How I Got Bad Ramen in Osaka
Richie Nakano's Japan Chronicles, Part 3
San Francisco chef Richie Nakano runs a ramen pop-up called Hapa Ramen. He's in the process of opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant. As research, Nakano spent two weeks eating and traveling in Japan. This is the third and final part of his journey—read part 1: Blacked Out in Tokyo and part 2: Yakitori and Demitasu.
I’m standing in front of a vending machine, in a field miles outside Osaka. My head is pounding, my lips are cracked, and my polite traveler’s stubble is starting to morph into a full-on hipster Jesus beard. My bags are trapped in some random coin locker back in Dotonbori. I would be rushing back there if I weren’t so lost. Staring at the map on my phone makes me nauseous, and the slightly warm salmon onigiri from 7-Eleven is not helping. I need liquid support.
“This vending machine. It only has Pocari Sweat, tea, and cold coffee. I need hot coffee. I need a whisky and water.”
“Dude.” Amee, my travel companion and translator, looks at me through sunglasses despite the dark cloud cover. “How are you feeling?”
“How the fuck did we get here? Where are we?”
Amee fills me in, piece by piece. Arriving in Osaka last night from Kobe. Walking through endless neon tunnels filled with restaurants and bars and scantily clad girls trying to get me into their bars. Charging our phones in a British pub (“You were putting away shots faster than your phone could charge”). Pounding Zima in a Brazilian steakhouse. Pounding more Zima in a Hawaiian tiki bar, where a girl strummed a ukulele.
To try to get a visual on my missing memories, I thumb through the pictures on my phone. They are mostly blurry and poorly lit, but one stands out: a hot pink bra on the counter of the men's bathroom in a train station. I show it to Amee.
"You leave something behind?” she says. “If you’re lucky maybe someone put it in the lost and found."
She continues describing last night. How we realized we didn’t have a place to stay. How it was raining. How we got in a cab and she said the name of the only hotel that she remembered from the Lonely Planet guide. It was 30 minutes outside of Dotonbori, away from the stifling density of Osaka.
BITCH, YOU NEED RAMEN
It was called the Loire, which sounds polite enough. In fact it was a love hotel, the kind of place where you can rent a room by the hour, without the shame of dealing with a desk clerk. The Loire was like a vending machine that dispenses only one thing, a single serving at a time. All the rooms had unique themes. There were two left.
“I took the alien autopsy room,” Amee says. “You got Jurassic Park." And then it all comes back. I turn away from Amee slowly, like a student being scolded.
Now I get it: Why I woke up in a neon room adorned with drawings of dinosaurs and furniture painted to look like rocks and jungle. Why I wanted to leave but realized I was locked in from the outside, as a recording in Japanese gave instructions on how to pay, only I didn’t understand a word of it. And when I finally tumbled outside, why I wasn't in the heart of Osaka, but surrounded by fields of dirt, a cemetery, and a lonely highway stretching into the distance.
And why Amee and I are now on this long, hungover walk to the nearest train station, wherever that is.
"You need ramen," Amee says.
I groan and wipe the sweat from my forehead, unable to get over the realization that I’ve been in the same clothes for 36 hours. "You need ramen" is a line I’d uttered many times in the past couple of years to folks with nasty colds or seizure-inducing drug withdrawals, a way of telling someone to get their shit together. After I became a ramen chef I moved beyond it (on my own regretful mornings I usually craved a bottle of water and a fried egg sandwich). But this morning’s headache—who am I kidding, it's a whole-body ache—was unrelenting. We set off searching for salvation in a bowl.
OBSESSION IS OVERRATED
Osaka is dense and winding and sort of feels like being stuck in a casino, or worse, Ikea. You go into a building one way, get lost, then a few hours later re-emerge miles away. It's beautiful in an industrial, almost filthy way. Not modern like Tokyo, not cozy like Kobe. Osaka is rough edges and concrete.
Trying to choose a ramen shop in Osaka’s maze of streets is difficult—where do you even begin? We end up picking one just because it's busy.
I order a spicy ramen, extra chashu, gyoza, and a beer. When it arrives I can feel a little bit of life rush back into me. Never mind my headache, never mind my filthy clothes: The creamy tonkotsu broth wipes away any flickering memories of Zima and love hotels. Washing down a mouthful of noodles with a cold gulp of Suntory brings my senses back into focus. It's raining, and the midday haze softens the view on the street.
"I was ready to not like Osaka,” I say to Amee. “Maybe this morning was like a reset for the whole trip. Maybe it's not all about booze and stuffing our faces. Look at the craft that went into this bowl of ramen. It's beautiful. There’s a side of Osaka that we're missing out on."
Amee looks over the counter and nods at the guy pumping out bowls of ramen. He ladles syrupy liquid into a bowl, tops it with noodles, reaches into a microwave, and pulls out a couple of gray pieces of sliced pork. He's wearing knee-high rain boots to protect himself from the inch of starchy water on the ground. His final touch: pouring boiling water in the bowl before final garnishes.
"Soup base. He's using fucking MSG soup base." I'm in disbelief. The blood vessels in my temples constrict again. My headache comes rushing back.
Amee places some yen on the counter and slides me a cold can of whisky she's been hiding in her bag.
Walking back to the train station, everything feels muted. The overcast sky blends into the gray concrete that blends into a sea of polite gray business suits walking the streets. My dried-out eyeballs burn, and I drag my feet. By the time we make it back to Dotonbori, it's dawned on me that Osaka is like a giant Advil: bright and sweet on the outside, numbing on the inside. A thin layer of polite manners, sensory-overload cuteness, and oversexualized youth over a huge, gray chunk of sameness.
Amee sits down for a smoke and to scan the miniature type on the train tables. For the first time in 10 days I feel overwhelmed with homesickness. I miss my kid. I miss my cooks. I miss San Francisco. The question ping-pongs around my brain: What am I even doing here?
I had wanted to see craft. Precision. The obsession that results in a life spent making one thing, and making it perfectly. I thought I’d found it. But then I, the ramen maker, had just been duped by a bowl of mass-produced pork-flavored syrup. I cringe at the thought of what my chef friends at home will tell me: “Bitch, you basically ate at Rainforest Café and the Cheesecake Factory.”
Amee finds our train on the schedule. She stubs out her cigarette and nods at the lockers holding our bags.
"Let’s go find our stuff, dinosaur hunter."
Photos by Richie Nakano. Photo collage by Chris Rochelle / CHOW.com