Thursday, November 6, 2014

Japan / Ramen

Let me start this off by saying that Japan is the coolest. And I don't just mean that in a superlative, gratuitous kind of way.  Of all the places I've been in this world (4 continents, almost 2 dozen countries and counting), the Land of the Rising Sun is the most unique, most fascinating, most inspiring place I've traveled. It is mystical and mysterious. Complex and confusing. Prodigious and polite. Overpowering and serene. It is a tranquil Shinto shrine just steps from a seven story club/bar/restaurant, flashing lights and neon everywhere. It is Harajuku girls strutting like peacocks next to ladies in kimonos on their way to a tea ceremony. Japan is all these things and it is like no place else.

For me, it starts and ends with the distinctly Japanese cultural phenomenon that is dedication to one's task.  Whatever your chosen (or appointed) lot in life is, you do it with utmost care, passion, and craftsmanship.  It's a concept that's been much written about, but hard to truly grasp until you visit.  If you've ever read Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, you know that life, and what you do with it, is all about Quality. The Japanese understand this concept to the core of their being. Hell, they created this concept.

For example - if you are sushi chef, you make the best sushi possible. You focus all of your intention and skill into mastering this craft. The best fish, the perfect rice, the optimal bite. But the guy grilling simple skewers of yakitori flies the same  banner. The best cuts of beef, the ripest mushrooms, the correct number of salt crystals on each piece. The bartender crafting your drink understands this too. He lovingly hand carves each piece of ice. He picks out only the most tender herbs and measures each ingredient to the drop. This is how you achieve perfection. This is how you repeat that perfection. This is how you have some of the best cuisine in the world.

Not to say that it's all about the food - but let's be honest, that's what I was here for. The old ladies cleaning the subway escalators take such pride in their work - you've never seen a cleaner handrail.  The cab drivers wear white gloves and line the seats with lace. Whatever your job is, you spend your life trying to perfect it. The dedication to one's task is so deeply ingrained in the culture here, they don't understand any other way. It is so different from the Western perspective and so utterly captivating. Let this concept marinate a bit, and serve as an amouche bouche to the rest of your meal. Although I know it's not possible to do it justice, in the paragraphs below I hope to somehow convey the incredible gastronomy that makes up Japan.  Instead of doing reviews of particular restaurants that you'll likely never even find with a map, I'm going to speak to the general food scene and particular dishes that left profound impressions on me.


After your 12 hour flight on the double-decker A380 into Tokyo, you are going to arrive slack-jawed, disoriented, disheveled & hungry. First thing you need to know about Japan is that cash is king. Amazingly enough in this technological marvel of a country, credit cards are not widely accepted. Get (a lot of) cash out at the airport, get a Suica card for the metro, and get on the next train into the city center. The ride is going to take about an hour - Narita airport is really far out. If you show up like us at 11:00pm on a Friday you'll get to see the scores of primly dressed office workers boarding trains home to the suburbs as you makes the stops into downtown Tokyo. Some of them have had a few beers after work, but a lot of them are just coming from the office - working long hours is a way of life here and putting in a 14 hour day is not uncommon.

After checking into your hotel, you are going to need food - pronto. Your bodies internal clock is all kinds of jacked up. You've just eaten several meals of airplane food that left you feeling less than satisfied.  Ramen should be first on your list. And I'm not talking about the $0.75 Cup-A-Noodles stuff.  I'm talking about the real deal. A bowl of steamy broth, noodles, roasted pork and egg should right the ship. I did a bit of research before we left and found Ippudo just across the street from our hotel, tucked down an alley. Now, given that I've just flown halfway around the world and probably look like a recovering meth addict, my senses are either numbed or on overdrive - hard to tell at this stage. What I can say is that this bowl of ramen instantly made that 12 hour flight worth it. It was the single greatest bowl of soup I'd ever had. Broth that was complex and so rich it was almost like a thin gravy, noodles cooked to perfect texture and made for slurping. Huge slices of slowly roasted pork, fresh scallions and a soft-boiled egg. Heaven.


A lighter version (still with the soft boiled egg), but whole sheets of nori as garnish. So pretty.  It's important to note here that ramen is close to a way of life here. It's almost a religion. Think Bar-B-Q in Texas. It's like that. People will line up and wait an hour for their favorite place. Each ramen joint has their own unique take, the recipes closely guarded secrets.  The broth can vary from pork, to miso based, to shrimp, to chicken. The noodles are prepared with utmost reverence and served at just the right doneness, so as to finished cooking in your bowl. You slurp with your head nearly in that bowl, trying to avoid slinging molten broth all over yourself and your neighbors.

Don't pass over the gyoza. These little dumplings are steamed and pan crisped to perfection. Ippudo is actually a small chain of Ramen restaurants with locations around Tokyo and southeast Asia, as well as New York. Guess I know where I'll be going on our next trip to the big apple. 

If you happen to find yourself in the Tokyo Station subway concourse and need a fix of noodles, head on over to Ramen Street. This is really a thing. They took 8 of the best ramen shops from around Tokyo and opened outlets in a section of the subway. I feel like I need to point out that the subway concourse in Tokyo is nothing like Septa or Patco. In fact it's pretty much the opposite. Bright, clean and safe, with no strange smells of urine wafting through the air, you'd be happy to spend an hour or two down here shopping, eating or waiting for the Shinkansen bullet train to Kyoto. Which is pretty much what we did.

Once you've chosen your preferred ramen shop from the formidable list of establishments, you queue up and make your selections from the vending machine, obviously. You can even pay with your metro pass - what a country! Luckily they have pictures of all the menu items for those of us that cannot read Japanese. So you pick your items - some ramen & gyoza, please - tap your Suica card to pay and collect your little tickets. You hand these off to the server/hostess, take your seat and a few minutes later your food is delivered to your table. I love this place. So much.


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