June 20, 2016
Japan is famous for men – and no, I'm not referring to the males of the human species. "Men" means noodles in Japanese, and there are certainly a lot of different kinds to be found in Japan.
Ramen is perhaps the most well-known. It consists of Chinese-style wheat noodles served in a meat- or fish-based broth, often flavored with soy sauce or miso. Popular toppings include chashu (barbecue pork), soy-flavored egg, spring onions and pickled bamboo shoots.
Although it has fallen in and out of fashion over the decades, in recent years ramen has become a nationwide craze, with each region fiercely proud of their different variants and techniques.
The big three – the most famous ramen – are Sapporo, Hakata, and Kitakata.
What kind of place is Kitakata?
Whilst Sapporo and Hakata represent sizeable urban areas, Kitakata is definitely the odd one out. A small city of around 50,000 people in western Fukushima prefecture, it is surrounded by rice fields and mountains, and serviced only by a local train. With narrow streets and old storehouses known as kura, it certainly exudes a rustic charm.
To get there from Tokyo, take a bullet train to Koriyama and then change for the Ban-Etsusai line westwards, where you will either pass through or change again at Aizu-Wakamatsu. It's a journey that at around four hours long might sound arduous, but quite the opposite is true. Watching rice fields stretch out before bold mountains framing the horizon, one can feel the frenetic energy of Tokyo uncoil and drift behind as the peacefulness of the countryside takes over.
What is Kitakata ramen?
Relaxing though the journey may be, there's nothing like travelling to work up an appetite... which means you're likely to be quite prepared for a bowl of Kitakata ramen on arrival.
So what actually is it? The essential base is a soy-sauce soup, as historically soy sauce was readily available from the many storehouses around the town. Niboshi (sardines), tonkotsu (pig bones) and sometimes chicken and vegetables are boiled to make the stock. This is then topped with chashu (thinly sliced barbeque pork), spring onions, fermented bamboo shoots, and sometimes naruto, a pink and white swirl of cured fish cake.
The noodles are particularly unusual. Ramen noodles tend to be thin and straight, but those in Kitakata are fat and wavy, due to the fact that they used to be delivered – fatter noodles didn't spoil as easily during transportation. They are also slippery and slightly softer. This is because they are takasuimen, which means that a higher percentage of water is added to the flour. They slide smoothly down your throat – so smoothly, in fact, that you almost don't have to chew.