A Culinary Guide to Taura, no. 2

Right after we moved into our house (December 2005), I started exploring on foot the neighborhoods around our house. It was lunchtime and I slid open the door of Yamamoto’s Ramen Shop in the Funakoshi neighborhood of Taura (north). I was hungry and armed with beginner Japanese to do battle with the handwritten menu signs on the walls. The married couple that owns the shop were not annoyingly disconcerted by the appearance of a foreigner. How casual they were, giving me the normal call-out of “Irrashaimase” (Welcome) and then going back to their work.

There were 12 stools around an L-shaped counter, behind which the Yamamotos attended to the vats of boiling water and broth and to the grills for gyoza. A TV at the far end of the counter was tuned to a raucous variety show. Mrs. Yamamoto glanced at me from time to time while she washed some dishes in the sink behind the counter. I was hunched over the menu, mouthing the sounds of the words.

Ramen noodles are yellow wheat noodles of Chinese origin, but ramen is now purely a Japanese dish, reflecting Japanese taste preferences. Yes, the dried noodles are called “ramen” and they are sold in Japanese supermarkets. But real ramen—served in small shops everywhere—is the fast food of Japan: convenient, cheap, and filling. When I go to Yamamoto’s during the day, my fellow customers all wear the jumpsuits of the nearby factory. They come in and order, receive the noodles in less than three or four minutes, eat their hearty lunch in great slurpy bites, and then dash back to work. Ramen is, as a rule, a casual meal. (It also helps cure hangovers.)

Most places serve tremendously large bowls of broth and noodles, so large that even I, a prodigious eater, on occasion cannot finish the bowl. This seems a bizarre contrast to traditional Japanese cuisine, with its small dishes of artfully arranged tidbits. You may try to order a half portion, but not every shop allows this.

Carlos and I were once waiting for a bus to a ryokan in a small town in Yamagata Prefecture, and decided to wait in a ramen shop. It was small and extra steamy inside and the proprietors were holed up behind a strangely hostile elevated serving counter, which allowed us to see only their heads. I was feeling too warm and having difficulty reading the handwritten signs on the walls. (Outside the Tokyo area, new food words start popping up.) The waitress got tired of waiting for me to finish reading, and came out from behind the counter/wall to ask what we wanted. We knew we were going to eat a multi-course, traditional dinner at the ryokan, so we asked for half portions. She looked at us like we were crazy: “No, we don’t have that.” (Cue the Five Easy Pieces.) And so out came giant bowls of noodles and broth, bowls larger than I had ever seen. Both of us having been fully brainwashed in the clean-your-plate cult, we were obliged to conduct a murmured conversation in which we agreed we would eat a modest amount and not finish our food. That settled, when we paid our check, we ignored the looks we got from the waitress after she noticed our still quite full bowls. Two first children, one with Catholic guilt and the other with chronic WASPy anxiety—we’re quite the team. But I digress…

Yamamoto’s serves a workmanlike broth with a choice of soy sauce, salt, or miso taste, along with the most common toppings like sliced roast pork, fermented bamboo pickle, green onion, and bean sprouts. In truth, Yamamoto’s ramen is passable, but I don’t order it much. When I am in a noodle mood, I prefer soba and udon. [Recently in Sapporo, however, I had a miso ramen that blew my mind and made me rethink ramen altogether.] At Yamamoto’s I go for their gyoza, which are made in-house with lots of pork and garlic. My standard order (photo below): 800 yen for two portions of gyoza, a small bowl of rice, a bowl of broth that they always serve me gratis, and a Coke.

Freudians please notice the glass Coke bottle which gives me flashbacks to my grandparents’ hotel in Maine, where every summer I used the vending machine that dispensed those same small bottles. Long after glass bottles were hopelessly old-fashioned and even difficult to find, my grandfather insisted on stocking his machine with them for aesthetic reasons. I feel childishly carefree drinking a Coke and eating gyoza at Yamamoto’s.