Locals call it exam ramen, not because you have to take a test, but because each diner eats in individual stalls, much like a polling booth. It means minimal distraction from the bowl of steaming hot ramen in front of them. It's name is Ichiran. Few establishments take ramen as seriously as they do. They have only one style soup available, the tonkotsu pork collagen broth that originated in Kyushu, but you can customise every single component of your meal, including the richness of your broth, how cooked you'd like your noodles and exactly how much garlic you'd like included.
Mapping our travels of Japan from Tokyo to Fukuoka
Ichiran started in the city of Fukuoka on the southern island of Kyushu. We make our way to Fukuoka from Kagoshima, a journey of two hours on the JR shinkansen bullet train.
The first ever Ichiran store, located in Nanokawa, Hakata
Ichiran has a multitude of outlets around Fukuoka and Japan (you can find them in Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Hiroshima) but we wanted to visit the first ever outlet, opening in Nanokawa in 1964. It's a simple building clad in dark brown timber, marked with the signature Ichiran noren curtain in maroon with green script.
The vending machine outside the dining room
The Ichiran set-up is the same around the country. Like most fast dining options across Japan, meals are ordered and paid for using a vending machine out the front. This means staff don't have to deal with money - or indecisive diners. The modern touch screen menus sometimes have English options but for the old fashioned backlit buttons, you'll have to use the accompanying pictures as a guess-em guide.
The blue lights indicate which booth numbers are available
Once the machine has spit out your meal tickets, you'll have to refer to the illuminated booth vacancy board to work out where you can sit. The illuminated buttons means the booth is vacant - it helps if you can read Japanese numbers. The entrance is marked by hanging red curtains, so even here you can't really see what's going on in the dining room.
The signature private eating booths inside Ichiran
When you enter, you can start to see why they call this exam ramen. Each numbered booth is set up like a polling booth. Seated diners can only see the wooden divider on either side. Every stool also has its own coat/bag hook. Japanese efficiency is ridiculously impressive.
Menu, pen and chopsticks that greet you inside each booth
As soon as you sit down, chopsticks, menu and a pen are delivered to your booth. There's an overwhelming sense of ninja secrecy here because you never see the faces of the servers here. A discreet curtain always hangs at least halfway at your booth.
We enter with the usual rabble of English-speaking tourists so English menus automatically appear. If you get a Japanese menu, just politely ask for an English version.
Complete menu customisation
Okay, so the menu customisation form does feel like an exam, but only because you spend ages contemplating each answer. There's a bit of a power rush deciding exactly how you'd like each component. You can choose:
- three levels of flavour strength of the broth
- five levels of broth richness (fattiness)
- six levels of garlic intensity (including two extra cloves served on the side)
- whether you'd like thick green onion, thin green onion or none
- with or without sliced pork
- how much Ichiran Original Red Sauce you'd like added (up to 20 portions)
- five levels of noodle texture, from extra firm to extra soft.
When you're done, press the button and two hands will appear to collect your completed order.
Anonymous hands that present your noodle bowl
It takes less than five minutes for your noodles to appear, presented by anonymous hands that push the bowl forward. There's a respectful wish of "enjoy your meal", a brisk forward bow, and then a snap and whoosh as a bamboo curtain descends so you can enjoy complete privacy with your noodles.
Tonkotsu ramen 790 yen / AU$8.70
and boiled egg 120 yen / AU$1.30
Ordering an egg is mandatory. It comes on the side so you'll have to add it to the bowl yourself, but those sticky gooey egg yolks are worth every yen.
Extra firm noodles in the tonkotsu ramen
There's a terrific sense of satisfaction as you slurp up your own creation. If something tastes unbalanced, it feels like you only have your own ineptitude to blame. My extra firm noodles are noticeably chewy and the stock is medium fatty as requested. The pork slices are tender but not ribboned with fat as we prefer.
Glossy sticky egg yolks
The broth itself is quite pure in flavour. Mine is extra porky but there's still a gentleness to it, without any overriding saltiness that others may consider under-seasoned. The egg is perfect, with a yolk that's so rich it tastes buttery.
And I love the serious set-up here, because although social chat can be fun, it's another level of respect to your food to focus on just that, and nothing else.
Ramen with mentai cod roe 920 yen / AU$10
The other great export from the Hakata ward in Fukuoka is mentai, the marinated roe of pollock and cod fish that was first introduced from Korea. Spiced mentai is often used in small amounts to flavour onigiri rice balls or spaghetti with cream as it's quite an expensive ingredient.
It's a different story in Hakata where you can find it for sale everywhere. One of the cheapest places we've found to eat it is at Ramen Menkichi near Hakata station, the same place we ate it five years before.
Deep fried gyoza dumplings 350 yen /AU$3.85
There's a range of different ramen options available at the vending machine including a number of different dishes including gyoza and nankotsu deep fried chicken cartilage. The cartilage comes from between the chicken breasts, a crunchfest that needs a good set of teeth.
Here's a confession. I chose the deep fried gyoza at the vending machine by mistake. I'd been meaning to select the traditional pan-fried version, but after one bite, I was glad I'd screwed up my order. The skins are slightly bubbled on the surface, and just that little bit chewy, the crunchy golden purses holding a piping hot bundle of pork mince.
Hakata-style ramen is known but for its thin and straight wheat noodles, a stronger structure to better suits the heaviness of tonkotsu pork bone stock. The intense spicy brininess of the mentai is a glorious addition but truth be told, it defeats us all. All of us can only manage half the sac of mentai at most. The pork slices are ringed with fat, just the way we like 'em.
Ebi Filet-O prawn burger from McDonalds 320 yen / AU$3.50
We also ventured into McDonalds in the name of research, namely for the Ebi Filet-O, the shrimp fillet burger that was introduced specifically into the Japanese market with brilliant success. It's said that the Ebi Filet-O "generated sales of 10 million in the first three months after its launch [in October 2005]".
Inside the Ebi Filet-O
We had high hopes but these were dashed at first bite. The shrimps, or prawns, were bland and soggy, highlighted even more so against the panko crumb shell. It's a disappointing encounter. Maybe they've changed the recipe since it first launched, but we couldn't get into this, even with the truckload of mayo.
Statue at the Sumiyoshi Shrine
We mostly stayed within the Hakata district of Fukuoka. Fukuoka is actually a combination of two cities - Hakata and Fukuoka - which were merged in 1889. The former port city of Fukuoka can feel like endless blocks of concrete at times, but there are surprising pockets of greenery, like the Sumiyoshi Shrine that we bumped into on our way to the fish markets.
Koi carp pond and garden at Sumiyoshi Shrine
Apart from the brief glimpses of office buildings through the trees, you could barely tell you were in the middle of city once you were in the middle of the shrine gardens. Sumiyoshi Shrine has an intriguing history too, the final shrine that travellers to Korea to would visit before they left land to make the treacherous journey by sea.
Shops and bicycles on the street in Hakata
In the suburbs we found narrow roads filled with cyclists and shops spilling their wares out onto the street.
Fried fish cakes at the fish market
The fish market was filled with all kinds of ready fried fish cakes...
Canneles de Bordeaux from La Souer at Hankyu department store, Hakata
but it was the basement food hall at the Hankyu department store where we spent the most time. I mean, look! Le Soeur had ten different flavours of cannele!
Cannele are one of my favourite treats, but to find a buffet of them made me a little weak at the knees. Make your selection and a white gloved hand will carefully box them up for you to take home. We had dessert parties every night in our hotel.
Inside the vanilla bean and rum cannele 216 yen / AU$2.40
Original cannele at rear 238 yen / AU2.60
Although they have flavours as wild as bitter lemon peel, coffee, Earl Grey and matcha green tea, I go with the classic vanilla bean and rum - boozy with the smell of rum as soon as you cut it open, and dotted with real vanilla bean specks - and the original. They both have a deliciously chewy crust on the outside, filled with a custardy softness in the middle.
Strawberry shortcake and Mont Blanc from Mon Cher at Hankyu
Our hunt also continues for Japan's Next Top Mont Blanc.
Mont Blanc from Mon Cher at Hankyu 432 yen / AU$4.75
The Mont Blanc offering from Mon Cher is a fine affair, perched on a chocolate-coated bed of vanilla meringue.
Mont Blanc from Misai at Hankyu 416 yen / AU4.60
We also tried the one from Misai, which stuck with the usual sponge cake base.
Strawberry jelly roll from Misai at Hankyu 540 yen / AU$6
Strawberry roll cakes are also huge in Japan. This one from Misai was a tad lurid in colour but there was a satisfying strawberry intensity from the jelly, the sponge cake and the fresh strawberries on top.
Kouign Amann from DONQ at Hankyu 432 yen / AU$4.75
But one of my fondest memories of Fukuoka was this kouign amman from the DONQ Japanese-French bakery chain. This breton cake (pronounced Queen A-marn) is like a caramelised puff pastry loaded with butter and sugar. Imagine the very end bit of an almond croissant, and now reproduce that into one glorious round of sticky flaky goodness. Bliss.
>> Read the next Japan 2015 post: Hiroshima and Miyajima Island
<< Read the first Japan 2015 post: Toyama black ramen and firefly squid
Japan 2015: Toyama > Kanazawa > Nagano > Kyoto > Nara > Osaka > Kobe > Kagoshima > Hakata > Hiroshima and Miyajima Island > Sapporo > Otaru > Hakodate > Tokyo
2-2-10 Nanokawa Minami-ku Fukuoka-shi Fukuoka, Japan 815-0081
Tel: +81 (092) 523 8606
Open 7 days 24 hours
Ramen Menkichi ラーメンめん吉
JR Hakata City, Basement level
1-1 Hakataeki chuogai Hakata-ku, Fukuoka, Japan
Tel: +81 (092) 413 5789
Open daily 9am-11pm
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8/09/2015 10:52:00 pm