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Friday, Feb. 15, 2002

BILINGUAL

Pilgrims taking the long and winding road to ramen heaven


One mind-boggling feature of Japan's media is its sheer, singleminded dedication to and passionate obsession with food. This especially applies to the genre known as menrui (noodles). From somen and soba to Vietnamese pho and supa (spaghetti), the Japanese have always had an inordinate love for nagai mono (long stuff), not least because it connotes longevity and prosperity. Long live the long stuff.

Of these, ramen is in a league of its own. Engage any Japanese over 10 and under 90 on this particular topic, then stand back and see what happens. Their pupils will dilate imperceptibly, their lips will moisten and part, and each cheek will flush rosily as they open their hearts to share their ramen secrets. Not all Japanese are o-cha (green tea) drinkers, much less versed in chado (The Way of Tea), but ramen -- now here is a true Japanese ritual and preoccupation that transcends age and location. Make no mistake, people are very, very serious about it.

In the one camp are the ramen-ya (ramen shop chefs, and we're talking top-notch here) who at this point in time have reached a status on a par with, say, girl group Morning Musume. In other words, theirs is celebrityhood tinged with familiarity. They walk down the street and people will direct the obligatory ganbatte kudasai (work hard, we're rooting for you!) at their retreating figures. In this way, a famous ramen-ya can wield the kind of influence high-powered bureaucrats only dream about.

In the opposing camp (or on the opposite side of the counter) is the o-kyaku (customer, and we're talking your average bloke) who at this point in time has reached a state of servility on a par with sheep. The o-kyaku will do almost anything for what is deemed the kyukyoku no ramen (the ultimate ramen), having been conditioned to believe such a thing exists by countless TV and radio shows, manga stories, magazine articles, travel brochures, etc.

This ultimate ramen is a phantom of the Japanese imagination, designed to forever elude and tease. Still, we can't help but search for it, waiting in long lines in freezing weather, convinced that, surely, the next bowl could be it.

The adjectives that describe the ideal ramen are always the same: The soup is atsu-atsu (piping hot), the men (noodles) are tsuru-tsuru (shiny smooth) and shiko-shiko (zesty on the palate), and the chashu (roast pork) that rests on top of the noodles is atsusugizu, ususugizu (not too thick and not too thin). Put 'em all together and the experience is such that certain other physical activities pale in comparison.

Recently, however, the scales have tipped too far. Some ramen-ya have come to think of themselves as demigods, and have taken to opening shops with names like Men-Kui Dojo (the noodle-eating dojo) or Ramen Kyokai (the church of ramen). In these establishments, ramen-eating is the equivalent of building karma or practicing kendo -- something spiritual that entails bowing deeply to the chef, reading every single house rule pasted on the wall and assuming the attitude of a Tibetan monk from an exceptionally rigorous order.

I've seen girls dissolve in tears because the ramen-ya yelled at them for drinking water before touching the soup. One pony-tailed o-kyaku was ordered off the premises because his bangs were too long and might fall into the sacred bowl. And at one place in Ogikubo, aka the Ramen War Zone, five o-kyaku had to wait 30 minutes in a line outside, then another 20 inside, only to be told that the place was closing for the night and that they would have to leave immediately.

Feeling hungry? Get ready to pray.



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