Field Report: Fukuoka (09 April 2013)

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Where Diego looks at flowers (not somei yoshino this time), visits another castle (par for the course), and tucks into a bowl of the most delicious ramen he’s ever tried in his entire life (so far).

Even on a tightly controlled itinerary – i.e., stick to the castle and don’t wander off – I still burned quite a lot of daylight in Kumamoto. No surprise, then, at seeing the sky already garbed in its late afternoon colours by the time I got back to Fukuoka.

After checking in and seeing to my luggage at the hotel, I popped out to make the best of what little sunshine remained. I had to choose a place to visit, and fast – options were running out as quickly as the light was fading away. I knew that most museums would already be closed for the day, and the city’s famed yatai (roadside food stalls) would not reach the peak of their trade until later in the evening (in any case, with an early departure the next morning I was determined to make an early night of it). So I fell back on my default formula, which should be quite familiar to the readership by now: “Is there a castle in the area?”

Onto the metro now, using the ICOCA card I got at Kansai Airport – yep, gotta love Japanese IC interoperability – and straight to the area of Maizuru Park, where the ruins of Fukuoka Castle stand proudly (or what’s left of them anyway).

Maizuru Park is a sprawling place, so there was a bit of a walk before I started to see any obvious remnants of the castle. Good thing there were some flowering trees along the route to keep the stroll from becoming monotonous.

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In due course, I arrived at the recently (2008) restored Shimonohashi-gomon, which guards one of the three bridges that lead into the castle compound.

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Like many others, Fukuoka Castle was systematically dismantled in the Meiji period after the abolition of the han system. Of course, some parts were easier to destroy than others, and the massive stone walls that are such an iconic part of the typical Japanese fortress are still much in evidence here.

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The site of a former baseball field in the castle grounds has been a major excavation area since 1987, when the ruins of a Heian-era korokan (diplomatic guest house) were discovered. Archaeological work is still under way in the fenced enclosure that surrounds the remains.

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There was a nearby museum about the korokan that I was eager to visit, but it had already closed for the day. With the hour far advanced, I decided to call it a day as well.

But before we move on, here’s something that caught my attention on the way back from the castle.

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Yeah, I know, bike lanes on pavements are hardly an uncommon sight. Even crowded Tōkyō has them, and closer to home my corner of the world is trying (futilely) to lay out a local version to help ease road traffic. However, this was the first time I’d seen such a nicely done take on the concept, with different colours of asphalt, physical barriers and signs clearly marking out the space allotted to riders and pedestrians.

So much for sightseeing. Dinner time!

When I was doing my pre-trip research, I came across several blogs that spoke very highly of a Fukuoka-based ramen restaurant chain called Ichiran, famed for its version of the local speciality Hakata-style ramen. Whilst connoisseurs might view “chain”-anything with suspicion – and sometimes with good reason – I had no such qualms and was keen on trying the place out. As luck would have it, there was a branch somewhere in the sprawling Hakata Station complex not far my my hotel.

Now for a confession: this may be my fourth visit to Japan, but I cannot recall ever having eaten at a real restaurant in any of my previous visits. Hotel buffets usually took care of breakfast, whilst dinner generally consisted of bargain curry rice and whatever else I could haul away from the neighbourhood konbini. So it was with some trepidation that I walked in, purchased a meal ticket from the vending machine by the entrance, waited until the door attendant directed me to a vacant seat, and settled down for the meal.

I’ve got very little experience as a food blogger, so I haven’t quite developed the instinct of properly documenting my meals. To cover up for this gap I’ll have a selection of external links later that will help better illustrate the Ichiran experience. Briefly, here’s what I encountered:

  • The seat. From what I’ve read elsewhere, other ramen restaurants often feature stools ranged along one side of a counter, with the chef and kitchen on the other side. Ichiran takes this concept and gives it a spin. My “seat” turned out to be a small one-person booth consisting of a stool and a small stretch of countertop shielded by partitions on either side (these can be folded partway if you’re dining with a companion). In front was a bamboo-mat curtain that shields you even further, this time from the kitchen staff; it would be opened only when meal tickets and food need to be passed between diner and server. For me, it was a stroke of genius: as a not-particularly sociable solo traveller who’s awkward around strangers, I was given a nice haven of privacy which allowed me to interact with the neighbours as much (or in my case as little) as I wished.
  • The ordering methodology. I know a bit of Japanese but I’m far from fluent, and at my skill level most kanji are as indecipherable as Linear B. Fortunately for me and for other travellers who might not know much of the lingo, the set-up is very user-friendly. For starters, the ticket machine near the door (where one purchases a slip for the main course and various optional extras) has labels in both Japanese and English. And at the diner’s request, an English version of the customisation sheet – seen in the next photograph – can be supplied, or (as in their Ueno branch which I visited much later in this trip) a laminated copy will be lent to you so that you can interpret and use the Japanese version. Once you’re given a seat and finished with the paperwork, press the call button to summon a server; they will collect your meal ticket and customisation sheet. That’s pretty much it – all that’s left is to wait for the food.
  • Here’s my documentation, all ready to turn in. As a first-timer, when it came to the options I pretty much went middle-of-the-road on everything. You’ll also note from my meal ticket that I ordered a ramen and kaedama combo, the kaedama being an extra portion of noodles to enjoy with whatever remains of your soup mid-meal. Y 950 for the lot: pretty reasonable in my view, although I’ve read that this is actually a fairly expensive place when compared with other ramen joints.

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    And at last, my little bowl of wonder.

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    I can wax poetic about the virtues of this incredible dish, but I shan’t – besides I’m a pretty bad poet. Let me just say this as concisely as humanly possible:

    BRILLIANT.

    And as promised, here’s a very small sampling of the numerous blog posts that have been written about the Ichiran chain, by far more competent food writers than I.

  • Strangers and Noodles – A branch in Fukuoka, near the Tenjin metro station.
  • TokyoCheapo – A branch in Tōkyō.
  • DanielMcBane.com – The Hakata Station branch in Fukuoka (same place I went to).
  • Ramen-Otaku – A branch in Tōkyō, somewhere in the Roppongi area.
  • The Food Pursuit – The Ueno branch in Tōkyō (I also visited this branch later in my trip).
  • Ichiran – The official site. Not a blog post, but of course I had to throw this one into the list.
  • With that, my time in Fukuoka is done – for now. As you can well imagine, I’ve barely scratched the surface of this fine city, and I’m quite determined to give it the longer stay it deserves in one of my future visits to Japan. Next time, having a meal or two (or more) at the city’s yatai will be a top priority.

    Next on our itinerary: a side trip to one of Japan’s ancient capitals, Nara.

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    2 responses to “Field Report: Fukuoka (09 April 2013)

    1. Pingback: Food Report: Ichiran (Atré Ueno branch, Tōkyō) | Within striking distance·

    2. Pingback: Field Report: Fukuoka Castle and Kōrokan, Fukuoka, Japan (23 March 2015) | Within striking distance·

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