Wednesday, November 26, 2008

初めに (To Start...)

Aloha. By way of introduction, I am a graduate student in Japanese literature currently spending a year doing research at Waseda University in Tokyo. I live close to the university, and, as luck would have it, the neighboring area of Takadanobaba happens to be known nationwide as one of the ramen centers of Tokyo, with dozens of shops vying for the patronage of the substantial local student clientele, the throngs on their way home from work, and a few fellow travelers making pilgrimage to ramen Mecca. It is a place where old standbys still command long lines, new shops try their hands, and, as the saying goes, "if you can make it here..."

This is not to say that Takadanobaba is the only ramen Mecca: in Tokyo alone, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, Shibuya, Ebisu, and Ogikubo spring to mind, to say nothing of places like Hakata, Asahikawa, Kitakata, and countless other ramen centers around the country. And then there's Korean ramyun, Chinese lamian, and Central Asian laghman. In any case, Takadanobaba happens to be where I live, and I love ramen, so I have decided to embark on a quest to eat at every ramen shop that I can find that might vaguely be considered to be within the "challenge zone."

A few caveats and parameters. First of all, the most glaring lacuna: I do not eat pork. This is not to say that I do not drink soup made from pork and pork-related products, merely that I do not eat pork meat itself, at least not the chunks of it served with ramen and known as châshû. I would not hesitate to identify tonkotsu (pork bone) soup as my favorite general ramen type, but when I order ramen, I order it châshû-nuki, with no roast pork. Some people might consider this blasphemy, but the way I see it, it's akin to only ever eating cheese pizza - full attention can be focused on the noodle and soup components. In hundreds of bowls of ramen over the years in Tokyo and elsewhere, I have never had even the most stern, grumpy, ganko ramen cook challenge me or get upset. In fact, sometimes they give me a free boiled egg, free bamboo shoots, or extra noodles to make up for it.

Fundamentally I consider myself a Kyushu-style ramen fan, and am not very into niboshi or gyôkai (fish broth soup) style ramen, but there have been some surprises over the courses of the many bowls of noodles I've had in Baba since arriving here. While it would be impossible to try every style of ramen at every shop in Takadanobaba (or at least would take far longer than I have), I am trying to eat at each shop at least once. Under the floating signifier of "ramen," for the purpose of this blog I include ramen, tantanmen, tsukemen, morisoba, etc, etc. However, I personally don't care much for tsukemen (dipping noodles) and it's variants; it is definitely a trend right now, but I by far prefer my noodles in my soup, and I think they get too cold too fast otherwise. Thus, I will only eat tsukemen when "ramen" as such is not on offer (a rarity), or said tsukemen is particularly enticing. I also am not including Nagasaki-style chanpon, as firstly, I think it is gross, and secondly, I have never seen anywhere serving it in the neighborhood, save for the national chain of Ringer Hut.

As my guide and point of starting, I am using Shuto Kenpan's
究極のラーメン (Ultimate Ramen) 2008 edition, which contains 1100 listings spanning all over the Tokyo metropolitan area. In addition to the 29 or so ramen shops listed in Takadanobaba in the guide, I have been adding new shops to the list from other ramen guides, blogs, word of mouth, and my own discoveries as I bike around the neighborhood. For the time being I am sticking to restaurants that are either ramen specialty shops, or feature and advertise ramen prominently. This includes, generally speaking, ramen specialty shops and certain kinds of Chinese restaurants, and excludes local restaurants that happen to serve ramen as a single menu item, though I may consider those on a case-by-case basis if I haven't died of a sodium overdose by the time I have eaten everywhere else first. As it stands, to my knowledge, there are in the vicinity of 50 (update: 80) restaurants, which is no small number. Trying to eat at every ramen shop in Takadanobaba is a bit like fighting the proverbial hydra - for every one I knock down two sprout up, or so it seems. Being the challenge zone that it is, new shop openings in Takadanobaba are frequent, and bike rides to more distant precincts to eat an elusive bowl often result in discoveries of more shops. For geographic purposes "Takadanobaba" / "Waseda" for the sake of this blog stretches from the Bentenchô intersection in the Southeast to to the Otakibashi intersection in the Northwest, with Shin-Mejirô-dôri, Gaien-Higashi-dôri, Suwa-dôri and the Kandagawa canal forming the boundaries.

When I first started this blog, I wasn't taking my own pictures, so up until the post on Nong Inlay, the vast majority of the photos (with the exception of those in the Ramenmories posts) are borrowed from around the web. On the off chance that a photo is yours, and you would like me to take it down, tell me and I will happily do so. Since then, I've gotten more serious about the blog and have been taking my own photos; all ramen and shop photos after Nong Inlay are mine unless otherwise noted; obviously stuff like maps, magazine covers, and photos of Ukrainian pole vaulters are purloined from Google.

Lots of ramen blogs (especially Japanese language ones) encyclopedically describe the exact specifics of the noodles (sometimes to the millimeter), detail the blend of the soup, list the prices of various bowls, and assess each of the toppings included in turn. Blogs like that are great and super helpful, but this blog is not that. I'm more interested in the subjective experience of eating each of these bowls of ramen as I make my way through Takadanobaba. Sometimes it's all about the noodles, but the changing social space of the ramen shop is itself an interesting phenomenon, and each of these bowls was eaten in a particular context and evoked particular thoughts and memories, which I include here.

This blog was started primarily for the purposes of letting me remember where and what I ate, and as a reference for friends of mine who are often asking about ramen in the area. However, if foreign students studying at Waseda, visitors to Tokyo, or ramen fans in general happen to find it, that would be pretty cool as well.

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