There is always something snug and vaguely magical about Japanese shopping arcades; as though they are tight mazes of fantasy spaces, clustered one after another, each offering a glimpse at a new planetary existence. Unlike in American or European malls, the stores tend to be stacked in haphazard fashion, often vertically inside what seems on the outside like a generic office building. The clues to the internal life mishmashed inside are the brightly colored signs under each row of windows, crowing in their happy calligraphy, each advertising a small universe inside.
My mother and I have gone on a food lovers’ tour of Hokkaido, Japan, as a side trip from a longer visit to Korea. I am in transition, having left a job, a serious relationship, and a decade in New York City for a move back home to Maryland. Licking my wounds, I have gone on this tour as a restorative bonding measure with my mother, as food has always been the language of love between us. She has always been there with warm kimchi stew, savory fried pork mandu dumplings, grilled soy-marinated bulgogi whenever I have felt down and out.
Here in Hokkaido, the second largest of Japan’s four main islands, we get to share our food fantasies in full force. We are in a foodie fairyland, with buffets of snapping-fresh giant snow crab legs and the creamiest uni I’ve ever had. The straight-from-sea sushi here practically gleams like semi-transparent gems. Even the local specialty of lavender ice cream is surprisingly dreamy. But there is one pilgrimage left for us in Hokkaido: this is Sapporo, ramen capital of the world.
And once inside one of these glittering Japanese malls in Sapporo, I face a carnivalesque barrage of neurostimuli, glittering in techno hypercolor. Video screens in super-HD, simultaneously broadcasting the same set of raven-haired local celebrities, crammed beside rows of candy-toned cell phones in models meant for release in 2020 stateside. Turn left, and there is a bay of IKEA-like home and office goods, in modern earth tones, all neatly packaged, notepads and pencil containers and slippers and seat cushions.
Everything seems to be chirping at me, anthropomorphized and cutesy, beckoning me to adopt them. But I am searching for something to swallow whole. My next meal. The magic arcade delivers again; after being spirited up some escalators, I maneuver around mannequins in silken kimonos to a hidden corner of delight. It feels like a retreat inside a dark enchanted forest, this small yellow brick road through an array of intimate booths, with Kanji-lettered cloth banners signifying the food nation I have visited. A chef posing as samurai sentry guards each booth, with rations of liquid delight steaming behind the counters. Small hot overhead lights diffuse through the steam, as though you are on stage. People sit in stools by each narrow counter, gleaming in lacquered wood; they are hunched silently over their bowls of glee, save some gentle slurping.
It’s difficult to choose one land to visit. Each place seems like it harbors its secret prize, its national treasure. Trusting in local judgment, my mother and I choose one counter that seems a little more crowded than the others. Ramen is a recent hipster noodle craze in my hometown Washington, DC, in New York City, and beyond. My mother and I are here to indulge in the O.G. of noodle bowls, at the source.
Pointing at a picture menu, we order what hopefully are standard bowls of shoyu ramen, pork broth heaven with soft yellow noodles. Within minutes, the bowls are right in front of us, begging for affection. I dip my spoon into the broth and sip. I’ve had many bowls of ramen, even fairly authentic ones in Japanese food courts in New Jersey and California, but this, THIS. The depth, the round richness of umami and savory musing, as though your mouth was perusing pages of a good book gradually unfolding its mysteries one after another. Everything else I’d tasted was the Cliffs Notes version. This was unadulterated Shakespeare.
Part of the joylike fun of ramen is its child’s play with its hidden variety of toppings and textures: bean and bamboo sprouts, roasted Kurobuta pork, pink and white fishcake, yellow corn, et cetera in addition to the chewy hominess of the noodles. Here, with my mother beside me, despite being in my mid-30s, I revel like a kid in Ramenland, feeling like I’ve entered a cozy little niche, womb-like, with the fragrant steam, the carnally tender meat, the orchestral broth that sings notes from bright soprano to rich baritone. The Japanese have a knack for retaining the curiosity-driven wonders of childhood in their grown-up ventures, and here I feel at ease, even in a foreign land where I can’t read or speak. Infantilized that way, I am fine in Ramenland, because what matters is the nonverbal, sensory experience that pushes to this grand culinary apotheosis.
And like any dream, it is over too quickly. I have devoured my bowl, and my mother and I smile to our keeper and pay the bill. We rush back to catch our tour bus, as we again weave through the array of shopping “villages,” and say goodbye to this electric fairy tale, this galactic circus. As I feel pleasantly postprandial on the bus, I let my recollections dance on replay, clinging to them as tightly as any beloved childhood memory.
Jean Kim is a physician and writer who currently works and lives in the DC Metro area. She blogs for Psychology Today and has been published in The Rumpus, The Daily Beast, Bethesda Magazine, and more. Her webpage is jeankimmd.blogspot.com and her twitter account is @jeankimmd.