese can go off script, cut loose, relax. The allure is that it’s different at every place. We had our fill of textbook tonkotsu as well as tweaked modern varieties (such as green-pesto “Ramen Genovese” at the excellent little hipster shop Ramen Unari).

At Shifuku 429, we meet Sakimukai Yoshinobu, a hardworking dude whose riff is chicken tonkotsu: intensely yellow, luxuriously fatty stuff that may be the best chicken noodle soup in the world. Here is something new and old, another thing to dream about.

Shinji and I have been eating ramen for days. Every night, full of noodles, I think: no more. Then morning comes, lunchtime looms, and I relent: let’s go for a bowl.

Adam Sachs is a T+L contributing editor.

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