Ramen hunting in Tokyo

Ramen Hunter Hiroshi Shimakage has eaten thousands of bowls of ramen in the last few years. On a typical evening, he crushes three bowls. That’s sort of like eating three Big Mac meals with large fries. Trust me, it’s a lot.  Part time ramen chef and full time ramen explorer, he also introduces ramen newbies to the best of the best in Tokyo, carefully choosing among the 10,000+ ramen joints to give the hungry and curious a sense of the traditional, the new, the wacky, and the timeless.

I wouldn’t consider myself a ramen newbie. I grew up eating all kinds of Asian noodles. I mean, I was a San Francisco kid growing up in a largely Asian community, so noodle soup was considered a basic human necessity.  Cantonese won ton mein, Vietnamese pho, Taiwanese niu rou mien, Malaysian laksa. And bowling at Japantown meant ramen or udon for lunch. Let’s just say I slurped and stained a lot of T-shirts growing up.

But after watching Tampopo, Juzo Itami’s cray-cray comedy about a pair of cowboy truck drivers who teach a dowdy middle aged woman the art of ramen making and, along the way, transform her into a hot mama as well as a successful ramen chef (ok, super problematic storyline but we won’t get into that here), I thought – maybe I’ve never really experienced ramen. Maybe I’ve only had shitty ramen. Maybe I’ve never truly slowed down and smelled the soup.

Ramen Hunter Hiroshi took me to two places to show me a contrast in the Tokyo ramen scene. The first, Kitaru, is located in the heart of Shibuya (you know, that area with the crazy cross walk featured in Lost in Translation). It’s been around for over 60 years, and by the looks, not much thought has been put into the interior design in all that time. Old school shoyu ramen, Hiroshi explained. The noodles were chewy and I loved the taste of dried onions and bean sprouts in the soup. It was hearty and straightforward. But on my own, I probably wouldn’t have guessed this was any kind of ramen mecca.

The second place was named Ethical & Ramen Noodle Stand. Once you’ve been in Japan a while, you get used to the weird but often lyrical use of English in signage. Hiroshi described this place as experimental and new school, and it is located in Harajuku, where girls in 10 inch high heels wear blonde wigs, three inch eyelash extensions and their signature cosplay gear that’s a mix of Lolita cute and porn-ish school girl.

The soup at this place is made of sardines, and I immediately took to the fishy, dark broth, which reminded me of Malaysian asam laksa. The noodles, which this soup didn’t make themselves, were nothing to write home about compared to the chewy, thick and home made ones we had eaten at the other place. But boy, the fatty pork melted in my mouth and the soft boiled egg, which oozed just the right amount of yolk, was perfectly rich. I regretted not pacing myself earlier in the evening, and being too full to finish my bowl.

As for the Ramen Hunter, he wasn’t one for words, even though he spoke perfect American English. I guess I was expecting more of a ramen sensei, someone who, like Mr. Miyagi in the Karate Kid, would open my eyes to the practice and philosophy behind ramen eating. Instead, he pretty much just ate, and told me to eat quickly and not talk too much in the restaurants so we wouldn’t be viewed as seat hoggers. I wanted him to tell me about the years of training that went into noodle making. Or the top secret broth recipes that make or break a place. Or the gossip – rivalries and jealousies and betrayals between ramen makers.

I guess I wanted Goro, the cowboy truck driver, who teaches Tampopo about the deep meaning behind each element of ramen. I wanted to be taught how to say thank you to the chashu pork before dunking it into the hot soup. I wanted to learn how to breathe in the aroma of the broth, appreciate the visual balance of meat and vegetables, and revel in exclaiming “Itadakimasu!” before burying my face in the bowl.

I’ve had a couple of days to think about my experience ramen hunting. And I don’t feel any closer to ramen nirvana. What we ate was good. But was it any more memorable than the street pho I’ve had in Saigon, or the night market beef noodles in Taipei? Or my mom’s 雪菜肉丝面?

Maybe I’m missing the whole point.  Maybe ramen hunting isn’t about over analyzing and philosophizing and talking our way to some kind of deeper experience. Maybe I just have to keep eating ramen without thinking too hard about it. And then one day, just like the Karate Kid waxing on and waxing off, I’ll realize I’ve been building up my ramen superpowers.

Or maybe, I’ve just got to let go of the idea of a gunslinging, slurping ramen cowboy truck driver, out there in the night like batman, watching over us, saving us, one bowl at a time, from lukewarm soup and soggy noodles.