Fukuoka Japan: Finding Nirvana in a bowl of Ramen

Tenjin is Fukuoka’s frenetic shopping area, and one of the towns biggest draws. There is a LOT of shopping to be done, from high-end fancy malls, to flea market like hallways. We walked there from our fishing lunch, which only took about ten minutes. There was a brief stop in a convenience store, so we could delight in (and purchase) the more bizarre offerings, but also, we finally got to buy the famed (to us) Japanese flavored booze in a soda can for our walk. They were all a sad disappointment, with Randi’s grape flavor being particularly disgusting. Gross choice in the first place but she misunderstood and thought it was something else, I believe.

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Our first stop in Tenjin was in a little spot called “Standing Bar.” The name is literal…the bar consists of a maybe twelve waist-high tables and no chairs. You are meant to stand at them.

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Standing bar was awesome. It was full of men; I think Randi and I were the only women in the place, and, they were beside themselves with the presence of white folks in their midst. Also, it was our first experience with what I call the jukebox ordering system in Japan. Here’s how it works: if you want something at standing bar, beer, soju, food, you walk up to a machine with a bunch of lit up buttons, you put your money in, you hit the button that has what you want written on it (in Japanese), a ticket comes out, you bring the ticket to a counter, and you give it them in exchange for your beer or food.

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We had help the first time we used it, and after that we knew which button to hit for beer, but we had to watch people or try to piece together Japanese characters from food photo signs to match to the Japanese characters on the machine. Seriously, I know I’m lame, but it’s fun.

We ordered a couple of snacks and were sent mackerel in tomato sauce by another patron.

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When it was time it move on, we walked all over Tenjin just checking things out. There is an indoor shopping hall that is probably a half mile long, that spans straight across, block to block to block, with everything inside from cosmetics, to iron on patches, to knives, to clothes.

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We went into a wildly noisy, six floored gaming hall, complete with movie theater and driving range. We ducked into some stores, we got espressos, we wandered and explored.

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The end goal was to find a Yatai, the famous Hakata food tents that line the river. They are clearly marked on maps, so we headed for one, and where it should have been, there was just brick and mortar spots. We popped into a bar for drinks and map consult, but the staff didn’t speak English and our internet didn’t work so it was a losing battle. Some “free” snacks and $75 worth of alcohol later (thanks Jim beam “black.” Who the hell are you, anyway?) we set out again.

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I thought electronics would be a steal in Japan and I wanted to get a new memory card and price out an SLR. We looked in a Best Buy type of electronics warehouse and you know what? Nothing is a steal in Japan. Japanese goods are more expensive in Japan than in the US. That’s just how it is. You want cheap awesome shopping, Korea is your girl.

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We grabbed a cab to Ichiran ramen. If you don’t already know, Fukuoka/Hakata (same city, two different names) is the birthplace of tonkatsu ramen (also known as Hakata ramen), and people make pilgrimages there to get their hands on the real deal. There is much argument over where to go for the best, and I picked Ichiran after much research and very careful consideration. http://www.ichiran.co.jp/english/html/q_hakata.html

Anyway. Ichiran ramen. ICHIRAN RAMEN!!! I will think of Ichiran ramen on my death bed. I have a lone tear of remembrance making its way down my cheek as I type this. Ichiran ramen was a transformative experience for me. Religious. Otherworldly.

Ramen is serious shit. It actually means something in Japan. It means that when other people use the word “ramen” in conjunction with their soup, they are riding the coat tails of a FAR superior dish to the slop they are serving you. I am serious when I say, I now know that I had never actually had ramen before I went to Hakata.

The ordering process at Ichiran starts with a Jukebox by the door, where you choose the type of soup you want and your add ons. I got pretty handsy with that machine and ordered the hardboiled egg, nori, fresh garlic, and scallions. I’m not much good with restraint.

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Also, you sit in a cubby while you eat your ramen. A cubby! God it’s genius and adorable.

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The cool thing about the cubbies, other than the very idea in and of itself, is a) you can fold the divider so that you are not so separated from the person next to you (which none of us did), b) you have a personal beckon-the-staff doorbell, c) there is a little choose your-own-adventure piece of paper, along with cartoon instructions, waiting for you when you sit, and d) you get your OWN water spigot! Could this place have made me any more giddy? I think not.

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Listed on the paper was a selection of flavor/texture preferences for the strength of the broth, the spiciness, the doneness of the noodle. I mean, it is just so awesome. We all looked like little schoolchildren dutifully filling out our forms. It’s just too much. Seriously.

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My selections:

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There was a bathroom visit while we waited for our food that included this…elevator? (utterly confused, we took the stairs)

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and this selection of toilet paper

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God bless you Japan, you freakin’ weirdo.

Then this happened:

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The presentation alone drives me wild. I LOVE that it comes in a covered box. It’s like a precious little gift.

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That broth. It was so robust, and piping hot. I honestly can’t explain what it tasted it like, other than amazing. The crunch from the green onions, the sweetness of the pork, and the thing that really kicked it into overdrive for me? The fresh garlic. After exploring just the broth for a while, I dove into the noodles.

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I’ve never had noodles like that. They were so precisely hand cut and firm and made of…buckwheat? Do you sense a theme here? The broth, the noodles, both, so masterful and unique. I’ve been asked many times what my favorite food has been from around the world and I come to this every time. That box of food is enormous, and I drank out the last drops. Randi, who loves really spicy food, ordered hers with the strongest spice and the broth was undrinkable it was so hot, so, beware.

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We emerged to find bustling, neon, night-time Tenjin

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Next door to Ichiran is an adorable pudding stand, and that night, there was an adorable girl working the pudding stand. We got some to bring home for a late night dessert.

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One was green tea, I think, and the other, banana? We ate them a couple of days later and they sucked. They were mealy and not very sweet and just an overall bummer.

After some digestive walking, we grabbed a cab…oh wait. I haven’t said a word about the cabs. The cabs in Hakata are the cutest! I called them pink panther cabs. The body style is just adorable, boxy yet rounded, and the circular rearview mirrors are mounted on each side of the hood, and the absolute best part is, the driver has a button they push that opens the back passenger door. Oh, and the drivers are often dressed like Cato with the little suit and the hat. So the cab pulls up, and the door swings open, and you get in and Cato is there waiting to drive you to your destination.

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Which in this case, was home, where our fat and happy selves slept deeply and dreamt of ramen.

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