Friday, July 31, 2009

ババ番外地、その三十二:まっち棒 (Beyond Baba 32: Macchibô)

Some people are insane for ramen, true ramen maniacs, ramen freaks. I may be one of them, but I think I'm still probably legally certifiably sane, at least for the time being. But what happens when you combine an evening of ramensanity with true insanity? My buddy M and I found out a couple days ago when we headed over to Shibuya to grab a bowl and catch a screening as part of the Image Forum theater's mini film series on mental illness.

I dragged M with me to catch a screening of "Miyoko Asagaya Kibun", a new film about the life and work of famed (and famously reclusive) manga artist Abe Shin'ichi. Based on Abe's own autobiographical comics written over the past 40 years, "Miyoko Asagaya" evokes the atmospheric early 70s feeling of the author's manically sketched work, which tells the story of his troubled relationship with his girlfriend and later wife Miyoko, their life together, and his debilitating lifelong battle with schizophrenia. (Note: trailer is mildly NSFW - a little boobage)

The film was beautifully done, and if it ever gets a proper release, it is a must see for anyone interested in alternative manga of the 1970s (which has recently been getting more press in the US), film fans, and humans in general. After letting the film sink in, we strolled out of the theater and whipped out my collection of ramen mags to seek out dinner.

Just up the Miyamasu-zaka slope east of Shibuya station is a newish ramen hot spot christened "Ramen Daisensô" (The Great Ramen War), a 4-story building hosting a different ramen shop on each floor. Uh, keep your eyes peeled for the 30 foot tall mural of the anime girl.

We had our sights set on the shop on the second floor, Macchibô (Matchstick), one of the few shops in Tokyo serving Wakayama ramen.

Wakayama and I go way, way back. I first came to Japan ten years ago this month, when I spent a summer as a high school exchange student in Wakayama. Located just south of Osaka, most of Wakayama is a rural backwater where some of the deepest mountains in Japan run all the way to the sea.

Home to some of the country's most important religious sites, like the Kôya-san temples and the Kumano shrines, Wakayama has been thought of as a distant and spiritual land for milennia.

Wakayama City, though is a different story all together. An old castle town of one of the key families of the Tokugawa Shogunate, it has developed into a medium-sized modern city and major suburb of Osaka after being bombed into oblivion during the war. Wakayama is also one of those towns where ramen plays a more important than average part of everyday life; like in Hakata in Kyushu and Kitakata in Northern Japan, Wakayama is the kind of city where there are ramen, or as Wakayamanians refer to them, "chûka soba" (Chinese noodle) shops on nearly every block.

Wakayama ramen is a tonkotsu shôyû (pork bone and soy sauce) soup that marks the symbolic middle point between thin soy Tokyo-style ramen and thick porky Kyushu ramen; Thick, strong, and porky for sure, it also packs a strong shôyû taste. Like Tokyo ramen, there's a little slice of pink and white fishcake, but like Hakata ramen, the noodles are thin, white, straight, and firm. It's nearly identical to its cross-strait cousin Tokushima ramen; Tokushima ramen places higher importance on a raw egg in the soup and has slightly thicker noodles, but the two are practically the same. (Below photo from the web)

Wakayama ramen traces its origins back to about 1940, when wartime street stalls like Marutaka began selling their tonkotsu-shôyû blend. In 1951, the most famous Wakayama ramen shop, Ide Shoten, opened its doors, and Wakayama ramen became divided into two similar but slightly divergent styles - the slightly thinner broth with heavier soy from Marutaka-type shops (known as 'shakomae' (Garage-front) for their location near the trolley terminus), and the thicker, porkier Ide Shoten-style shops, which have gone on to become identical with the name "Wakayama ramen" nationwide after the shop won back to back "Best Ramen in Japan" awards on TV in the 1990s. Ide Shoten was also one of the stone-cold favorites of Keizo from Go Ramen on his epic cross-country ramen journey.

Oh yeah, and there's one more thing that makes Wakayama ramen unique...sushi! Any Wakayama ramen shop worth its salt (vinegar?) serves sushi; the most common, and the kind on offer at Macchibô is "hayazushi", mackerel pressed flat onto square rectangular chunks of rice. I managed to snag the last piece for the day, and let me tell you, I don't know how it works, but it works. Mackerel is one of my favorite kinds of fish, and that sweet, pungent, oily taste is the perfect counterpoint to the strong shôyû taste of the soup. This is another one of those dream combinations in my book.

I've spent so much time telling y'all about the history of Wakayama and schizophrenic cartoonists that I haven't yet fully imported just how delicious Macchibô is. THIS, dear readers, is ramen. Strong, hearty, soulful, and deep, with a gooey egg on top. Keizo is always telling me how kotteri shôyû (thick soy) soup is his jam, but I've never been a full convert...until now. M found it a wee bit strong, but you can request more or less oil, stronger or weaker taste, and firmer or softer noodles.
Wakayama ramen just shot to the top level of my favorite regional styles, and I fully intend to seek out the rest of the shops serving it in Tokyo. And I'm not just biased because I spent my formative years in fact I think I only ate ramen once while I was there - and now I'm slapping myself for it!

Look at how those noodles have been practically dyed brown with the strong soy sauce; this ain't your average tableside Kikkoman. The noodles are thin, yet stay firm, and you can get a kaedama (extra helping), like at Hakata-style shops. Macchibô also offers a good selection of mini rice bowls, topped with your choice of takana mustard greens, spicy mentaiko (cod roe), dried shiso (red perilla leaf), or fresh onions. I'd want to go back and explore the rest of the "Great Ramen War" building, but I know I'd end up at Macchibô every time...

Thursday, July 30, 2009

ちりめん亭 (Chirimen-tei)

Chirimen-tei, you say? You might make the mistake that a shop with a name like "Chirimen-tei" serves, say noodles with chili sauce, which would be "chiri-men" in Japanese. But you would have your hyphen in the wrong place, and you would be wrong, sir. Rather, "Chirimen" refers to decorated, embroidered, and textured Japanese crepe fabric used for traditional cloth products:

And it also refers to the tiny white fish also known as shirauo, whose bodies are as small and delicate as chirimen cloth.

Gross. Or "Chirimen" could refer to the eponymous national chain ramen purveyor whose numerous outlets across Japan are nearly as numerous as the fish on this plate. Though thankfully, these nasty little critters don't pop up on the menu at any of the 100 or so Chirimen-tei outlets nationwide.

Chirimen-tei is a franchise shop run by the Tomos Corporation, an offshoot of MOS Foods, Inc., which is of course the parent company of MOS Burger, high-end fast food chain and regular haunt of this ramen writer. In the case of the burger joint, MOS stands for Mountain, Ocean, Sun, but at the corporate level, the acronym becomes Merchandise Organizing System. Tomos in turn stands for "Tomorrow's MOS", so your ramen at Chirimen-tei is brought to you through the Merchandise Organizing System of Tomorrow. How appetizing!

Fortunately, Chirimen-tei seems to be the kind of franchise shop that gives its franchisees a fair amount of freedom, not unlike Sanchin. I was expecting corporate sterility like at Yamaoka-ya, but inside the shop felt homey, with a middle aged couple at work in a large central kitchen area, while old folks and young couples sat and chatted around the counter. As might be expected, Chirimen-tei doesn't focus on any one particular style or genre, but offers a chain store take on every imaginable varietal, from Kyushu-style tonkotsu (pork marrow) to Sapporo miso to Tokyo shôyû (soy sauce), to Chinese-style tantanmen and tsukemen (dipping noodles).

It can be hard to make a choice at shops like this - there's no way that a chain shop can pull off a high quality tonkotsu or miso soup, so shôyû or shio (salt) are usually safest. In one of the year-end ramen wrap-ups I read, a few critics made the point that chain shops like Chirimen-tei and Hidaya are really trying hard to keep abreast of changes in the ramen world. They might not be developing any new ramen, but they definitely keep their eyes on current trends, offering a chicken soup with lettuce and tomato in the style of Takaryû, several varieties of tsukemen, and so on. I decided to go with the latter, given that it was a hot day out and dipping noodles sounded mighty appealing.

I decided to go with the kurogoma (black sesame) tsukemen, where you grind your own sesame seeds with a mortar and pestle and pour them into a thinner sesame broth similar to a Japanese-style tantanmen soup. Chirimen-tei's webpage begins their description of the dish by saying "Society has become much more stressful over the past 100 years." Fortunately, sesame seeds are high in vitamins A, C, and E, which allegedly help relieve stress. In any case, the broth tasted ok; a bit on the thin side, and certainly a far cry from the Sichuanese style tantan soup at Wantsûchi or Chinmaya, but competent if a bit bland.

Chirimen-tei's achilles heel, however, is their noodles. This is where the true chain store colors come out, as the noodles tasted a bit cheap, and didn't have the kind of chewy thickness that good tsukemen should. I'm guessing this is probably the kind of generic curly yellow noodle that most US ramen shops use as their go to. But even so, Chirimen-tei's tsukemen were refreshing on a sweltering day (maybe it's the vitamin E?), and were still tastier than the tsukemen at Daiô down the block. I don't foresee myself (or anyone) going out of their way to eat at Chirimen-tei, but if you're out comparing fast-foodish options for lunch somewhere and there aren't any other ramen shops around, you could do worse.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

じげん (Jigen)

Last week, Brian from Ramen Adventures popped by 'Baba one last time before taking off to the (literally) greener pastures of ramen heaven Hokkaido for the summer. The number of truly pilgrimage-worthy shops in the greater 'Baba / Waseda vicinity that I have yet to hit is dwindling, and I'd say there's only about 20 (out of maybe 100) places to go before declaring the Waseda ramen zone officially eaten through.

We both wanted something on the less oily side, so we decided to head to Jigen, located a few blocks west of Takadanobaba station. Jigen is definitely one of the buzzed-about shops on the block, and is the kind of place that pops up in most glossy magazine reviews of the 'Baba ramen scene. I knew it was famous for some strong fish broth ramen, which isn't usually my jam, but hey, I'm on a mission.

Inside, the shop is clean and comfortable with plenty of blond wood and plain decor; note the cook individually blowtorching each slice of the châshû pork! Jigen offers ramen or tsukemen, each available regular or 'extra strong' (nôkô). I tend to be an extra strong kind of guy, but I wanted to play it safe with fishy soup, so we both went with the regular.

And here is the thing of beauty we received. I usually give Brian the pork before snapping my photo, but man, is that a pretty slice of châshû. Upon first glance, Jigen's bowl looks like a 'pakkuri' (blatant copy) of the uber-popular Watanabe down the block. When a certain style of ramen gets popular, shameless imitators tend to start popping up, copying the original's style. Jigen has the same super-fat menma (bamboo), the same thinly cut white scallions, even a nearly identical BOWL to Watanabe. And of course, both shops have a complex tonkotsu gyôkai broth, based on a blend of pork bone and assorted fish.

But you know what, maybe we place too much value on originality. When I visited Watanabe, I didn't dig it at all - way too fishy and trying way too hard to be hip and sleek; but a single sip of Jigen's soup made me tilt my head back and cackle. More mellow than Watanabe, less thick than Inoshô, Jigen has found what, for me, is the perfect balance of fishiness. A bit of powdered fish (maybe sardines?) comes on top, and even that doesn't make the broth too heavy. Rather, it stays sweet and deep all the way down. 'Sweet and deep all the way down' is a pretty dirty-sounding way to describe a bowl of soup, but you get the idea. And my god, how did they cut those bamboo chunks? They're the size of Dungeons & Dragons 12-sided dice (but woodsier than a forest full of elves).

Jigen's noodles are medium thick, very straight, and ever so slightly flat, and stay nice and chewy until the end. Every piece of the puzzle is cut with great care, and Jigen manages to do so at a price cheaper than most of the other tonkotsu gyôkai soups that have taken Tokyo by storm over the last couple years. Brian and I walked in thinking "well, this place looks good, but I can probably guess exactly what it will be like," and both walked out shaking our heads at what a solid bowl Jigen dished up. Jigen wasn't just a pleasant surprise, but a bowl good enough to make me rethink my whole stance towards the fashionable fishy ramen mainstream of the Tokyo scene.

Monday, July 27, 2009

西北亭 (Seihoku-tei)

A few months back, I wrote a few entries describing trips through China's rural Muslim northwestern provinces of Xinjiang, Gansu, and Ningxia, on a series of epic journeys deep into the ancient homeland of the noodle as we know it. Well, Seihoku-tei's name means "Outpost of the Northwest", but it doesn't have much to do with any of that stuff. Rather, the name is a nod to Waseda's location in what were once the distant northwestern suburbs of Tokyo; Seihoku-tei has been on the block for something close to 40 years.

Seihoku-tei is an old school Tokyo ramen shop all the way, with curtain shaking in the wind on a street corner just east of Waseda University's main gate. While lacking the (relative) fame and reknown of Merci, Inaho, or Hozumi a few blocks over, I'm sure plenty of young Wasedians make their way to Seihoku-tei for ramen re-ups and bottled beers.

I ducked inside Seihoku-tei late one rainy night and plopped myself down at one of the well-loved tables inside the shop and craned my neck to catch a glimpse of Prime Minister Asô making an asshole of himself on television for hopefully one of the last times.

Sickened at the sight, I craned my neck in the other direction to take a gander at the menu and revive my appetite. Tacked to the wall for what looks like somewhere between a decade and decades, the menu at Seihoku-tei offers shôyû ramen with all manner of toppings, plates of pan fried Chinese style meats and veggies, and a healthy selection of donburi (rice bowl meals). An older woman with a back bent at angle that only older Japanese women who grew up malnourished can seem to pull off puttered over to take my order as her son the cook fired up the pots.

I ordered the 'pirikara negi soba' (spicy onion noodles), and a few minutes later got this piece of bowlful and bountiful beauty placed down in front of me. A huge pile of fresh scallions cut in all manner of size and thickness topped a bowl of thin brown soy sauce-flavored broth slowly turning red as the chili oil seeped into the soup. The soup itself has even more of a "Chinese food" taste than your average bowl of 'Chinese-style chûka soba', sweet and vinegary as much as salty. Seihoku-tei uses primarily (only?) chicken and vegetables for the broth, which make it a nice refreshing break from the thicker stronger pork and fish (tonkotsu gyôkai) broths taking over Tokyo.

"Chinese-style" ramen shops often tend towards overly soft noodles, but Seihoku-tei's held up better than average; by no means firm, they at least kept some bite through the end of the bowl. The sheer volume of the sweet and spicy onions means you pull up some veggies with every grip of noodles and still have plenty left over. I ordered a small bowl of rice to eat with the onions, which was a perfect match. I don't see anyone traveling across town for Seihoku-tei's ramen, but it's the perfect bowl for a rainy summer night, and has a great old atmosphere that all too many ramen shops lack these days. Here's to forty more years on that lonely street corner!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

武道家 (Budôka)

Budôka had been catching my eye for a long time - how could it not, given the fact that it's located about 10 meters from the gate of the Waseda subway station and always has a line out the door? My pal R told me how good she thought Budôka looked, but that she probably would never get around to venturing inside unless accompanied by a ramen eating dood such as myself. As it turned out, she never got around to going at all, and had to return to L'America, leaving me myself and I to try the place on my own.

Budôka means "House of the Warrior", but given that most of the shop's customers are the students and faculty of Waseda, the only battles Budôka's patrons are fighting are with their exams and with the large portion sizes that the shop offers. The shop is probably 20 meters from the front gate of Waseda Middle School, so I'll bet there are plenty of students who make the place a regular afterschool stop. Some Wasedians have even been known to proudly name Budôka as their all-time favorite ramen shop.

So I poked my head in one late afternoon after the line had died down, eager to try Budôka for myself. From the use of the character 家 in the name and the out front repping of Yokohama-style ramen on the sign, its no surprise that Budôka offers one kind of ramen and one alone - classic "ie-kei" style. Like every other ie-kei shop, Budôka traces its recipe to Yokohama's Yoshimura-ya and features the following determinants of ie-kei-ness: strong tonkotsu shôyû (soy sauce and pork bone) soup, thick chewy noodles, adjustable levels of firmness and oiliness, three sheets of nori seaweed, stewed spinach topping, and tableside options of garlic, ginger, and chili paste.

The vibe inside is about as Platonic ideal of ramen shop as you can get; cramped and cozy with 80s pop music blasting, a row of students and salarymen with ties tucked inside their shirts, and dudes in wifebeater undershirts and head towels bellowing out orders.

The back wall is covered with the business cards, train passes, and assorted bureaucratic detritus of the shop's customers; I think you might get a free bowl of rice if you add your own existence-validating scrap of paper to the board. Though free rice might not be much of an incentive, since all you can eat rice only runs 50 yen at Budôka. While I'm sure this contributes to the shop's popularity with students, be careful what you wish for: you can eat as much rice as you want, but if you leave any behind in your bowl, you'll be assessed a 500 yen penalty charge. Oh, Japan.

With ie-kei ramen, you know exactly what you're going to get, and that's exactly what you get at Budôka - the aforementioned classic set up. There's just one difference: Budôka is really, really salty. A sign posted on the counter warns you that the soup is extra strong, and is meant for flavoring the noodles rather than for drinking alone. I'd take this advice to heart, as it steeps the noodles nicely, but a straight sip from the spoon might make you pucker.

Toppings were all in order, all well-executed, but none remarkable. A little ginger, garlic, and spicy chili paste definitely helps balance the soup out and smooth out the salty tang from the broth.

Budôka definitely knows their strong point, and that's the noodles, which are indeed firm, toothsome, thick, and excellent. All in all, Budôka was a solid bowl if you are an ie-kei fan, but I think I prefer the slightly milder Shichifuku-ya around the corner or maybe Chiyosaku by 'Baba station. With the big portions, cheap rice, ideal location, and fun atmosphere, I can see why this place is an institution, but I think I'll leave it to the institutionalized.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

黒門屋 (Kuromonya)

About six weeks ago, I noticed construction going on inside the long-vacant storefront that once housed Kazusanbô. My emotions at moments like this are complex - on the one hand, I am always stoked for another ramen shop to open in 'Baba, but on the other hand, each new opening makes my task feel that much more Sisyphean. But hey, as long as the shop is a tasty one...

A few weeks later the sign came up - "Kuromonya - Tokyo Style, originating from the Kuromon market in Nipponbashi, Osaka"; Tokyo style, originating from Osaka? What does that even mean? Would this new kid on the block really have the right stuff to hang tough in the number one ramen challenge zone in the country?

The short answer is "hell yes!" But you don't get credit unless you show your work, right? So let me tell you a little bit about Kuromonya...Osaka is actually not one of the more renowned ramen towns in this land, but I have much love for that fair city, and was curious to see what kind of ramen the patrons of this "Black Gate" (Kuromon) market like to get down with.

Apparently the shop has been around since the late 60s and really won a following when the nation descended on Osaka to attend the 1970 World Expo. Last time I was in Osaka's Nipponbashi neighborhood, I ended up eating eel liver and singing Sinatra to a crowd of 70 year olds, but I'm sure the area has better things to offer... the thickest bowl of tonkotsu (pork bone) soup you ever laid your eyes and tastebuds upon! My god man, I don't know how long they melted this stuff for, but Kuromonya's ramen is more like a stewy goo (in the best sense of the word) than "soup" per se. With thin and hard white noodles, it's similar in a way to Hakata ramen, but decidedly its own thing, with plenty of flecks of suspended fat dotting a broth made rich with a shôyû tare (soy sauce essence) that adds an almost indescribable sweet and tangy, yet deep and earthy taste. I could see myself getting HOOKED on this stuff.

Already hooked on the stuff are these doods - the Kameda Brothers, a couple of badass boxers from Osaka. Would you really dare to challenge their taste in ramen?

Other toppings include a generous helping of kikurage (woodear mushrooms), specially selected Kujô negi scallions from Kyoto (which were some of the best and freshest I've ever had), and a whole flank of nori seaweed that the staff offered me when I requested no roast pork. The eggs are from Nagoya Cochin chickens, and look how nice and runny that yolk is. This is really my kind of ramen.

Noodles are extra thin Hakata-style, and you can order them regular, firm, or barely cooked, which is always a nice option. Don't miss the takana mustard greens atop the counter, which are some of the spiciest I've found - what did this place do, spy on me to find out everything I look for in a ramen joint?

One serving is never enough, so I re-upped with a kaedama (extra helping of noodles). In addition to standard kaedama service, Kuromonya also offers what the call "yakidama" - noodles flash fried in the pan, which are all the better for pouring the remainder of your gooey porky soup all over. As Brian from Ramen Adventures put it, Osaka people will fry anything! The shop is still sort of in pre-open mode, and isn't open every day yet, and more menu items are still coming; a shio (salt) ramen is already available, and miso and shôyû options should be ready soon. A truly great addition to the neighborhood.

ババ番外地、その三十一:ひごもんず 品川店 (Beyond Baba 31: Higo Monzu [Shinagawa location])

It's been a hectic couple of weeks with deadlines and assorted matters to attend to, but I managed to fit in plenty of bowls, so let's work through this backlog! A couple weeks back I went with my buddy M to go see the new movie "MW" (read "MU"). It's an adaptation of manga master Osamu Tezuka's classic 70s terrorism thriller / gay romance comic, which is one of favorites fo sho:

Unfortunately, the original story had been bowdlerized pretty badly (it's tough to pull a gay romance story without any gay romance), and the film was basically a sloppily done (yet still entertaining) summer blockbuster type:

The theater was in Shinagawa, the terminus for southbound trains in Tokyo and home to one of Tokyo's "Ramen Roads", the Shinatatsu ramen plaza. What was I going to do, NOT show up half to hour early and down a quick bowl before the show?

From JR Shinagawa station, take the Takanawa exit towards the Shinagawa Prince Hotel, then make a left before crossing the street; just when you think you've walked too far, the Shinatatsu ramen road will be on your left.

The Shinatatsu ramen center is nowhere near the size of the Yokohama Raumen Museum, but it's a nice little boardwalk featuring seven shops and a gift shop. There's a branch of the ever-popular Nantsuttei, a location of the ever popular Kumamoto-style Higomonzu, a Setagaya, which recently opened up a shop in New York, an old school "Shina-soba" shôyû (soy sauce) shop called Kibi, a second location of Takeda Keisuke's original Hatudai Keisuke serving black miso ramen, a branch of the massively popular tsukemen (dipping noodle) purveyor TETSU, and a currently open storefront vacated just last week by Asahikawa Ramen Saijô. Decisions, decisions...

At first I was leaning towards TETSU, since tsukemen sounded good on a hot summer night, and I thought the line here would be more reasonable than the famously long waits at the original location in Sendagi. But just as I was about to walk in, a group of 8 salarymen loosening their ties queued up, so I decided to go with Higo Monzu instead. Though the original location is in Nishi-Ogikubo in western Tokyo, Higo Monzu serves Kumamoto-style ramen in the classic model, rustic, porky, and garlicky.

As a quick reminder, Kumamoto is in the central west part of the southernmost major island of Kyushu, the dirty south of pork bone tonkotsu ramen. The old name for Kumamoto prefecture during pre-modern times was Higo, from whence the shop draws its name; as for "Monzu", your guess is as good as mine, but I'm guessing it means something in Kumamoto dialect. Some other Kumamoto-style shops I've hit up thus far include Higo Noren, Nanashi, and Keika.

Nantsuttei is based on Kumamoto ramen as well, but that's the gussied up version. Higo Monzu's rendition is classic all the way, with a thin brown mâyû (burnt garlic and sesame oil) and woodsy and soft yet crunchy strips of kikurage (wood-ear mushrooms). It seems it is derigeur for tonkotsu soup places in Tokyo to advertise that their soup doesn't reek of melted pork bone, and Higo Monzu is no different, but their broth has a bit more of a pungent (in a good way) taste than silky smooth Kyushu-style joints like Ippûdô.

And of course, no bowl of Kyushu ramen is complete without adding a few tableside toppings - crush in a clove of fresh garlic and pile on the fresh (yet sadly unspicy) takana mustard greens. And look at that the way the yolk is just oozing out of the egg! As always with Kumamoto ramen, it seems like the further you get down into the bowl, the more all the flavors come together, as the garlic plays off the tangy yet creamy marrow based soup; I think Higo Monzu also uses a bit of chicken in the broth, as opposed to the pure pork of many Hakata and Kurume style places.

The noodles were of course straight and white, and a bit fatter even than at Nantsuttei, rather than the thin threads at Hakata-style joints. They seemed to maintain their firmness a bit stronger than Nantsuttei's, and are close to what I'd call the ideal of Kumamoto-style noodles. All in all an excellent bowl, and, despite the lack of a true Kumamoto pedigree, one of your best options in Tokyo for this style of ramen. But before you leave...

Don't forget to check out the goods at the gift shop! Shinatatsu has a well-stocked little store featuring boxed home-prep noodles from famous shops all over the country, ranging from Kyushu to Hokkaido. I managed to keep my money in my wallet...this time. But you can bet that when I move back to America I am gonna stock up for the long haul!