Today was a good day. Some of the best ramen I’ve ever had, one of the most enjoyable train rides of my life, and a lot of quality time with friends. I’m in Japan!
I woke up early again and packed up. The ride to Tokyo station was quick, and we easily exchanged our voucher for our 21-day JR Rail Pass and booked seats on the train to Fukuoka (Hakata station). We had some time before the train, so we wandered around the station looking for some good coffee, which proved elusive. I decided instead to find some breakfast.
Once we found our bearings in the cavernous, bustling station, we headed towards Ramen Street, a grouping of 8 of the best ramen shops in the city. There was a line outside one, which we got into. It turned out to be the best choice I made yet, as I had guessed correctly that it was the line for Rokurinsha. About 15 minutes after we got in line, we were told to order from the machine. I mistakenly ordered mine without an egg, but Jake was kind enough to split his. The food came almost as soon as we had sat down and put on our bibs.
We both ordered tsukumen, which are dipping noodles. The noodles were almost as thick as udon and chilled, but they were true perfection. The broth was too thick to drink, but it had layer after layer of flavor, and the chashu was delicious. I added just enough spice to give it some kick without overpowering the flavor. I don’t think I looked up once as I dipped mouthful after mouthful of noodles into the broth and then slurped it up. It might have been the best ramen I can remember. Certainly top 5. When we were done, the server poured hot water into the remaining broth, to which we added yuzu. It was addicting, and even though I was so full I finished every last drop. Again, the experience of eating a mind-blowing bowl of ramen is unlike any other. I love the singular focus.
After Rokurinsha, we stopped for a quick coffee and pastry at a cafe before entering the ticketed part of the station (Tokyo station is enormous but was surprisingly easy to navigate—there are signs in English everywhere). We found Ekibenya Matsuri, which offers over 170 different bento boxes. I grabbed a cold green tea and a water and tried in vain to choose the perfect bento. I wanted one that came in a Shinkansen-shaped box but it was some kind of ground meat I didn’t want, so I eventually found one that looked like grilled salmon on rice with some assorted sides. I paid and headed to the platform just a couple of minutes before the train was scheduled to depart. Right on cue, the doors opened as I found the right car (again, so straightforward, so orderly, so organized) and we got on.
We had the two seats at the back of the car. My first impression was that they were the nicest train seats I’d ever seen, and boy was I right. More legroom than I could use, a footrest, a deep recline, two tray tables for sitting upright or reclining, and a big picture window, which would soon reveal more wonders. There was even a seat warmer, although I didn’t wind up wanting to try it out. Maybe next time. An attendant brought us towels and exactly at 12:33, the train pulled away.
About 15 minutes after the Shinkansen left, I think I started crying because I was so happy. It glided along the rails, leaned around curves, and sped past oncoming trains (every few minutes, the trains run so, so frequently) with barely a whisper. We sped through Tokyo and into the suburbs, which seemed to stretch on and on. About 45 minutes after leaving, we rounded a bend and I caught a glimpse of a snow-capped peak. You can see Mt. Fuji from the train! It was breathtaking, and I spent the next 10 to 15 minutes watching it come in and out of view, until the foothills were left behind and the entire mountain was visible. It’s not the biggest mountain I’ve seen, not by a long shot, but there’s something stately about it. I can’t wait to get a closer look in a few weeks.
The train sped through seemingly endless towns and hills until we reached Nagoya. From there, it stopped more frequently, as we weren’t on the very fastest Shinkansen (it’s not included in the JR pass). We were still going plenty fast, and I was actually glad to be on the N700 Hikari because I was able to look outside.
After Nagoya, I got hungry and so I opened my bento box, which thankfully was the salmon I had wanted, on a bed of flavorful rice. There was a range of little sides, some of which I ate and some which I left. I was full after eating the salmon and most of the rice and a couple of vegetables from the sides. Then I reclined my seat probably 40 degrees, put my feet up, and watched Japan go by the rest of the way to Shin-Osaka.
We changed trains in Osaka, and in the station we tried to grab some food. People were waiting in line for dumplings, but when I got to the front of the line, I found out that they were cold and meant to be heated up. I opted for a couple beers and waters instead and we got on the train, where half of a car was reserved for green car seats. The Sakura Shinkansen was similar on the outside but with a slightly older interior, although the seats were almost as spacious. The Kirin was refreshing and we snacked on some cookies from Theobroma in Tokyo that we had bought yesterday. It got dark quickly, and I settled in for the rest of the trip to Fukuoka, where the train left us at Hakata Station.
Walking through the trains was interesting. The green car riders on both trains were mostly old folks and businessmen, while the ordinary cars were filled with families and travelers. No one spoke, and I felt compelled to keep my own talking to a minimum. When I needed to say something, I tried to whisper. The attendants bowed entering and exiting each car. I also felt that as we got further south, passing through cities I will return to, it really felt like I was traversing a whole country. The station in Osaka felt like 30th St Station in Philly to Tokyo’s Grand Central or New York Penn. I’ll have to see if that holds up once I’ve been to a wider range of cities.
Something else that caught my attention was the Tokyo-Kyoto-Osaka conurbation, which might even extend all the way to Hiroshima and further. I’m not sure it’s officially a conurbation, because there are breaks for hills and farmland, but even when we left the cities behind, there were constant, pretty dense residential and industrial landscapes. I think, especially along the main Shinkansen lines, development is pretty constant. I wonder how recent some of the industry and housing is. I’m excited to get to the more rural areas in Western Honshu and the mountains north and west of Tokyo.
Our friend Emma picked us up from the station and we drove to where we were staying (drivers are much more aggressive here than I expected, which seems to go against the passivity and politeness evident in other parts of the culture here). Fukuoka is the birthplace of tonkotsu ramen (pork bone broth), and naturally that was the first thing I sought out after we finally figured out how to get into our Airbnb. I had read about this place called Mengekijou Genei, and it turned out to be only a 5 minute walk away, so we went right there. When we walked in, we were the only ones in the restaurant, which sits behind a massive sliding door and features stadium seating looking down on the small kitchen. The waiter was friendly, though, and we quickly ordered ramen, gyoza and shochu (I went for sweet potato over wheat, on the rocks).
The shochu hit the spot, the gyoza were a couple of great bites, and when the ramen came, I knew I had chosen well. Some locals came in after us and it looked like they were very happy, too. The broth was the lightest tonkotsu I’ve ever had, and so flavorful. The noodles were cooked just right, the chashu was light, and the egg I had asked for as an addition was fluffy and runny and transformed the broth into something even greater. It was delicious and light and satisfying, and it really felt like a lot of care had gone into each element of the bowl.
After dinner, we went to Family Mart (one of three main conbini, or convenience stores) for some dessert. I liked looking at all the different chu-hi (shochu highball) flavors and types of packaged ramen. I also spotted some Muji clothes and stationary, which I think are all over. We walked around the quiet streets and then back to the Airbnb. The apartment, in a mixed-use building, isn’t the nicest Airbnb I’ve ever stayed in, but I’m glad we’re here, because it’s what I imagine a lot of the urban housing here is like, pretty sparse and cramped but homey. We sat and caught up for a while. I learned that most Japanese homes aren’t insulated, and the only heat comes from the air conditioner, which honestly sounds good to me. I’m hoping for some colder days ahead.
Anyway, trains, ramen and friends combined for a pretty perfect day, not much I would change. Maybe a different bento box next time, but I’ll have plenty of time to try some different options.