Did somebody use the word “bland” in describing the Japanese male temperament? Wrong. Misinformed. Arienāi! (ありえなーい, not possible!) Okay, maybe my countrymen are bland in some areas best not mentioned in polite conversation. But let me set the record straight: the Japanese male is a toritsukareta (取り憑かれた, obsessive), shōdōteki (衝動的, impulsive), gōyoku (強欲, greedy), downright yajyū (野獣, beast)! At least when it comes to ramen.
You heard right: that greasy, steaming bowl laced and layered with fatty calories, has the power to make grown men stand in line for an hour, in all kinds of weather. It will transform a depressed, morose man with thoughts of suicide into a babbling, happy rāmen-baka (ラーメンバカ, a fool for ramen). So fevered is the man-ramen relationship, that we have now reached an era where one out of two Japanese men between the ages of 40 and 74 have been diagnosed with, or are in the preliminary stages of having naizōshibō shōkōgun (内蔵脂肪症候群, metabolic syndrome).
For all that, nothing brightens the Japanese male countenance quite like a bowl of ramen, preferably with a beer. Even better is when the ramen shop is the type to have bowls of nama ninniku (生にんにく, raw garlic) lined up on the counter, which customers are free to add to their bowls. Can you wonder that the dating scene is as dead as a doornail? All those men out there not caring what they smell like.
The popular notion is that for men, shirogohan (白ごはん, white rice) is the wife, while ramen is the eternal mistress. However far he strays, a man will eventually come home to eat a bowl of home-cooked rice — but the rest of the time, his thoughts are with his noodles. Especially after an official company nomikai (飲み会, drinking party) that entails navigating through conversational landmines with one’s jyōshi (上司, section boss), men are apt to hurry toward their favorite rāmenya (らーめん屋, ramen shop) with the purposeful gait of a young Victorian lover off to visit an Isabelle Adjani lookalike laced in a corset.
Much has been said and written about the correct and best procedure for tackling that ramen bowl — according to my personal observations, the protocol changes with a man’s age. Those under 35 engage in behavior that may only be described as sacrilege, such as going for the chāshyū (焼豚, slices of roast pork) first thing, or picking bit of negi (ねぎ, scallions) out of the bowl because they can’t stand veggies. Men over 40 on the other hand, tend to their bowls like priests at the altar. “Men ga sakika, sūpu ga sakika” (「麺が先か、スープが先か」”Eat the noodles first, or take a sip of soup first?”) is a philosophical question on par with Hamlet’s. And after finishing off that bowl, there’s the inner battle over the issue of kaedama (替え玉, a second portion of noodles, ladled into the bowl when there is soup is left over). Does one dare disregard the warning signals of one’s girth? It’s a quandary.
One of the most palpable pleasures of ramen-eating had been the post-bowl cigarette but now that so many smokers have quit, they are now opting to go for the kaedama, if only to ease the kuchisabishisa (口寂しさ, lonely mouth) that often plagues those who have sworn off nicotine. The less people smoke, the more they feel tempted to stock up on calories, which has given rise to the unthinkable emergence of the kinen rāmenya (禁煙らーめん屋, non-smoking ramen shop), which compensates for the lack of cigarette smoke by offering extra shibōbun (脂肪分, fat matter) all around. It’s common knowledge that the number of chāshyū slices once stabilized at three per bowl, has gone up to as much as five or six slices and they’re actually thicker!
On the other side of the counter, another story unfolds. As in most other areas of the Japanese gaishoku sangyō (外食産業, food service industry), it’s heavily conservative, entrenched in tradition and extremely labor intensive. Work begins at 7 in the morning or earlier, and it’s the job of the shitappa (下っ端, guy in the bottom tier of the shop hierarchy) to scrub the sink, wash any leftover pots from the night before, plunge his hands into a huge bucket of ice-cold water to scrub blocks of meat and bones to be used for stock, sweep up the chūbō (厨房, kitchen) floor inevitably slick with grease and dust, wipe the counters and clean the toilet. The work doesn’t let up until 2 p.m., when the shitappa can slurp a bowl himself (usually standing behind a pillar in the chūbō) before washing up the crockery from lunch. After that, the shop goes on until 10 or 11 p.m. It’s said that a ramenya has the highest risk of cancer and earliest mortality rate of all other food businesses, but the number of youths who dream of owning and running a ramenya increases by the year. But for the Japanese male, death by ramen isn’t the worst way to go.