Kyushu is famous for its rich, varied food culture, and particularly for the rivalry between Hakata ramen and Kumamoto ramen. The former uses pork-based soup, thin noodles, ginger and fresh garlic, and is distinguished by a serving of only a small amount of noodles, to which the customer requests seconds. Kumamoto ramen uses a mixture of pork- and chicken-based soups, thicker noodles, and garlic that has either been fried or boiled. Hakata’s ramen champion is the legendary restaurant Ichiran, while Kokutei carries the banner for Kumamoto.
Situated in a corner of the large underground shopping arcade at Hakata train station, more than 40 people wait in line outside Ichiran at peak hours, browsing framed photographs and signatures of celebrities who have eaten there. Buzzer-like music loops every 30 seconds above your head, and when a waiter outside the entrance hands you a questionnaire and asks you if you’re a regular, you begin to feel as though there is a standard you need to match.
This turns out to be true. The restaurant prides itself on a turnover of one customer every 33 seconds. On the questionnaire, you can choose the strength of garlic, hardness of noodles, volume of negi, amount of chili and any extras. The queue continues inside the cramped restaurant, reminding you of a claustrophobic indoor roller-coaster ride. This adventure, as it turns out, is just as intense and thrilling. Once you fill out your form and buy a food ticket at the machine, you wait for the electronic board to indicate that seats have been vacated.
The eating area is sliced into four rows of counter seats, down four very narrow corridors. Each seat is blocked off by a wooden plank. The busy waiters are invisible behind a me-kakushi noren, a hanging cloth that almost reaches the table. The noren trumpets a unique service that enables “even female customers to eat (i.e. slurp) their noodles to their hearts content, safe from the discerning eyes of fellow customers,” or indeed from even being recognized as women. You order food “without making a sound.” Simply place your questionnaire and food ticket under the noren; A disembodied pair of arms appears from the other side of the counter and takes them away. The food arrives in no time. This sounds suspiciously like an impersonal fast-food restaurant. But you need not worry; on the noren is written a detailed description of how the noodles and soup are tailor-made to match every changing season, the weather and humidity, and a rather optimistic suggestion that the customer really indulge in the unique taste without being distracted by anything else.
Koku-tei is a completely different bowl of noodles. The restaurant is a 10-minute walk from Kumamoto train station; and the atmosphere is an exercise in contrasts. Cooks and waiters are free of claustrophobic norens: Indeed, they are the precise selling-point of this restaurant. Taking up more than half the floor place, the kitchen is exposed to both counter seats and table seats; and its occupiers are all women, about 15 of them, in matching aprons and head-scarves. Their ages range from 20s to 60s; some are clearly veterans, some are learners, all are very vocal, very “genki” and very busy. The sight is disengaging to the uninformed customer, but also powerful and oddly inspiring. Guide books praise the all-female cast for providing a “homey atmosphere.” Indeed, if a home were quite like this, I would be inclined to feel rather sorry for its male members. Nevertheless, the atmosphere is incomparably more relaxed and unifying than that of Ichiran.
As for taste, both restaurants are without rivals, and must be visited for the ultimate Hakata/Kumamoto ramen experiences. The Kumamoto-ramen soup was, for me, too strong, so by the time the noodles were enjoyed, I could not sip the soup and savor the delicious ample negi that was still left floating. The Hakata-ramen, perhaps because I could choose the ingredients to suit my taste, was more painlessly devoured; but the unique atmosphere was easily more jaw-dropping. As I left the restaurant, trying not to breathe gales of garlic at the next customer as we slid against each other in the narrow corridor, my lasting thought was whether my compromised jaw had slowed my eating speed, and jeopardized the restaurant’s one-customer-every-33-seconds’ promise.
Ichiran, 2F basement, 2-2-1 Fukuoka Center Building (in front of Hakata station), Hakata-ku, Fukuoka; tel: (092) 473-0810; www.ichiran.co.jp; Open 10 a.m.-10 p.m. all year round; Prices: from 650 yen per bowl.
Kokutei, 1-2-29 Nihongi, Kumamoto-shi, Kumamoto; tel: (096) 352-1648; ramen.gnavi.co.jp/shop/jp/f012200n.htm; Open: 10:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m. (closed Thursdays); Prices: 560 yen-1,080 yen.