Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Fukuoka Visa Run, Part 2: RAUMEN STADIUM!
When I found out on Monday of last week that I would be in Fukuoka by Wednesday, I knew that I would want a city guide who was familiar with the local food and language to show me around. I started by looking into "goodwill guides," a cool service I first heard about in New York that exists in many cities; local citizens volunteer to take visitors on tours, sometimes with set destinations, but often fitting in the visitors' personal requests. There were a couple such services in Fukuoka, but both required a week's notice, so I turned to Craigslist. After surveying the Fukuoka page, I felt pessimistic about the possibility of finding someone--there wasn't a single listing in the "platonic" section, nor any other section as far as I could tell. Still, I was desperate, so I went ahead and posted something in the w4w section outlining my situation. I offered friendly company, to treat my guide for a meal, and to return the service if she were to visit Seoul or LA in the future.
A few hours later, I had a reply! It was from Yuichiro, a university student who said he'd like to be my guide, but would I object to the fact that he was a man? I had posted in the w4w section because I once posted in the platonic section on a previous occasion in another city and the responses were almost exclusively from men, many of whom I could tell had more on their minds than finding a buddy. I explained to Yuichiro that I had a boyfriend and didn't want anyone to think there was a possibility of anything more than friendship, but he said he was fine with that and generally sounded really nice, so we agreed to meet near the Hakata subway station.
As luck would have it, I couldn't have asked for a kinder or more accommodating guide. He was shy, but not cripplingly so, and admitted that he'd been drinking scotch alone when he found my ad and responded to it; otherwise he might not have had the nerve to meet a stranger on Craigslist. Amazingly enough, we also discovered that he had recently graduated from the same college in Los Angeles that my boyfriend Dan now attends. He informed me that he'd visited Fukuoka a lot as a child, but had only lived there as an adult for a couple of weeks (hence the late night, scotch-fueled search for friends on the internet). It was helpful to have someone who spoke the language and could explain the culture, but he didn't know much about the restaurant scene, which was a bit of a disappointment.
Since I only had two days in the city, I wanted to try the foods that Fukuoka is best known for, starting with its iconic specialty: ramen. Yuichiro called his sister Mako, who'd been living in the city for a couple of years. Ironically, she directed us to one of two places I'd read about before my arrival, an area called Raumen Stadium in the Canal City Shopping Center that features an entire floor of ramen restaurants. I was wary of the gimmicky set-up and the fact that it was in a mall, but I was willing to give it a chance (and certainly wasn't going to reject my kind guide's suggestion).
It was difficult to settle on a ramen restaurant out of the many enticing choices once we were there, but when Yuichiro explained that one of them had a sign out front saying it had been voted number one in a local contest, that provided the push we needed.
The Japanese affinity for vending machines is well documented, and this extends to some ramen restaurants, including the one we chose. At the other ramen place I'd read about in Fukuoka, Ichiran (which started in Fukuoka but has since spread to other cities in Japan), all of the ordering is done at a vending machine beforehand, and then additional specifics like tenderness of noodles and amount of garlic are filled out on sheets at individual eating cubicles, where customers hand them to servers without ever exchanging a word. Although my lack of Japanese made me consider this option, eating alone can be depressing enough even if the experience doesn't bear a strong resemblance to taking an exam; silently shoveling down noodles in a lonely cubicle is not my ideal dining experience.
The vending machine in front of our restaurant allowed us to choose most of our ramen variables, and then we were to hand the ticket to our waiter and specify the firmness of our noodles once inside. In the picture, you can see notes written above a couple of the options, and Yuichiro explained that one of them was labeled the "women's favorite" and the other was the "men's favorite." The women's was a lighter chicken ramen with minimal garlic and the men's was a heavier pork ramen loaded with garlic. Thankfully, my feminist and foodie ideals aligned perfectly and I was all too happy to take a stinky, fatty stand for women's rights.
Although the stadium had a kitschy, Roman-influenced feel befitting a place called Raumen Stadium, the shop we chose to enter could have been off of any little side street in Fukuoka.
Once seated, our pleasant waitress came around and asked for our noodle preference. Yuichiro asked for his noodles firm and I decided on tender. Uh-oh...now that I think of it, I may have been conforming to gender expectations in this case, but what can I say? I prefer my ramen noodles like Mama Bear likes her bed: nice and soft. After our waitress left, I noticed the lemons in our water and the quiet jazz playing in the background. I had a good feeling about things.
Ten minutes later, a bowl of ramen was placed before me. It was steaming, smoke colored, and topped with an aromatic dash of mayu, a black sauce made from charred crushed garlic.
This was tonkotsu ramen, the kind Fukuoka is most famous for, which has a broth made from boiling pork, collagen, and fat over high heat for a long time, until the flavors fuse and sing a "Hallelujah" chorus. We dug in with zeal. Yuichiro finally broke the sound of slurping mid-way through our meals when he proclaimed that this was extremely tasty ramen. My experience with the dish is more limited, but I would go so far as to say it was the best I've ever had. The pork was so soft it threatened to disintegrate and the broth tasted like it had been stewing for days.
Near the end, I was picking up the bowl and drinking the last remaining broth (not a faux pas in Japan, thankfully) and alternating it with big swigs of water to off-set the saltiness. Yuichiro noted my water intake and assured me that I didn't have to finish all of my soup. I answered politely but firmly that I certainly did.