If you ask me what was the most pleasant surprise about Japan - apart from how cheap it was when we were there (thanks to a fortuitous exchange rate, long since gone) - the answer would be Fukuoka.
Way off the tourist route on the end of the Shinkansen line, I think it is Japan’s fourth or fifth largest city (population 1.3m). Actually, it’s two cities - Fukuoka is conjoined with Hakata - and has just about everything you could want from a place to live: the space of Sapporo, the climate of Osaka, the amazing infrastructure and cleanliness of every Japanese city and, above all, the friendly vibe of, well, I’ve never really encountered such a contented-feeling city. And Sinatra played his last ever concert in the Fukuoka Dome - the man had taste. If I were to live in a city other than Tokyo, it would be here - not least because you are just a few hours by ferry from Taiwan and, beyond that, China.
One major contributing factor to Fukuoka’s great vibe is its street food, which centres on the mobile outdoor stalls called yatai. You find these ramshackle joints all around the city centre. Some of them reminded me of the camps we used to build as kids out in the woods, but some - like the ones by the river - were a little more permanent and substantial.
The food range from oden - a long simmering hot pot, not too great to look at but packed with flavour and things like tofu and radish - to ramen to yakitori and grilled fish. When they saw we had two young children in tow, a couple of yatai cooks actually turned us away. It was the only time we experienced that kind of prejudice during our whole time in Japan but, funnily enough, didn’t change the way we felt about Fukuoka. I like to think they weren’t being racist and put it down to the fact that they thought our kids wouldn’t like their food, which is fair enough.
(Catch your own eels! What more can you ask of a city's nightlife?)
The yatai were one thing. The ramen at the famous ramen restaurant Ichiran was something else altogether.
Food Ponce Alert!
Most people in the UK will probably only be familiar with ramen thanks to Wagamama restaurants. I can remember being bowled over by Wagamama the first time I ate there over a decade ago at their first restaurant close to the British Museum in London - having queued for about an hour - and, if you have never been to Japan (sorry, I do realise this is unforgivably smug), you would probably think their ramen was pretty good. But the Japanese are totally obsessed by ramen these days, far more so than they are with sushi or possibly any other dish. There is a ramen boom on right now, with millions of restaurants, magazines dedicated to it, celebrity ramen chefs, a billion blogs, full time connoisseurs and the fabulous ramen museum in Yokohama.
I was lucky enough to have a tour of the ‘museum’, which is more a collection of ramen shops, with the Ramen World Champion, Mr Kobayashi. It turned out Kobayashi san hadn’t earned his title by making ramen, or in an eating competition (which used to be really popular in Japan) but by his knowledge. He spent his life travelling the length of Japan eating nothing but ramen and knew intimate details of every city’s best ramen shops. He gave me a fascinating crash course in ramenology, and totally converted me to the cause.
(Doesn't that just look so good?)
It was he who recommended that I try the Hakata ramen at Ichiran in Fukuoka. And he was right. It elevated this amazing meal in a bowl to another level altogether.
This was bespoke ramen - literally. You eat in individual, curtained off booths, as if at a peep show. The booths run both sides of a small serving corridor behind which staff scurry around accommodating diners’ needs. And even without a four and seven year old to test their patience, these are clearly a demanding clientele. Each diner gets a small questionnaire-type form to fill in, on which they can specify virtually every aspect of their bowl of noodle soup - the firmness of the noodles (extra firm, firm, medium, tender, extra tender), the strength of the onion, the fattiness of the broth, and so on. The ‘no mobile phone’ and, next to it, the even more strict a ‘no talking to your neighbour’ sign, served notice that this was a place for the serious ramen aficionado.
And, oh my god, it tasted good. A little spicy, deeply meaty, masses of umami, rich and satisfying, with lovely chewy noodles. Lord knows how they get a broth that tastes that good - I know they use pork bones and fat, but some also add chicken stock.
(Note the straight noodles. What do you mean it looks just like the one above? Hey, these things matter to the Ramen King!)
If anyone knows of a truly great ramen place in London, I’d love to hear about it. There are a few on Rue St Anne in Paris, and an okonomiyaki place too incidentally, but It’d be good to have an address in London.