Can’t last a day without Men (麺)
When in Japan, you can’t not eat ‘men’. There are all kinds of men in Japan. Ramen. Soba. Udon. Instant. Bespoke.
Have them hot, in boiled savoury soup, or eat them cold/dry, dipping them in sauce/soup. Or fried – with vegetables/meat/seafood.
Recently, on a 12 day around-Kyushu trip, we managed to savour many types of ‘men’. From Fukuoka to Kagoshima to Kumamoto and Oita, I’ve never eaten so noodles so often, on any trip to Japan.
Day 1/Dazaifu – When there’s no Soba, there’s still Udon
It was our first day in Kyushu and a day trip to Dazaifu 大宰府 seemed appropriate. Previously an administrative centre, Dazaifu had become a tourist attraction centred around a shrine, a temple and a couple of museums.
Nothing beat having a hot bowl of noodles to wash away the fatigue caused by our red-eye flight. We asked the young man at the tourist bureau for recommendations and he suggested Namiman (soba) and Saifu Udon (さいふうどん).
Namiman was closed so we decided to try Saifu Udon. It was along the end of a side street and we actually walked past it. Not wanting to waste time, I asked an affable big guy nearby for directions. Turned out we were just outside his shop.
Udon is usually served plain. Then you decide what type of toppings you want ie beef or tempura (seafood, vegetables). At Saifu, we tried most that was on the menu: plain, beef, asparagus (tempura) and prawn (tempura).
The udon broth was excellent, and the asparagus tempura was light and fresh. I wished the udon was hand-made on the spot though. That would have made it perfect.
Saifu Udon: 3-4-31 Saifu, Dazaifu, Fukuoka
Day 2/Hakata – On a drizzly night, ramen was all we needed
Hakata Isshou (博多一双) was about 600m from the back of Hakata station. We were back from Nagasaki early because we cancelled the Mt Inasa night view due to heavy rain. Hakata wasn’t as wet. Still, it was drizzling and cold even on a summer night. When we got to Issou, there was already a long queue outside – must be good.
We waited about half an hour. There were only 2 wait staff, 1 in charge of cleaning tables, 1 taking care of orders. Very productive as usual. We bought our tickets from the machine while still in the queue, to cut short waiting time. Then we continued to stand outside the glass wall, peering hungrily at patrons slurping down their ramen inside.
I always order the best-selling ramen. At ¥1000/bowl, it came in a brothy soup that looked heavy at first instance but wasn’t at all. Didn’t disappoint of course, this being one of the top ramen shop in Hakata. Definitely worth the rain, the wait and the cold.
Hakata Issou: 3-1-6 Hakataekihigashi Hakata-ku Fukuoka
Day 3/Kagoshima: On a quiet afternoon, our tastebuds gratified
We spent the morning at Sakurajima. The weather was a bit cloudy, a bit grey, not the best backdrop for a famous volcanic island. But the weather was perfect for taking a stroll in the quiet streets in search of the #1 ramen in Kagoshima, and in our opinion, the #1 in Kyushu. We soon found Tontoro (豚とろ 天文館本店) in the Tenmonkan district.
The shop was quite spacious with a bar counter near the door and a separate tatami area for bigger groups. Perhaps it was past lunch hour so there was no queue.
At Tontoro, they used black pork so the soup base more flavourful than usual yet not too greasy. But expect the soup to be salty, as with most Japanese ramen.
There was another branch at Tenmonkan Arcade but after our eating around, we realised the best way to savour the best of ramen, was to have it at the main branch.
Tontoro: 9-41 Yamanokuchichō, Kagoshima-shi, Kagoshima-ken 892-0844
Day 4/Kagoshima: To satisfy hunger pangs on the go, Ramen
We spent the morning at the Museum of Meiji Restoration which was short walk from Kagoshima-Chuo station. This wasn’t part of our grand plan but it really surpassed our expectations (and it’s only ¥300/pax). By the time we finished, it was almost lunch and we needed to fill our stomachs quickly before heading to Myoken Onsen. Coincidentally, Zabon Ramen (ざぼんラーメン) was located at the basement of the station (Amu Plaza) and on the way back to our hotel.
We ordered the shop’s main item – the Zabon Ramen which was just the right portion for a quick stopover meal. In hindsight, we ought to have ordered the Sakurajima Chashu men.
It was a busy working day noon so there was a ceaseless stream of customers but the turnaround was fast and customers were co-operative.
The broth for this one was still pork-based but lighter than the usual tonkotsu ramen, so it wasn’t so heavy on the palate or stomach. And there were lots of vegetables, quite Chinese style.
Zabon Ramen: B1-F Amu Plaza, 1-1 Chūō-chō, Kagoshima-shi, Kagoshima-ken
Day 6/Kumamoto: On a moonless night, 2 moons in my bowl
Kumamoto was a quiet , quiet city. Even the trams had lesser carriages than usual. The only place where there were people bustling around was the Kumamoto train station.
I was worried Kokutei (黒亭) wouldn’t be open. The street was so quiet everywhere seemed to be asleep. Yet, the shop was spacious and bustling with high energy when we walked in.
The #1 ramen in Kumamoto certainly didn’t disappoint. There were many options to choose from. We could order ramen, or ramen+beer set or ramen+rice set etc. Interestingly, the ramen featured 2 raw egg yolks instead of the usual onsen egg. And the fried garlic gave the soup an extra frgrance.
The ramen+rice sets gave customers the option of having both noodles and rice (because the rice bowl looked very oishii too). We were amazed to see petite ladies emptying out the ramen/rice bowls all by themselves.
Kokutei was our #2 ramen in Kyushu and very near our hotel (only 500m from Kumamoto train station).
Kokutei: 2-1-23 Nihongi Nishi-ku Kumamoto Kumamoto
Day 7/Takachiho: A change of pace, soba
The bus journey from Kumamoto to Takachiho cho was more than 3 hours, taking up an entire morning. By the time we reached the bus terminal, it was already lunch. We asked locals where’s the top recommendation for lunch and they suggested Ten-an (天庵).. Ten-an was tucked by a small side road, off the main road to Takachiho shrine and Takachiho gorge.
The restaurant was quite sizeable but there was a constant stream of patrons so we had to write our name on the reservation list and wait. I think we waited 15 minutes for a table and another 20 minutes for our orders to be served.
The whole place breathed authenticity. The zaru soba set came with salad, inari sushi, tempura and dessert, a full meal that filled the stomach yet didn’t overwhelm the palate.
For lighter options, you could choose the ala carte items, such as hot chicken soba which came in a heavy ceramic bowl and prettily adorned with fluffy egg.
Ten-an: 1180-25 Mitai Takachiho Nishiusuki-gun Miyazaki
Day 9/Mt Aso – A thousand miles of grass, ramen with a view
Mt Aso (1592m) was a major tourist destination, yet rather inaccessible if you didn’t drive. We stayed at Kurokawa Onsen so that made it doubly inconvenient. Thankfully, our Ryokan (Sanga) provided ‘last-mile’ pick-up so we managed to connect to the buses early and have enough time at Aso.
We saw that there were a few eating places at Kusasenri 草千里 so we alighted to check out the place. Lunch was at the New Kusasenri (ニュー草千里) restaurant which looked more like a foodcourt.
The restaurant offered window-gallery seats from where you could munch on your lunch while admiring the scenery outside. Lunch could be ordered from the cashier and despite it being ‘mass-produced’, the quality was surprisingly good. Even the ramen looked like it was from a proper ramen shop.
New Kusasenri: 2391-15 Nagakusa, Aso-shi, Kumamoto-ken 869-2231, Japan
Day 10/Yufuin – Not pork but chicken, jidori ramen
The hour-long bus journey from Kurokawa to Yufuin was good for the eyes, passing by the Chojabaru National Park (yet many people slept). We timed it such that we would reach there around lunch. The ladies at the tourist information recommended Fukusuke (福助), so we went. Always trust locals, that’s our motto.
The shop was nestled in a container-like structure. It could only seat 11 (we were already 6) so the shop was full after we went in. The shop’s mainstay was the Jidori ramen 地鶏ラーメン ie free-range chicken ramen. You could also order the Jidori butter ramen, or the Spicy ramen (#2, probably due to the number of Korean patrons).
Unlike tonkotsu ramen, the Jidori ramen had a clear soup base and a much lighter taste. Our tastebuds were pampered.
Fukusuke: 3052-3 Yufuincho Kawakami Yufu Oita
Day 12/Fukuoka – The 2nd son’s ramen
Back in Fukuoka, we were at Tenjin station and for convenience, walked into Parco’s basement food street which featured many interesting food stalls. We wanted a not-too-heavy lunch so we decided to try Ramen Jinanbo (らーめん二男坊).
This was a traditional tonkotsu-style ramen. The soup was tasty but the serving was quite small. It was good enough, though perhaps it being a branch, it lacked the punch. Better to go to the main shop, we say. It was so near our hotel yet we didn’t know it.
Ramen Jinanbo (Main): Hakata Ekimae, 2 Chome 16-4
Home page: http://r-jnb.jp/
There were many other feted noodle places just that we didn’t have enough time or stomach to try them all. Like, we missed out champon ちゃんぽん in Nagasaki and the Nagashi Sōmen 流し素麺 in Takachiho and Ibusuki. But I guess that couldn’t be helped.
Visited: 17-28 May 18