Thursday, August 6, 2020

来久軒 (Raikyuken in Saga Prefecture)


Raikyuken cooks their soup for around ten days. Surely that's a typo. Ten hours, right?

Nope, it's ten days. A few pots are used, and soup is shuffled around like magic potions until the brew is ready to serve.

The shop is a short walk from Mifuneyama Park. My timing was impeccable. Not only could I see the fall colors lit up at night, but the crew behind Team Labs Borderless had set up a mini-exhibition.

The icing on the cake was that I snagged a last-minute room at the hotel. Rooms here normally go for a few hundred a night, and I was out here camping for free, but a quick check online and I was staying here, among the art, for well within my budget.

The exhibition was set to close around November 2019. Too bad. Checking their site, however, and I see that they will have a renewed, different light show, by the same people, in 2020. The new one looks even crazier!

It's always nice to have a little sightseeing to go with your ramen.

Yes, the soup here takes 10 days to make. They use three massive iron pots in the back. Soup travels from one to the other in a kind of conveyor belt of flavors. Though I wasn't able to check in detail, they say that the color changes in each one, with the final product being this milky white pork soup.

The shio tare is a secret blend of 10 ingredients. In the end, the final product looks quite simple. Creamy soup with a couple pieces of chashu and a few slices of negi onion.

Even in the brisk November temperatures, the back kitchen was hot and steamy. I say back kitchen, but this was more of a converted garage unit.

Raikyuken opened in 1975 and has been highly ranked ever since ranking ramen was a thing in Saga Prefecture.

More art photos?

The art installation was set inside an abandoned hot springs complex. Lights and technology.

Half the complex houses the art, and the other half houses the hotel. If you stay at the hotel, one bonus is that you have free access to the park.

And of course the beautiful natural hot springs.

Official site here.

Monday, August 3, 2020

徳島ラーメン 奥屋 (Okuya in Tokushima Prefecture)

徳島ラーメン 奥屋 本店

I was in the middle of a motorcycle trip around Kyushu when my friend Dr. K called. He and his friends would be in Fukuoka for the annual sumo tournament, and they had a seat for me. We'd spend the afternoon watching fat dudes beat on each other, then head off for a lavish kaiseki dinner with beautiful hostesses, a practice called dohan, before heading to the hostess bar itself for drinks.

I'm in.

I thought we were just going for a night of fun, but I was then invited to fly to Tokushima the next morning with the crew to check out the sites and go to the local geisha house.

I'm in!

Tokushima, in the east of Shikoku, is famous for a few things. The Awa Odori dance festival is held in the middle of August each year (though chances of that happening in 2020 are slim). You can get a taste for it year-round in their tourism hall.

The town is also known historically for indigo dye.

And of course, there is the ramen.

Okuya is one of many popular shops in the area. I'm not going to lie, I can't tell any major differences between the slew of shops I've been to here, apart from the excellent Inotani. It might just be the vibe though. Also, I have a pet peeve against raw egg whites in my soup. Raw egg is a standard topping in Tokushima ramen. Some shops let you crack your own, others just throw it in, slimy whites and all.

Wok-fried pork, on the sweet side, and a heavy tonkotsu soup with soy sauce.

One thing that sets Okuya apart is their rice bowl menu. You can get your ramen with a mini onsen tamago and shirasu (whitebait) bowl. Go for it!

They also have tantanmen, miso, and shio ramen on the menu. Nice variety for the locals.

Another fun trip to Tokushima, but I'm running out of spots to hit here.

Official site here.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

黒門 (Kuromon in Fukuoka Prefecture)

南京ラーメン 黒門

And like that, my quest was over. Back in 2015, Japan's most well-respected restaurant information site put out a Best 50 list for ramen in Japan, and I slowly but surely set out to conquer it. Here is that list for those who are curious.

In 2016, I had already completed roughly half of the list, and the Tokyo or near-Tokyo shops were easy to knock off. Other shops were near major stations around the country, and it was only a matter of time before my company would send me out. The third kind of shop, though, was positively a pain to get to. Open obscure hours and far from any station, I would have to line them up with a motorcycle trip.

I visited Kuromon not once but twice in November of 2019. The first time they were out of the soup. Typical of my luck. I reorganized my entire trip so I could return, and return I did. Why change an entire vacation to leave the beauty of mountains and beaches to come to the rather drab stretch of Kyuhu between Kokura and Fukuoka? This was #50 for me. I had to do it.

Which makes my disappointment all the more tragic. First of all, the owner yelled at me for taking too many photos. You shouldn't spend much time photographing your ramen in Japan, but I literally only took three photos. I assure you I am more than respectful at ramen shops. I have my camera at the ready, snapping three or four angles before crushing the bowl. But three were a few too many. In the end, I'm not mad, but I think the sheer amount of effort I took to come here was enough for five seconds of photography.

Then the taste. Kuromon is Nanjing (南京) style. This means a simple, light tonkotsu soup. Frankly, it was boring. I'm surprised that it is ranked as one of the top shops in Japan. When I spoke, off the record, to Japanese ramen critic friends, they expressed the same opinion.

So there it was, the end of my five-year journey. My new goal is to finish everything in The Best of the Best Ramen, of which I have been to around 120 out of 200 shops. Happy hunting.

Monday, July 27, 2020

ラーメン工房 龍 (Ryu in Fukuoka Prefecture)

ラーメン工房 龍

Top-level tonkotsu ramen at legend shop Ryu in Fukuoka Prefecture. 

Ryu was number 49 out of 50  on a best-of list I've been working on for years. The problem with Ryu was the location. Sure, I am lucky enough to work in Fukuoka or Kokura a couple times a year, but this shop precisely halfway between the two cities requires slow local trains to get there.

They also do that thing that so many famous shops do. Ryu opens at a normal time and closes whenever they run out of the soup. I was smart enough to call ahead a few times for the rejection in 2017 and 2018. At the beginning of my 2019 Kyushu road trip, I stopped here first thing upon arriving to Japan's southern main island; Ryu isn't such a tough drive from the bridge connecting Honshu and Kyushu. Of course, they were shuttered. Nearly two weeks later I returned on a route that was very much out of my way. Success!

This one is the pinnacle of tonkotsu ramen. Smooth and meaty. The shop doesn't stink but has a faint whiff of porky funk. Chashu on point. No nonsense, just top-level tonkotsu ramen in an old building in a part of the country you wouldn't come to otherwise.

Along with the ramen, Ryu offers fried rice (called yakimeshi), gyoza, and onigiri rice balls, a staple for many Kita Kyushu ramen shops.

The coveted 2015 Top 50 award. Before 2015, Tabelog simply gave shops a Best Ramen award. After 2015 they introduced the 百名店, with 300 ramen shops making the ranking. I think 50 is the perfect number.

#Ramen Rider

For me, this is the best of creamy tonkotsu I've had in Japan. Maybe not worth the effort it takes, as Fukuoka City has some fantastic shops within walking distance of the station, but you do you. If you can drive, disregard that last statement and take a short trip out here.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

里山の麺処と和布あそびあら木 (Araki in Kagoshima, Prefecture)


Araki (short for Satoyama no Mendokoro to Wakame Asobi Araki) is up on the northern border of Kagoshima Prefecture. Like most ramen shops in Kagoshima, their ramen is a lighter, weaker version of tonkotsu. Unlike the local norm, they incorporate almond into the soup. Almond paste, almond oil, and almond powder all turn this one into a one-of-a-kind countryside bowl.

The area is near Kirishima National Park. I sound like a broken record as I travel prefecture to prefecture, but I can easily say that riding in the mountains of Kyushu is nothing less than breathtaking. The roads are smooth and offer views galore. Camping is everywhere, though in November I was waking up quite frozen in campgrounds that had been closed since October. 

The shop here is more of a home. Walk on in through the front garden, take off your shoes in the entrance, and choose a seat inside the living room or on the back porch.

Kagoshima-style tonkotsu ramen is lighter fare. I'd been to a few famous shops in Kagoshima City proper (apparently I wasn't a fan of Tontoro or Noriichi at the time) and this was my first one on the outskirts of the area. I spent the night in the area at a local hot spring (鶴丸温泉 is 200% recommended), crushed this bowl in the morning, and then headed up north.

It's a unique combination of flavors. Creamy pork made more so by the almonds. Use the slotted spoon to scrape up all the almond bit sediment on the bottom. Similar, in a sense, to a nutty tantanmen, without any of the spice.

Autographs from famous guests sit among the knick-knacks and for-sale craft goods.

Monday, July 20, 2020

拉麺男 (Ramen Man in Miyazaki Prefecture)


Ramen Man in the northern area of Miyazaki Prefecture knows how to satisfy a Ramen Rider. Sure, I can eat ramen throughout the day, but when I'm out here camping on the coast I tend to wake up with the sun. Breakfast ramen (朝ラー) at Ramen Man is a bit lighter than their normal tonkotsu ramen and at only 480 yen for a bowl, I spend more on coffee than this work of art.

Traffic in Miyazaki Prefecture is nothing like Tokyo, so it should only take you about 10 minutes to get out here.

Ramen Man was ranked as one of the top spots in Miyazaki over the last decade. It's another one of those spots that simmer their soup for a ridiculous amount of time. Trotters, heads, and bones stay on the heat for 20 hours. They go through around 200kg of bones a day in this pursuit. It's a style they call yobimodoshi (呼び戻し). Massive pots are kept on heat at all times, with bones and water being added as needed. This requires unique skills that take years to master.

The opposite of this, where a smaller pot is cleaned out each time is called torikiri (取りきり). That's some nerdy ramen knowledge!

Some people categorize Kyushu-style tonkotsu by both the level of cloudiness and whether it is yobimodoshi or torikiri.

Though I only had a chance to try the morning ramen, I've heard very good things about the normal, thicker stuff served from 11 in the morning until 11 at night.

Takana (たかな) spicy mustard greens are available on the counter, but they ask that you only put on what you can eat. There was a takana shortage in 2019 due to it becoming a trendy food, and the cost to shops went up significantly. It became commonplace for shops to charge.

Miyazaki isn't often thought of as a ramen destination, a stereotype I came to learn wasn't entirely accurate.

By the way, the owner here is a huge Beatles fan. You'll understand if you step inside the shop.

Official site here.