As some of you may know last month I took a whirlwind trip to Japan where I visited Tokyo, Hakata, Kurume, and perhaps my favorite destination of all the charming town of Hirokawamachi in the space of four days. The trip was organized by my good friend Kazuko Nagao, the Okonomiyaki Queen of NYC, and sponsored by the local government of Hirokawamachi. I’d like to thank the the Hirokamachi Board of Tourism for their gracious hospitality and the cooking lessons!
After two days of seeing and eating as much as I could in the bustling metropolis of Tokyo it was time to head to the country, specifically Hirokawamachi. The good folks at the local tourism board specifically requested that I visit the week before Thanksgiving to partake in one of the country town’s most beloved traditions, Taibaru Icho Meguri, or gingko leaf peeping, as it was still autumn in Japan.
Since Tokyo’s on the island of Honshu and Hirokawamachi is on Kyushu we took a short flight to Fukuoka and then hopped on the Shinkansen—or bullet train—to Kurume. I was only there briefly, but it’s fair to say Kurume is to Tokyo as Oakland is to San Francisco. It’s also the gateway to Hirokawamachi and no visit is complete without checking out what Kazuko-san likes to call “Kurume Disneyland.”
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Rather than a full-blown amusement park, it’s a mechanical taiko drum clock erected in 1999 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of Kurume’s great figures, Tanaka Hisashige, known as “the Thomas Edison of Japan. Every hour it plays a song by a different Kurume composer and gives a little show detailing Hisashige’s contributions. At noon that song is Hachidai Nakamura’s “Sukiyaki,” made famous in the States in the 1970s by disco diva duo A Taste of Honey.
Soon it was time to meet Koji Yamamura, head of the local tourism board, and his childhood friend Kazuo Sakata. Kurume is the birthplace of tonkotsu ramen and the pair took us to their favorite spot, Mohikan Ramen. It takes its name from the fact the founder and Chef Kawazu Yuta sports a mohawk. As soon as we entered I was struck by the intensely porky aroma. While we waited for a table I gawked at two huge vats where pork bones are boiled for hours on end.
In contrast to the relatively light tasting tonkotsu ramen I had in Tokyo, this Kurume style O.G. pork ramen is positively unctuous, packed with a not unpleasant porcine funk. The slices of meat were great too, but what makes Mohikan really special is the little touches like fried rice made tableside and their unique approach to kaedama. Instead of just serving extra noodles, they cook up a ramen frittata in a cast iron pan. The crunchy brown noodle pie is great on its own and even better dipped into the broth. The texture of this noodle pie made me think of NYC ramen master Keizo Shimamoto’s Ramen Burger. I wonder if he’s been to Mohikan.
As we drove south toward Hirokawamachi, I was amazed by a giant statue of Kannon, as Guanyin the Boddhisatva of Compassion is known in Japan. It’s a focal point of the Daihonzan Naritasan Kurume Temple. My hosts said it protects motorists. With Kannon at our back we drove onward, the scenery turning progressively more rural as evidenced by rolling hills filled with persimmon trees, and traditional Japanese minka, or houses with ornately curved wooden roofs. Soon we arrived at Orige a guest house whose name means “my house” in Hirokawamachi dialect.
After we checked in we headed outside to savor a local specialty in the greenhouse, Hirokawamachi’s famous strawberries. Kazuko-san and I were both amazed to find them still in season.
We were soon on the road again. One sure sign of being out for a drive in Hirokawamachi—besides rolling hills covered in the lush evergreen Japanese cedars—is the presence of keitora, or miniature pickup trucks. After crossing Hirokawa, the river from which the town gets its name, we arrived at Chanohado to learn about Japanese green tea from Hironori Harano.
Before teaching us about traditional matcha Harano-san poured some gyokuro, a super premium tea whose name means “jade dew.” The leaves spend part of their growing time in the shade and the brew itself has a remarkable umami flavor that tastes more like seaweed broth than tea.
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Harano-san then demonstrated how to froth matcha using a chasen, or bamboo whisk. After half a lifetime of working with matcha he made it look easy. I tried my best to froth the green tea, but despite his instructions to make a letter “M,” I couldn’t achieve the same amount of bubbles. Chanohado’s matcha was the best I had in Japan. It was followed by two scoops of soft serve ice cream, one made with hojicha, or roasted green tea, and the other with matcha. The latter has ruined me for all other green tea ice cream.
After dessert Harano-san put me to work making green tea using an ishi usi, a traditional granite mill. It was a good workout, and, thankfully I’m much better at grinding matcha than whisking it. Before we said our goodbyes we shot a little video with the tea master and his wife where we debuted a new slogan Kazuko-san and I devised for the town “Korega Hirokawamachi Desu!” or “We are Hirokawamachi!”
In three days of being in Japan I had tried two types of ramen as well some excellent udon, but had yet to sample soba. That was soon to be remedied by a short drive north to Suisha Soba Sakase where we met Sumio Nagano, a retired firefighter and soba enthusiast who opened the restaurant in 2006. Lunch seemed so long ago and I was eager to try the specialty of the house, but first Nagano-san put me to work, handing me a deep indigo colored apron made from kurume kasuri, a traditional textile. The buckwheat dough had already been laid out, but it had yet to be sliced into noodles.
“That doesn’t look so hard,” I thought to myself as I watched Nagano-san. His left hand held a wooden guide, or komaita, that covered the dough and in his right was the soba kiri, a giant noodle cleaver. With machine like precision he lowered the knife, sliding the guide to the left as he went, leaving precisely sliced buckwheat noodles in the blade’s wake.
Now it was my turn to try my hand at sobauchi. The first few strands came out like the master’s, but then my technique fell apart. Some strands were like angel hair and some like linguine. His wife, also a noodle making machine in her own right, attempted to show me how. The couple did not instruct me in cooking the noodles, but I suspect that years of practice with pasta would have made me better equipped for that task.
Soon we were enjoying the nutty tasting buckwheat noodles in the form of zaru soba, cold noodles with a dipping sauce made from freshly grated wasabi and green onions. To drink there was a tea made from mountain herbs. The noodles, tea, and conversation with my new friends from Hirokawamchi proved most fortifying after all the hard work of noodle making. Afterwards Nagano-san showed me the water mill—Sakase Gotton Kan—and grinding operation that adjoins the restaurant. The giant paddle wheel looks it was a built a century ago, but it actually dates to 1995 when it was constructed by Tadayuki Nakamura, a nationally famous waterwheel carpenter. Nagano-san had already been making soba as a a hobby so when he retired the town hired him to manage the mill and he decided to open the restaurant and his bring his passion for sobauchi public.
That evening Kazuko-san and I gave a presentation on tourism and travel to the local business people and the tourism board. Afterwards my new friends and I headed to dinner at Yoranno a restaurant whose name means “Aren’t you coming?” in the local dialect. Chef Daishi Shimomura laid out a feast for us that included gorgeous sashimi; a platter of fried oysters and fried chicken; anko no mizutaki or monkfish hotpot; and a fried rice made with local river crab. Everything was delicious, but I especially enjoyed scooping the remaining bits of guts and meat out of the crab carcass. With our bellies full, we retired for that night as we had a big second day of touring planned, including gingko leaf peeping.