I’ve just rounded out my second week in Japan, and I’ll tell you: I feel weird. Our language needs a word for déjà vu that applies for locations, not just time, because that’s what I’m feeling. I know I’m in Japan. I’m using Japanese everyday. But I feel like I’m back in Taipei. The driving (of both cars and bicycles and let’s add in the walking of pedestrians because it’s true) is terrible and sporadic. Cars are parked on the sidewalk. It’s okay clean, but not clean at the same time; it’s a very gray city. Mom and pop venders are everywhere, and I can’t even tell what they’re selling half the time. There is nothing but crazy, winding alleys linking all sorts of major roads. Women cover their necks and arms with cloth underneath parasols so they don’t get tan in the 95-degree heat. The rare trees and other beings of nature are surrounded by concrete, to the extent that they might not even be there at all. And there’s this massive, pulsing energy to everything.
One of the things that strikes you immediately in Utsunomiya is the plethora of trendy watering holes in its worn streets—you can’t go by one block without seeing “wine,” “bar,” “izakaya,” “club,” “café,” “tei,” “cocktails,” or “pub”—or any combination of those+. For some reason, history has made Utsunomiya the hub for jazz and cocktails. Indeed, I’ve found 3 groups of people living here: the underage, the elderly, and the fashionable. The trendy spots go to the extent that you can’t choose where to go, and so you don’t go anywhere at all. It’s the epitome of a first world problem.
Considering I had been teased since my high school years for taking so many pictures of both food and people eating food, I figured this would be an excellent start to an official food blog. And also considering my deep love for puns, I bringeth to you my Utsunomiya food diary: Eatsunomiya. (I had originally thought of naming it Utsunomeats—for Utsunomiya+eats—but realized that not to be too vegetable/fruit/grain/lentil/any-non-meat-friendly sounding.
To begin, I am beginning a mini-series in this whole food blog adventure: my search for the perfect tonkotsu ramen—tonkotsu being a broth made out of pork bones, and one of the food loves of my life. During the last two weeks or so of my stay in Nagoya, I happened to eat at a restaurant called Ichiran, a chain that specializes in tonkotsu ramen, and even suggests customers to come outside of peak eating hours to avoid the massive crowds that swarm to eat its delicious fatty, broth-y, negi-y goodness. The one in Nagoya is prepared with a rope fence out front to form lines, and unfortunately I was only able to eat there once in my life so far. I kick myself every lunchtime for not discovering it right around the corner from where I worked sooner.
Like Costco and Tokyu Hands, all of the surrounding prefectures have Ichiran, and Tochigi is the odd man out with a fantastic total of zero. I am determined to find in Utsunomiya its equivalent—or its surpassor (I apparently have just made this word up, but this is another one we need in all of our new English vocabularies). And not just the surpassor of Ichiran—but the surpassor of the delicious Ichiran in my memory (I may be wearing extremely rosy glasses right now, but who knows until I try it again. In any case, I’m bringing out the big guns of my criticism).
Sure I could just zip on over to Tokyo and eat a bowl there, but the conflict arises: Ichiran, or Ganguro Café? Ichiran, or HaruKor Ainu restaurant? I may need to put my tried and true love on hold until after I really knock some things off my Tokyo bucket list.
My first review is Motomachi-ya, a small Yokohama-style ramen diner that could sit I’d say about 15 or so people at its main bar. I chose this one because it was on my way home from work and on a major street—I didn’t have to worry about whether it was this alley or that one or that over there or actually this one or had I passed it already?
It’s in the style of ticket vending machine order—you put your money in the machine at the door and choose/customize your order. I went with just the regular ramen, which you can’t beat for a price of only ￥680.
As I waited, I looked at the laminated special offers at the bar-table. One was offering grilled xialongbao (Shanghai soup dumplings—the other love of my life and the reason I stole away to Ding Tai Fung the first chance I had during my business trip to Tokyo earlier this week) for a decent price (3 for I believe ￥280), and I was tempted to call for an order, but decided not to. I know my stomach (it’s small) and my wallet (it’s also getting small). Next time.
Now to the ramen itself. The noodles were quite thick and cooked to a good texture. However, I was quite disappointed by the broth—the essence of tonkotsu ramen. Maybe it’s just me, but it was very plain on its own and tasted more like a chicken broth instead of pork, and even the slice of fatty pork they give you (chaashuu) tasted more like poultry than pig. The almost syrupy broth was extremely thick and marrow-y, and I think would be absolutely excellent going down a sore throat if you were down with a cold. Or in Hokkaido in the winter. It would definitely go over well there. Otherwise, it was a pretty plain bowl of noodle soup—the only other add-ins were chopped up green onion and 3 slices of nori. To be fair, I may have my expectations up too high (♡Ichiran).
Final evaluation: just okay. It’s pretty plain, but decent for the price. I may be back if/when I catch a cold.
This dog-loving former Tochigi CIR hails from its sister-state of Indiana and loves traveling the world and eating everything. She graduated after completing a thesis discussing the links between human trafficking and idol culture, and now works in Tokyo for an international human rights NGO.