This is where it all started. Everything went down on a cold evening just after New Year 2008 in Shibuya’s Center Gai (渋谷センター街), a lively pedestrian street that’s a wonderful example of what happens when transit, walkability and placemaking all come together.
Before coming to Japan I had long been acquainted with ramen in its dried brick form, but other than a few photographs and depictions in anime I had only a vague understanding of the real thing. I couldn’t even read the kanji for shio, shoyu and tonkotsu, much less tell you what the difference was between them.
My calculus for choosing this particular ramenya was about as unpretentious as you can get. I was cold and hungry, it was in eyesight, and—not being able to read or speak much of anything in Japanese—the multi-language menu and ticket machine with large color photos had me sold.
Not having much of an idea of what to expect or what were common choices to make, I went with what seemed most familiar, in this case the one that looked like a slightly exotic version of chicken noodle soup. It turned out to be a torigara shio (clear chicken broth) with slabs of chashu (simmered pork) and sliced negi (big green onion).
I stepped inside and was greeted with bright warm light and a hearty Irasshaimase!
I handed over my two tickets. One was for the ramen. Whenever I travel abroad I develop an uncharacteristic craving for Coca-Cola. I suppose it’s one of the few familiar things I know I can find no matter where I go.
The soup arrived, steam rising off the bowl. I wasn’t yet versed in the whole business of audible slurping, so I “politely” bit off bites of noodles and sipped my soup. No matter, I was hooked all the same.
I’d later learn about the taxonomy of ramen, from the pedigree of the dominant styles to obscure subcategories. I’d meet others with similar obsession through social media, some living in Japan, one who even lets me sleep on his couch when I visit. I can now explain all of the differences between an artisan shio and a punch-you-in-the-gut purebred tonkotsu (Kamukura is neither). But this no-bells-and-whistles, old school ramen shop will always be lodged somewhere in my brain (or stomach) as the first step into a new world, epicurean and otherwise. I’m not normally predisposed to nostalgia, but that was a good day.
This post is part of The Tokyo Project. Click here to go to the introduction and table of contents.