Japan is a land of many pleasures. It has cultural pleasures (ukiyo-e, rakugo, ikebana), literary pleasures (Edogawa Ranpo, Osamu Dazai, Haruki Murakami), alcoholic pleasures (sake, shochu, Sapporo Beer) and musical pleasures (Ryuichi Sakamoto, Shonen Knife and, obviously, the Mad Capsule Markets). However, for pure, visceral, immediate-gratification pleasure, nothing can compare to the bowlful of joy you get when you venture into a certain type of Japanese eatery at lunchtime, after a morning of hard graft and when your stomach is yowling with hunger, and a steaming helping of ramen is set on the counter in front of you.
Ramen is hardly an elegant dish. It’s rough-and-ready and thrown-together but none the worse for that. In its basic form, it consists of a mess of noodles, a skoosh of broth, a few cuts of pork, a boiled egg, some spring onions and bean sprouts and a nice, green, papery square of nori (seaweed), all chucked into a big bowl. And strictly speaking, it’s not a Japanese dish either. The first ramen in Japan probably appeared in Chinese restaurants that served food from Shanghai and Canton in the 19th century. Indeed, up until the middle of the 20th century, it was referred to as ‘shina soba’, i.e. Chinese soba. And it didn’t achieve mass-popularity in Japan until the late fifties with the invention of instant noodles. At that moment, ramen stopped being a special treat and became affordable daily fare for the average working Joe.
Despite being a relatively late cultural import to the country, ramen is now synonymous with Japanese cuisine and culture. By 1985, it’d become iconic enough for a Japanese filmmaker to make a movie about it. This was Juzo Itami’s comedy-classic Tampopo, which was marketed as a ‘ramen western’ – a joke on spaghetti westerns, although in Japan spaghetti westerns are called ‘macaroni westerns’. To be honest, Tampopo is more about Japan’s overall relationship with food and its most memorable sequence doesn’t involve ramen all – we see a gangster and his moll have culinary simulated sex by popping a raw egg-white-and-yolk back and forth from, and in and out of, their mouths. (I remember sticking the video for Tampopo into the VCR in my family’s living room one evening, expecting to watch an innocuous Japanese comedy; and feeling mortified when this scene appeared because my eighty-something Northern Irish granny was sitting knitting in the corner. But thankfully, the eighty-something Northern Irish granny thought it was hilarious.)
©Itami Productions / New Century Producers / Toho
Tampopo’s main plotline follows the old western formula wherein a gang of gunslingers ride to the rescue of a besieged town – only here, it’s a gang of ramen-lovers hurrying to the rescue of an ailing ramen-ya. A ramen-ya is a fixture of Japan’s backstreets, a little restaurant that serves ramen, portions of rice, side-plates of gyoza dumplings, beer, liquor and not much else. When I lived in Japan, which was for most of the 1990s, it seemed that everyone I knew had a favourite ramen-ya that they’d discovered somewhere in their local neighbourhoods.
As for me, I swore by a particular ramen-ya that was in the town of Takikawa, up on the northern island of Hokkaido, where I spent my first two years in Japan working as a classroom assistant. This ramen-ya was called the Manten and was as typical as you could get: a long narrow chamber with a counter and row of stools on one side and, at its far end, a small tatami room where a few months after my arrival, I recall, a hard-living Glaswegian guy I’d encountered introduced me to the seductive but hazardous pastime of drinking shochu. (Unlike sake, which is fermented, shochu is a distilled Japanese liquor.)
The Manten had a window looking out onto a little compound or back garden where, when it wasn’t under a half-dozen feet of snow – Hokkaido has a climate akin to Siberia’s – I’d see the place’s owner wielding a golf club and practising his swings. But what anchors the Manten in my memory most of all was its ramen, which I found delicious.
The Manten didn’t just acquaint me with ramen. It acquainted me with the Hokkaido versions of it. There are various types of ramen, such as shoyu (soy-sauce) and shio (salt) ramen, but up in Hokkaido they like miso ramen. As its name suggests, its broth is thick and liberally laced with miso and it’s perfect for insulating you against the raw Hokkaido winter. (The island is also the home of another variation of the dish, the self-explanatory curry ramen. Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the Japanese archipelago, the island of Kyushu has pioneered a further variation, tonkotsu ramen, which has a distinctively whitish broth.)
Probably that’s why nowadays I rage when I find myself in a Japanese restaurant back in Britain, with what purports to be ramen on its menu, and I get served something whose broth is vapidly thin and watery. No, you useless wimps, the soup in the ramen has got to be thick. That’s the Hokkaido way.
One other good thing about ramen, in Japan anyway, is its price. I could never get over how cheap the stuff was, considering there was usually enough in one bowl to leave me feeling stoked up with fuel for the next three days. In fact, a friend who visited Japan in 2015 told me it was still cheap – especially compared with those trendy Japanese-restaurant chains in the UK where you pay twice the cost for a pale imitation. (Yes, Wagamama, I’m looking at you.)
Accordingly, when you enter a ramen-ya at lunchtime, you’ll be greeted by the sight of Japan’s smaller earners – dusty construction workers, say, and lower-hierarchy salarymen – sitting along the counter and tucking into their midday ramen fix. Often, after I’d eaten a bowlful, I’d feel ready to slouch home, lie down and sleep it off. But for those guys, of course, an afternoon nap isn’t an option. In ever-industrious Japan, you return to the building site or the office and spend the afternoon working it off.
They say that an army marches on its stomach. For the blue-collar and lower white-collar army that keeps Japan’s economy (still the third-largest economy in the world) marching, that stomach is surely full of ramen.
©Itami Productions / New Century Producers / Toho