It was time. It had been long overdue, but the time had come at last. Tenjin time. My love for Hakata Tenjin goes years back. Back when my buddies and I were still in college, we used to end almost every other bout of drinking with a quick bowl at Tenjin before hopping our respective trains home. I headed back to the states and my buddies graduated into lives as overworked salarymen, but we still found time for Tenjin on my occasional trips back to Tokyo.
But this year I somehow hadn't made it back to the Hakata-style haven. My buddies and I still drink together plenty, but for whatever reason we haven't had the chance to hit up Tenjin. My buddy S lobbies for a nightcap bowl almost every time we go out, but there's always someone who isn't quite in the mood. We also have something of an unwritten rule that we can't go to Tenjin sober. Good as it is, Tenjin's is not ramen to be savored, but to be gulped down in vain attempts to salt the roadslicks of cheap booze lining the guts.
Last month I got just such an occasion. Golden Gai, the ramshackle collection of tiny bars tucked away in the back streets of Shinjuku was holding it's annual summer festival. There were no traditional clothes, no shrine parade, just 100-some bars flinging open their doors and serving 5-dollar drinks poured strong as the dickens. S and I showed up at 1 PM and started making the rounds, and by mid afternoon we were duly fuschnickened. S had to take off to run some errands, but I was in it for the long haul, and I needed sustenance for the journey to the center of my liver. It was Tenjin time.
There are dozens of Tenjin's all over town, and a solid smattering in Shinjuku alone. Anywhere where dudes are drinking the promise of a 500 yen bowl of porky ramen will never fall on deaf ears. Like a (somewhat dizzy) moth to the flame, I staggered towards the brightly lit door, which, in the grand tradition of modern Japanese signage, displays a smiling cartoon rendition of the animal you are about to eat.
Jesus did it smell good. In an era when so many Hakata-style joints try to rid their pork marrow soup of it's characteristic stench, Tenjin lays it out raw. Tenjin is a big chain, no hidden secret like Hitotsubo down the block, but damn if they don't serve some of the very best Hakata ramen in Tokyo. There's some extra flavor, some extra depth, some extra straight up soul that so many would-be Hakata shops lack.
Add to that nice spicy mustard greens, a dash of sesame seeds, crisp and sweet pickled ginger, and a dab of garlic, and you, my friend, are in pork heaven. My fuzzy brain couldn't even process how much these noodles were hitting the spot.
Against my better (albeit impaired) judgement, I ordered a second helping of noodles, desperately trying to absorb enough alcohol to catch a second wind. With my pores emitting pork, I found my way back to the bars for an enjoyable evening. Enjoyable, that is, until its ending.
Let's just say that those noodles might have wished that my gullet was marked as a one-way street.