After 5 days on the island of Sado-ga-shima (see below), I was ready to get back to the mainland, if you can call the biggest land mass of an island nation "the mainland." I had drank plenty of the cheap and delicious local sake, ate more fish than you can shake a stick at, ridden through dozens of seaside villages, played drums with one of the founding members of Kodô, and got a wicked sunburn. What more do you want in a vacation? But I had one last stop before heading back to Tokyo...
Arriving back in Niigata city on the boat from Sado, I bought a shinkansen (bullet train) ticket back to Tokyo. Correction - make that two bullet train tickets. One from Niigata to the city of Tsubame-Sanjô, and another from Tsubame-Sanjô on to Tokyo. Why break up the journey, you ask? To eat ramen, duh!
The Niigata shinkansen line was built as a massively corrupt boondoggle for the home province of the massively corrupt 70s prime minister Tanaka Kakuei, but it was thanks to this train that I bring you this bowl. Slavoj Zizek once said that the Peloponnesian War was fought so that Hegel could write about it. I'm going to take it a step farther and say that the Niigata shinkansen was built so that I could eat this bowl of noodles.
Conveniently located right along the route between Niigata and Tokyo are the twin cities of Tsubame and Sanjô, as well as the train station that bifurcates them. Tsubame-Sanjô is known for two things - more silverware factories than anywhere else in Japan and greasier ramen than anywhere else in Japan!
I first heard about Tsubame-Sanjô ramen from Keizo, who mentioned that it had just been added to the Yokohama Ramen Museum's list of major local ramen styles. Keizo didn't to make it to Niigata on his epic ramen journey, so I figured I would take a tip from his play book and hit it up!
I hopped off the train, itching for a hot bowl of noodles, but even in the biggest ramen city in the region, how do you find the closest bowl when the view from the front of the train station looks like this? You ask a cop, that's how! When I knocked on the window of the local police box I was delighted to see a quite roly-poly fellow come shuffling out. I bet THIS dude knows where the closest ramen shop is, I thought, and I was not wrong. Within 20 seconds, he had whipped out a detailed map of the area and already pointed out three different shops. He also mentioned a special local curry ramen...but that will have to wait for next time.
It's a good thing my cop buddy knew what was up, because I don't think I ever would have found Ryûkatei on my own. Cross under the freeway overpass, make a left when you see the road in the picture, pass three rice fields, and it's on your right. Riiiiight. But sure enough, located on a dimly lit back road just a few hundred meters from the station was my destination.
There was one dead giveaway that Ryûkatei served legit Tsubame ramen - the sign advertised two kinds of ramen, lots of fat (chû-abura), and even more fat (ô-abura)! Ryûkatei actually traces its lineage back to one of the "original" Tsubame ramen shops, Fukuraitei. Being one of the main foods of a gritty industrial town with long winters, Tsubame ramen is known for piling on the pig grease, and plenty of it. I had been dreading eating Tsubame ramen as much as I was anticipating it, since I had heard that the soup is topped with so much rendered pork fat that the steam has no room to rise from the bowl! As the cop in the station put it, "râdo, râdo, râdo, râdo, râdo!" Translation: "lard, lard, lard, lard, lard!"
This was definitely a neighborhood place (is there any other kind in the countryside?), and lots of families chatted with the cooks, who took breaks from noodle dishing to play with the regulars' small children running around the premises. Now, people say that Niigata prefecture is supposed to have some of the best looking girls in Japan, allegedly since it grows some of the best rice in Japan. I have to admit that I didn't notice a lot of babes while on my trip, but based on what I saw at Ryûkatei, Niigata girls are hot in a totally different way - they love greasy ramen! There were at least as many ladies as men chowing down when I walked in.
I decided that I needed a beer to cut the grease (and celebrate the end of a great trip), so I ordered up a frosty mug which came with a nice little plate of delicious home-pickled menma (bamboo shoots) to snack on. While waiting for my bowl, I took a gander at the menu - in addition to the basic "chûka soba" (which here means the local specialty, rather than thin Tokyo-style soup), Ryûkatei serves a whole grip of ramen styles, including miso and tanmen (salt with extra veggies), as well as, somewhat rarely, toppings like raw egg, iwanori (gooey seaweed totally different from standard baked nori), and shrimp. But I wanted the greasy stuff!
You only go around once, so you gotta go for the gusto - not planning on being back in Tsubame-Sanjô anytime soon, I ordered the extra fat version with extra onions. The bowl preparation is a bit different in Tsubame - after adding the thick tare (flavor essence) at the bottom of the bowl, the cook dumps in a handful of chopped raw white onions, then spoons in the soup, then the noodles, topping the whole thing off with generous shakings of pure strained fat and another handful of raw onions. See that nice milky brown color? That's lard baby! The only place where you can see the full dark color of the soup itself is the lower left hand corner.
Though, to be perfectly honest, fatty as the soup is, the fat is in tiny little pieces and finely strained. The result is a thicker version of something akin to the famous oil layer topping off classic Tokyo-style Ogikubo ramen, rather than the big hunks of lard dripping off the infamous bowls of Jirô ramen. I swear to god you are not going to believe me, but it didn't even taste or feel that greasy, in fact much less so than an average bowl of Sapporo-style miso ramen. Rather, the prevailing taste was a rich, rich shôyû (soy sauce), given extra pungent punch and crunch by the extra onions. I had been fighting the remnants of a cold all week, and this was just the kind of bowl to TKO the last of it.
The noodles of Tsubame-Sanjô ramen are just as unique as the rest of the package, mega wide and looking a lot more like linguine than your average ramen noodle. But thick as they were, Ryûkatei's noodles weren't chewy and toothsome, but rather soft and easy to slurp down. They absorb lots of the soup, giving them a nice dark brown color. Why didn't I order my bowl extra large?? All in all, a totally unique and delicious bowl, and not nearly as intimidating as it looks. The first Tsubame-style shop just opened up in Tokyo, and some ramen critics are putting their money on Tsubame ramen to be the next local style to take off nationwide. I could see it - Jirô is hot right now, and Tsubame ramen is close kin. The visual impact of the fat and the onions is impressive, and you get a nice hearty bowl that somehow doesn't weigh you down or feeling oily. So if you're ever passing through suburban Niigata and have time on your hands...