Travel Destinations

Japan Ramen – Food for Thought

Written by Duke Stewart

I was literally living off ramen noodles and water just because I was sticking to my guns. –Heath Ledger

One thing I’ve learned is that greatness doesn’t exist in just one place or person. It’s inside us all but can only be attained by staying hungry, honest, and by knocking ourselves down a notch as often as possible. For me, Japanese ramen is all of that because there’s rarely been a vendor in that wonderful country who’s served anything less than a wonderful creation. They’ve continued to work at their craft and will always serve spectacular food as a result. I may not always be in Japan but will always think back to memories and people that I’ve known and loved there. Culinary memories and moments with people will always stand out and make me want to go back more than anything else. Ramen is where it started in Japan.

Culinary Heaven, Monetary Hell

Ramen might widely be known in dorms to embody the poor college student’s life but in Japan, it’s much different. In most place you’ll find shops hawking hearty soup-filled bowls with noodles that barely resembled the cheap stuff found in grocery stores through the western world. Anyone who’s been will attest that it’s different in Japan and for myself, there’s always these fond memories of a Tokyo ramen shop not far from where I was studying in Japan. The greatest teacher in the world introduced me and started an addiction that persists to this day. He’s not with us anymore and I regret not being able to thank him for showing me the way of ramen. It will always stand far and above most dishes I’ve tried and honestly, I don’t think that’s going to change.

To make the experiences even more special, I wasn’t a rich man and couldn’t really afford such luxuries as ramen everyday. Japan isn’t Southeast Asia where tourists rave about lifestyle prices making up for the expensive flight out there. As a student who hadn’t thought of preparing for life in Tokyo, I never thought I’d feel like such a poor country bumpkin. Tokyo and Japan as a whole have prices ranking as some of the world’s highest. It’s an expensive country but if you can eat right, the money will go a long way. When I was living there, about $7 could buy a massive bowl of ramen packed with sliced pork, a hard-boiled egg, and various vegetables. Its soy sauce-flavored broth (Shoyu) hit the spot for me in so many ways but above all, it’s that smoky flavor that surrounds every tastebud inside after it enters one’s mouth. Even hours after eating it, I couldn’t shake the aftertaste and wanted more.

Ramen in Kyoto, Japan

Separated forever?

I’d save up each week to eat there and would savor those last slurps of broth and noodles for the six days in between. My time studying in Japan ended after about a year and upon returning home, the ramen experience took years to recreate. I was and still am a terrible cook and living in West Virginia left me far away from any good ramen spots. My expectations suffered thanks to that year in Japan and I spent years trying to find that flavor and happy medium, searching far and wide. Nothing could reproduce that feeling and after a few years, moving to Korea brought hope back that I might rediscover my old friend. Living the country next door didn’t resolve things because something always seemed missing from even the best reputed restaurants in Korea’s largest cities.

My need for ramen was sidetracked thanks to visits throughout Southeast Asia but after years of waiting, I went back to Japan and had another chance to find an almost-forgotten taste. We stopped at a shop near the end of our trip through Hiroshima and right from the start, I knew what to order. Shoyu Ramen or nothing else and after a short wait, a waiter delivered that very bowl of perfection to my table. While I waited for its arrival, the stars started to align and my hunger peaked. The bowl was placed in front of me and in a fit of hunger, I quickly dug in. As soon as the first sample of broth entered my mouth, that familiar smoky and not too salty flavor took my taste buds back to those days in Tokyo. This might not have been the same shop as in Tokyo, but certain serenity came over me and took me back to familiar scenes with long lost friends.

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Lessons Learned

An epiphany struck me during each slurp of noodles and broth. The flavors I had been searching for had been there all along, in some of those restaurants found in the U.S. and in Korea. I’d made up some unrealistic expectations after leaving Japan and couldn’t understand what was happening. Had my thoughts and memories been wrong all this time? One mouthful later and a blur followed. No photos remain from that particular experience but as you can now guess, that wasn’t the last ramen shop I’ve visited. If we’re ever in a place with a shop that displays those easily recognizable katakana (ラーメン), I’ll likely step inside for a taste.

Every time we find a Japanese restaurant in this country and elsewhere, I’ve learned that the experience is possible to recreate. I’d gone through life thinking this will never live up to Tokyo but really I should’ve just relaxed. Why did I create such expectations? For too long I thought only one place in the world produced great Ramen and in reality it’s everywhere. Maybe I was just wanting to be back in Japan and the only way to justify a return was through glorifying these culinary memories but it was always the people who mattered most. They’re the true superstars of Japan and the reason I’ll want to go back more than anything else. With ramen, memories start with the dish but the thoughts expand to more important parts of my life.

Types of Ramen (Courtesy of Japan Guide

When in Japan, you might find it hard to order or even decipher which type of ramen is on the menu. Here’s a quick breakdown using Roman Characters and Kanji (Chinese Characters). Regional variations will give you different options but here’s the main lineup of ramen that you’ll find on a typical menu.

Shoyu (醤油, Soy Sauce)
Shio (塩, Salt)
Miso (味噌, Soybean Paste)
Tonkotsu (豚骨, Pork Bone)


 

So with all that, what’s your favorite food memory? Is Ramen on the list of your favorites?

Read more Japan travel stories and guides and take your imagination there!

About the author

Duke Stewart

I'm a writer and recovering American expat who shares my family's travels through life. Follow our adventures here and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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