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.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

再来軒 (Sairaiken in Miyazaki Prefecture)

らーめん 再来軒

Pure pork heaven in the town of Nobeoka, Miyazaki Prefecture. Sairaiken's ramen looks rough and funky, but is surprisingly smooth. Even the fatty chashu covering the bowl (get the chashu bowl over the regular one 焼豚入ラーメン) is tender and delicate.

Yet another legend shop, Sairaiken has been making ramen since 1956. One of their claims is that they have been adding pork bones to the same pot since they started. Don't you love Japan? Could you get away with this sort of thing overseas?

Ramen and mini meshi (めし) rice bowls. At 950 yen, the recommended bowl with extra chashu is high for Kyushu, where 500 yen seems like the ramen norm. Coming from Tokyo, though, a bowl of this quality for less than one bill is a steal.

Noodles are made inhouse in the back room.

Ingredients are sourced locally, like the pork from Miyazaki Prefecture and the Nobeoka (延岡) green onions. The soup is full of pork knuckles and pig heads. They boast that their ramen can prevent summer heat exhaustion with the added vitamin B1 and collagen. 

So many legend shops out here in Miyazaki Prefecture.

Official site here

Monday, July 13, 2020

二代目ラーメンカヨ (Kayo in Oita Prefecture)


It's not often that I find a true gem. Most great ramen shops have been written about, tweeted about, and Instagrammed about enough to be fully known. Nidaime Ramen Kayo, on the other hand, is a shop on the down-low.

Just look at this location! Incredible. Crush a bowl right by the bay. For a Ramen Rider, this is the pinnacle of ramen touring.

I actually learned about this shop from Takashi Tanaka (田中貴) from the band Sunny Day Service (サニーデイ・サービス). I work with Tanaka-san occasionally doing ramen TV stuff and his band did a mini-tour of Kyushu in early 2019. Kayo was one of the ramen shops he hit up.

Fried rice and tonkotsu ramen. Simple menu in a little shack. 

The shop was opened in 1995 by a self-taught lady who just wanted to make tasty ramen in a nice location. They closed in 2017 and then reopened a year later, with her daughter-in-law at the helm. The nidaime (二代目) in the name means the second generation. 

That location though! For a Ramen Rider, I live for this. It's over an hour drive from the closest major city and somewhere around three hours if you take public transportation. 

Beautiful ride though.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

宝来軒 (Horaiken in Oita Prefecture)

宝来軒 総本店

Horaiken is one of Kyushu's most popular ramen shops. It's located out in Oita Prefecture, a bit far from the usual tourist attractions. Worth the journey for a ramen head to try their unique creamy broth made from pork, chicken, and beef.

And so begins my November 2019 motorcycle tour of Kyushu. The plan was to hit as many legend shops as I could in three weeks. What exactly is a legend shop? These are shops that Ramen Walker Magazine dubbed the BEST in Japan in their recent Best of the Best Ramen book. The book covers all of Japan, and I'm determined to make it to them all.

Three weeks camping, touring, and eating ramen. What could be better?

Horaiken uses a massive pot called a Goemongama (五右衛門釜) to boil the soup. This pot is big enough to fit a person. Non-so-fun fact, they used to boil people alive in these things as a form of punishment for crimes. The pot is named after Goemon, the Japanese Robin Hood, who met his demise thusly. More-of-a-fun fact, many onsen hot springs have single-person sized Goemonburo (五右衛門風呂), a giant metal pot to bathe in.

Too long, didn't read? Horaiken cooks their soup in a big ol' pot.

Grab the special bowl with all the fixings, including spicy menma. It looks very tonkotsu, but by using a blend of chicken and beef with the pork, Horaiken is more balanced than your typical stinky Kyushu bowls.

Around since 1958.

Open for lunch only on weekdays, with dinner service on Fridays and Saturdays.

Official site here.