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Lifestyles: Eating in Japan Part Two

All Signs Lead to… RAMEN HELL!
Dean H Ruetzler

Some like it hot - Dean seeks a spicy experience in Japan.

The 26.5-kilometer stretch of road winding along Route 282, route 4, and then into the Morioka Station area of Morioka, Japan is a trek that I make almost daily from my apartment in Nishine to "the big city". Coming from the state in America with perhaps the strongest anti-development regulations in the country (Vermont), I am greeted with something along this drive that I will never witness at home. One of the many strong regulations in Vermont stipulates that any road sign or other similar advertisement above a certain size must be a minimum of twenty-five feet from the side of the road. Extremely large billboards are illegal.

Needless to say, such regulations do not exist in Iwate Prefecture. That coupled with an ability to read kanji roughly equivalent to my Middle School students, and in need of something to do at stop lights and traffic jams, finds me constantly reading the signboards along my daily pilgrimage.

The drive is plastered with signs advertising every thing from security loans ("Tampo Roon"), to fresh and wholesome Iwate milk, fortified with the appearance of five supposedly fresh and wholesome young ladies. You can get sweet Watermelon to boot. Not to mention a drivers license, or lessons to procure one. Needless to say the advertisements for and signs in front of the love hotels and pachinko palaces do things with the English and even Japanese language that I simply did not consider possible. Do you want to buy a car? On one two-kilometer stretch you can get your car from the sublime and stratified (Auto Stage GOD!) or the cognitively lacking and intellectually deficient (Auto Specialty Shop GOOFY!.)

To complete the roadside sign experience on my daily drive a good Japanese friend works for an advertising agency that makes these signs. My friend actually designed and composed two of what seems to be thousands of signs that line my journey to Morioka and beyond.

I usually consider myself smart enough, poor enough, or simply just too stubborn to let these lures separate my money from my wallet simply at their urging.
However there is one sign that has piqued my interest. It is a simple handmade sign with painted and not printed kanji in front of the Dosanko Sapporo Raamen Shop in Takizawa. For those of you are not familiar Dosanko (which means "child born in Hokkaido" or "Child of Hokkaido") is a chain of raamen noodle shops which does not exactly top the reputation list, but seems to have agreeable prices to make up for that. It is in the same category as the ubiquitous Hokka Hokka Tei ("Bento" or "lunchbox" specialty), Aji-Q (Chinese Style cooking just like Yo-Yo Ma used to make), and the legendary Yoshinoya with its 280 Yen "donburi" (bowl of rice with meat and sauce on top). It may be lowest priced restaurant staple item in Japan since the feudal Edo era. Eat at your own risk please.

The sign is a faded non-descript blue sign hanging from the post by a chain. By the sign are some net-like "things" (for lack of a better descriptive metaphor) that have no discernable purpose. Hand-painted in red, yellow, and black is the Japanese for "Hiyashi (cold/iced/cool) Jigoku (hell) ramen". That, to me is enticement at its best.

"Hiyashi"(cold) noodles? Japan with its traditional summer delicacies is a wonderful place to eat. "Kabayakki" (eel and sauce on rice), "Kakigoori" (a kind of Japanese sno-cone with condensed milk on top) and iced "mugi-cha" (barley tea) are a wonderful gustatory experience during those hot and sultry summer days. I have nothing against a nice hot bowl of raamen, but in the muggy Japanese summer, the last thing anybody needs is more heat to combust with. The Japanese prepare for that with many notable and tasty chilled noodle treats, such as "Hiyashi-Chuuka Men"(Sweet and Sour Raamen) and "Zaru-Soba" (traditional buckwheat noodles iced and served on a wooden basket and dipped into a cool liquid), not to mention the Morioka delicacy "reimen" (a famous spicy treat).

Jigoku Raamen? Hell Ramen? Ramen procured from Hades? What does it mean? Well, I do not know really know. But I do have a picture in my mind and it is enticing. It is hot and very spicy. It will tear my eyes and make my nose run. My tongue will tingle with heat. I will let it droop out of my mouth to cool. I will need to drink copious amounts of oolong tea to fight the spiciness, bloating myself in the process. In one word it will be hot. In a few, it will be "Hot, Spicy, and burn my epithelium just as much going out as it did coming in!" I think you get the idea. Nuff Said.

Let me preface this by saying Japanese food is really good. Sushi is my favorite food in the world. Eel, Squid, Sukiyaki, and anything Teriyaki-ed from fish to steak are not far behind. I can count the Japanese foods I do not like on one hand; "Nattoo" (fermented soybeans), "Shio Kara" (the "squid" part is OK, the "in its own pureed innards" part is most definitely not!), "Hoya" (Sea Pineapple, looks like a plant but is an animal), and "Namako" (Sea Cucumber, similar confusion to "hoya"). That said, Japan is not a good place for those who like their food "kick your ass" and "hurt me some more" spicy. The truly prepared traveler will bring Tabasco sauce, curry, and even spicy mustard on a trip to Japan, or risk some serious spice withdrawal.

Japan is not completely bereft of spicy food, but aside from Tan Tan Raamen, and the wasabi (Japanese horseradish) you put on your sushi there is not a lot to write home about. There is a greatly toned down version of the curry you get in India, but beyond that, little more to tempt those who like it hot. Iwate Prefecture does a little better with its local specialties "Jaa-Jaa Men" and "Reimen", truth be told they are imports from China and Korea respectively. The Bankok Restaurant in Morioka has some Thai cooking that is near to the "real thing", but a diffident owner/hostess and high prices take away from the experience. "Rasen" is not Tex-Mex as it tries to be, actually it is closer to "Tokyo-Mex", but it is as close as you will find this side of the Taco Bells on American military bases in Japan, at least in these parts. Rasen`s true charm is the imported Hawaiian coffees it serves, best in Japan that I have discovered yet.

What is someone to do in this spice-starved region of the planet? I miss Cajun shrimp and chicken enchiladas. I would give my eyeteeth for a bowl of 5-Alarm chili. Heck Fahr, I would settle for 3- or 4-Alarm chili at this point. I am so adjusted to the lack of kick in the local cuisine I feel I could spread wasabi over some toast like it was peanut butter, and still not receive the torching my stomach craves.

As a testament to this lack of pizzazz to the native cuisine, during my first year here in Japan, a few friends and I would conduct a ritual called "curry night" to express our dismay at Japans lack of fiery food. Ostensibly we would gather to make the standard Japanese curry on rice dish. De Facto, it was a bunch of highly frustrated ex-pats who concocted some of the most explosive dishes of curry this side of Bangalore, Colombo, and New Delhi. Any method of making the dish spicier was fair game, and just about everything was tried at least once. Had the search for biological and organic weapons of mass destruction been held in Northern Japan, my friends and I would now be class one war criminals. Or at least we would have a chemical weapon business to rival the Czechs. Those days are now just a memory, as the rambunctious amateur chefs have spread themselves across the globe, some having even infiltrated the corporate world.

Still, on my drive, there is this sign at a B-list Japanese raamen shop beckoning to me twice daily. It promises "hell" ramen. Could it be true? Could the Asian spice experience that the Sechzuan Province of China, Korea, and Thailand are legendary for be waiting for me so close to all those pachinko halls, golf nets, and convenience stores? Could it be at least something close to that? There is only one thing to do. Stop there and find out.

Further enticement has come my way. In a discussion on a night on the town, with two locals who also profess the lack of gumption in the local diet (granted one was one-quarter Chinese), I found out that "Hiyashi Jigoku Raamen" indeed, is a cold spicy noodle dish. Perhaps I should stock up on sports drinks and other cooling items for the eventual pilgrimage? Maybe I can start training by putting Tabasco sauce in my morning coffee?

Yesterday, thanks to some time off from work I was finally able to stop in Dosanko and sample "Jigoku Raamen" for the first time. The restaurant on the inside had all the reality of being just the Japanese "greasy ramen spoon (or "saji )" joint it appears to be from the outside. Given the near constant lack of cars and the faded signs outside, I would not have expected different. The slightly awry color scheme on the posters advertising the menu items completed that ambient impression. Those posters did imply a fairly spicy array of raamen selections. My friend and I settled on the "jigoku raamen". I chose the cold variety of hell raamen, my friend despite it being one of the hottest days of the summer, chose the hot variety. That variety of jigoku raamen can be chosen at varying degrees of spiciness on a scale from 1 (lowest) to 10 (Hades? Ground Zero?) (This is advertised on the opposite side of the sign that has been enticing me for months on my trip to Morioka). My friend chose the least spicy option, supplementing my stereotype about Japanese risk-taking habits.

Soon after eagerly tearing into my hell ramen, I knew that my longed-for spice torture was not to be. Though tasty it was not really hot. I can take some consolation that my friend did find some discomfort in the hot Hell Ramen, and that was at the lowest possible level. I had a few bites of it and it did have a little kick to it certainly more than my choice from the "menyuu". Though the hottest thing I ate was two "onigiri" or "rice balls", which were quite the touch, not the taste, sorry wrong sense. My friend received a lot of amusement from my eating the rice balls with my "hashi" ("chopsticks") as onigiri are traditionally Japanese finger food. I would estimate that choosing six or seven on the hot jigoku raamen scale will produce my desired experience, and ten may just result in a silly macho manhood ritual of an experience.

Between many of the various menu entrees appearing to run to the spicy side, the relatively cheap pricing (ramen is nearly always a relatively affordable and filling meal in Japan), and the possibility of my personal "raamen hell" existing in a stronger version of hot "jigoku", my friend and I both concluded that this Dosanko is well worth another visit.

It is also a unique cultural experience, in that it appears to be attached to the proprietors home (This is not at all uncommon in Iwate prefecture, and throughout Japan, I assume), this experience was completed by two elementary-school aged children gawking and taking what could have been their first glance at a white person (repeatedly) through a door leading to the Dosanko. In my home country I rarely found a greasy kitchen/diner/non-franchise burger joint I did not like. I will consider this the Japanese equivalent. That, and my still-continuing search for "a little spice" will bring me back there again. "C`mon nana-chome (The seventh level of spiciness) hell ramen. Hurt Me Baby!"

The search for a truly and deeply spicy gustatory experience was fulfilled this weekend. A Canadian friend, who is a very skilled cook, provided some seriously flammable chili at a dinner party. He said he used two drops of a chili sauce that had to be labeled a food "additive" and not a "product", to discourage over-consumption. It also contained warnings of burns and damage if applied to the skin. Really.
My cravings for hideously spicy food have been abated, at least temporarily. My eyes watered as I ate the chili, and as I digested the best Tex Mex has to offer this spice-depleted archipelago, it truly cut its own independent path through my gastro-intestinal tract, ignoring the pathway that nature had set up inside my torso for it. I imagined it cutting through my organ walls much like the creature from "Alien". A soothing yogurt drink or two the next day, coating my much-abused gastric epithelium was a godsend.

However, this was a special occasion, created by a skilled cook, seeking much the same in his bland diet, who had to import the ingredients. It could be months before a similar set of circumstances arises. What I need to find is a more readily accessible razing of my stomach lining. The search for gastric flammable torture endemic to Japan will not stop, especially in light of discovering that one of Japans "best", "Tan Tan Men" is indeed, Chinese in origin. The quest continues.

I finally got back to the Dosanko and tried the hot "Jigoku Raamen". It was ever so close to the spicy experience I was expecting. I chose the "Roku-Chome" (6th level of spiciness). It teased and tantalized me with a decent amount of distress as I ate it. I did not reach the point of watering eyes, but my nose did manage to run. Occasionally, at least for one bite (which I assume had a large concentration of seasoning) it was the "Spicy Nirvana" of my slightly warped gustatory fantasies.
It truly bordered on being that perfect mix of being spicy enough to really make you thing twice about consuming it, and not just chow down with abandon, but carefully consider each bite, but not spicy enough to keep you up until all hours of the night just wishing your innards would stop burning, much as my first encounter with Indian cooking did in 1987. However, it did stop just millimeters before that level. Choosing the "Roku-Chome" spiciness instead of "Nana-Chome" (7th level of ramen purgatoryas in "Dante`s Inferno"), may have been the missing link.
This is more an indication of my exacting standards, and perhaps an idealized picture in my mind created by years of dreaming what spicy food should be, and not eating much of it. In no way should I dissuade you from going to the Takizawa Dosanko. It is affordable, and provides a solid array of spicy choices on its menu, well worth continued experimentation.

In my home country of the United States, there is a special class of restaurants defying conventional description. Never elegant or high-class, they are usually cheaper restaurants that do not always provide the healthiest fare, but often have several dishes that you will continue to enjoy regardless of whatever restaurant "snobs" and newspaper gourmet critics may say.

The Dosanko is no place to take a first date. Every thing about it from its décor (or lack thereof), faded and discolored menus, deep frying vats only six feet from your table, and even its clientele, screams "Greasy Spoon" in its loudest Japanese translation. However, it is quickly becoming a favorite of mine, and I fully intend to further investigate the menu. Starting with my attempt at the "Seventh Level of Raamen Hell". I recommend you do the same, especially if you are searching for a little more kick to your diet and long for chili-dogs, curry that actually ends up on bread, and those Tamales, Tacos and gooey Chimchangas that made you suffer.

In the end I found the search for spice in Japanese cuisine, the search for spice, diversity, stimulation, etc. in the culture as a whole, in a microcosm. It is not obvious, and will not be easy to find, but that does not mean it does not exist. If you take the culture as it is presented to you superficially, aiming for the "golden mean", it will lack that spice you are looking for.
However, for those who are patient, persistent, and willing to experiment a little, you may just find it. If you choose the avenues that are clear and obvious, then bland is what you will find. If you take your time, look carefully at your surroundings, and push the envelope a little more than you did before, you may just find what you are looking for, or at least get closer to it. Once you do find some spice, you may need to come again, exploring Japanese culture beyond the exterior rewards those who return, repeat, and are meticulous. It does not reward those looking for the "quick fix" too often. Even if it does provide your "quick fix", heeding the proverb; "Be careful about getting what you want, you may REALLY get it!" is warranted. This culture prides itself on its ability to confuse and bewilder foreigners.
In the same vein did I find my longed for spice experience? There is certainly enough of it in the cuisine present to keep me from going crazy. Along the way, I have found a few places to satiate my cravings.
Will trying the "nana-chome" bring my longed for experience? It may, it may not. There is only one way to find out, to go again and give it a shot. That is the fun of all of this, it is the search, the striving, the stretching that is the fun of the experience, be it Japan as a whole, or simply looking for a meal that will perk you up better than a Starbucks Caramel Macchiato Grande. Those Macchiatos do exist in Morioka, in abundance, I may add, at four locations. But Starbucks is for when you are looking for the tried and true. The search for Japanese spiciness is about taking the road less traveled.
Being able to read Japanese will aid you on taking the road less traveled in Japan. In this case, it makes reading menus easier. It also started me on this journey by being able to decipher a faded, hand painted sign next to a chain restaurant, that really had no other special features to entice me inside. So break out those kanji flash cards, it may very well lead you to a totally unexpected and rewarding gustatory or even cultural experience.
There is another road sign on my drive home. It advertises a restaurant called "Manpuku" or "Full Stomach". It will be interesting to see what you can fill your stomach with there.
Sugo 1237-3
Takizawa Village, Iwate Prefecture, Japan
Telephone: 019-688-2475
Tuesday-Sunday 11:30 AM-8:00 PM
Sumita Village, Iwate Prefecture, Japan
For Marks`s absolutely apocalyptic Chili recipe, contact me at the email address below, and he will send it to you.
© Dean H. Ruetzler October 2003
Nishine, Iwate-Prefecture, Japan and Warren / South Burlington, Vermont, United States
Part One of Eating in Japan

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