So there I was, thinking I that I was a bit of a ramen addict.
I had started the habit early, as photographic evidence suggests, and by the time I was at university in the US I was hand-carrying cartons of my favourite available-in-Asia-only flavours of the stuff onto the plane at the end of every term break, because offerings available on US supermarket shelves just didn't cut it.
Then last month I went to Japan. Where obsessives (of any kind) invariably meet their match, and masters.
If in Tokyo, try Jiro ramen, said my friend and Japan veteran @jimbonner. It was, and I quote Jim, "a semi-religious experience".
What the hell does that mean? And, back up, what the hell is Jiro Ramen? Why the hell haven't I ever heard of Jiro Ramen before? My own religious experience with this stuff was starting, it seemed.
I started digging. Other intriguing soundbites emerged.
"It's a marathon, not a sprint", said Ramen Tokyo's Bob, in his wonderfully detailed and endearingly earnest primer on the subject.
"It's ugly. It's mean... This is not a pretty bowl of noodles; it will taunt you, it will tease you, and after 5 minutes of eating the crap out of this thing it will somehow breed more noodles, more bean sprouts, more cabbage, more melty, fatty, juicy chunks of days-cooked pork, more chopped garlic, more soup, more..." declared the riproariously eloquent Ben et Nate: The Gaping Maw.
Quite the perversely appealing evangelical message. Clearly this warranted investigation.
So there we were, that balmy spring night in Tokyo's Ikebukero neighbourhood, with scraps of paper with scrawled directions and hand-copied maps now being stuffed into pockets as we joined in the 20-minute line outside the Jiro Ramen shop and its bumblebee-yellow lightbox signage.
Everyone else in the line is quiet. Focused. Meditative?
Meanwhile, I -- the new acolyte -- am trying to remind my dining companions Babs, Chris, Helen, Sandy, and myself how to say basic Japanese words such as big (dai) and small (shou). I'm also tiptoeing and craning my neck to peek inside the noodle bar to try and get a sense of what small or big actually mean in that hallowed space. On one successful sneak-peek, I see this monster of a bowl being handed over, and another looming in the back. But what size is that? What if that's small?
We're finally up against the vending machine where you place your orders. I uncharacteristically opt for the basic small bowl for about 700 yen. Everyone else is getting trigger happy and hitting a bunch of the extra-this and extra-that buttons. The eagerness of new dabblers. I suspect what they'll need in the end is extra help.
We hand over our order coupons, get seated, and in no time at all, the ramen cometh.
Eating the stuff is a like going on an archeological dig. Like a series of civilisations buried one on top of the other in the sand, here a mound chopped raw garlic sits on a mound of blanched bean sprouts sits on a mound of blanched chopped cabbage sits on a mountain of rough hewn wheaty noodles -- a denser, leaner, uncouth country or yakuza-foot-soldier cousin of the more refined udon. Thick terraced slabs of deeply marinated tender slow-cooked pork and the dome of an egg with the promise of a still-runny yolk inside peek out from the glistening bog of ludicrously rich salty-sweet pork stock, a colloid straddling the grey-line between broth and gravy.
A moment more to meditate on the soup, if you will indulge. What is this stuff? It's like they stuck a whole pig in a pot and simmered it until the whole animal liquified and reduced by half, and then they stuck in another one, because -- in typical Japanese obsession towards excellence -- going the whole (just one) hog is not enough.
There is no conversation around the noodle bar. Even among the young couples who are clearly on a date. Only loud slurping. Said to be the appropriate way to show appreciation to the chef, and also enhance the flavour of the noodles (though I suspect it's just to introduce airflow to cool the noodles down to a temperature where you can actually taste what's going on). And so we slurp as best we can -- amateurishly -- given our British and Singaporean table-manners breeding.
Hearing the sermon on the subject is one thing, but it finally hits home only now that the jiro ramen pilgrimage is not so much about finding your way to one of these cult-status noodle bars. It's finding the way to the bottom of your bowl.
On that note, our group finishes with mixed results. Some succeed in making it all the way to read their fortunes in the powdered pepper swirls at the bottom of their bowls (the consenus prediction being mild tummyaches). Others, who shall remain unnamed, leave noodles behind, even after they've palmed some of their bowl off to others.
We stumble out into the cool night air, rosy-cheeked and round-bellied from what just transpired. The line is just as long as when we first arrived. But the faces in the queue have taken on a slightly different air. While before they may have been competitors for a seat at the table, now they feel a little more like fellow pilgrims to be wished well.
Come judgement day of this so-called semi-religion, the tally will read: Jim, Bob, Ben and Nate and all the ramen rectors and soupy saints who have gone before: 1. This foodie who got reminded that there is always more to noodle on: a big fat jiro.
Jiro Ramen, Ikebukero East Exit
2-27-17 Minami-Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku
From Ikebukuro metro station, take exit 43, hang a right at the corner, walk past 2 streets and turn right at the 3rd street. The Jiro Ramen shop will be on your right, on the ground floor of the Coi Minami Building.
Map with directions here
If interested, read Tokyo Ramen's detailed write up on the shop