Dreaming of Hakata Tonight in “Ichika-bachika,”the Hakata-style Udon Noodle Bar that Crossed the Kanmon Strait
Food consultant, Shinichiro Sakaki writes the “How to Associate with Good Restaurants” column on the popular website “Itoi’s Almost Daily Newspaper”. Sakaki, who goes out of his way to find great food of any kind, published his book, “Why Hakata-style Udon did not Cross the Kanmon Strait”. Meanwhile, in August of 2016, the Ippudo Company opened a Hakata-style udon bar, “Ichika-bachika” in Ebisu, Tokyo to pursue its new business model. “Ichika-bachika” serves the very Hakata udon noodle which crossed the Kanmon Strait (the stretch of water separating two of Japan’s four main islands) and went against his theory. How did Sakaki view the Hakata udon bar in Tokyo? He explained in his column.
WORDS by SHINICHIRO SAKAKI
PHOTOS by SHINICHIRO SAKAKI, HIDEKI ANZAWA
Why I Wrote the Book on Hakata Udon (Noodles)
I wrote a book on Hakata-style udon. In Tokyo you can get almost any kind of tasty food, and Hakata udon is one of the rare dishes you cannot. I’d always been quite envious, and had wondered why this was so, which led me to write this book.
Why Hakata Udon did not Cross the Kanmon Strait
This is the title of the book, and I visited many udon restaurants in Hakata in search of the answer to this question. During this journey, many aspects of Hakata udon were revealed, including the reason for the softness of the noodles, why its dashi-stock is sweet and tasty, and why it is quick and reasonable, almost playing the role of a convenient fastfood. Having found out that these characteristics of Hakata udon was exactly the reason why it could not cross the Kanmon Strait, there was a time when I seriously considered the ways to bring Hakata udon restaurants to Tokyo.
However, when after the book I had an opportunity to talk to the president of a famous Hakata udon franchise and asked him, “Why don’t you try to expand the restaurant to Tokyo?” he gave me an unexpected answer.
“There are plenty of people who tell me ‘We will provide the venue and the funding, so will you consider opening a restaurant in Tokyo?’ However, I am capable of finding a place myself, and enough funding to open a single restaurant in Tokyo. Venue and money is not the reason we don’t open in Tokyo. If someone can introduce to us about 20 vibrant women in Tokyo who grew up eating Hakata udon, then I wouldn’t mind crossing the Kanmon Strait. You see, Hakata udon will only taste that good when it’s made by people who believe it is good.”
Listening to that made me even more jealous of the people of Hakata who are able to enjoy Hakata udon on a regular basis. Just as my envy grew, I realized that there is something in Hakata that makes me just as envious as about the udon.
Hakata-style Drinking That is Impossible to Realize in Other Cities
It was how people eat daily in Hakata. In Hakata, businessmen, students, and groups of young people eat heartily without worrying about when to go home. Whether it’s the weekend or weekday, the city at night is surprisingly vibrant. Town of Hakata is reasonably big, and not too big. The city population is big enough to support all kinds of restaurants, but small enough so that human interaction is not diluted.
On top of this, many restaurants have their own specialty, be it gyoza (dumplings), karaage (deep fried chicken), kushiyaki (grilled skewered food), or sashimi (raw fish). Every place you go to is unique and fun. The same dish tastes different and has a different style from one place to the other, which makes you want to visit more than one place at a night. Every time I go to Hakata, I am envious of the way Hakata people enjoy the night, and think is the normal way to do so.
This envy is far more serious than the one I have for Hakata udon. The town of Tokyo will never grow smaller. If the environment that allows casual restaurant/bar hopping is at the core of how people in Hakata enjoy drinking and eating and their food culture, just having one restaurant with Hakata cuisine is not going to help. Unless perhaps several unique restaurants come to Tokyo and open within a walking distance of each other, it might not be possible to drink like in Hakata. So my envy grew.
Opening of a Hakata Udon Bar in Ebisu, Tokyo
Then I hear about an izakaya (Japanese style pub) that finishes off the meal with Hakata udon. The name of the place was “Ichika-bachika,” and run by the Ippudo known for their Hakata ramen.
Ippudo is famous for lifting Hakata ramen, which was merely one local style of ramen, to ramen that people all over the world rave about. If they are seriously tackling Hakata udon, after Hakata ramen then Hakata udon may also join the league. How did they manage to cross the Kanmon strait in the first place? I did not expect that, and came to the restaurant all curiosity.
I was shocked. The moment I entered, it felt as if I were in Hakata! It was not by all means a big venue, but then not stuffy either, and this scale was just right, much like the city of Hakata itself. The big counter sitting in the middle of the restaurant creates scenery reminiscent of the eating stands in Hakata. There’s the kitchen for grilling skewers, and the big pot for boiling the udon. It looks like numbers of eating stands placed next to each other, and the scene is quite vibrant. Beyond the counter, there is a large table, and sitting in the different areas makes it feel like a completely different restaurant.
The menu is quite exciting and fun. You can find skewered pork belly, innards dressed in vinegar, and also a creative drinking accompaniment like maruten (circular-shaped fried fish cake) –which is the staple topping for Hakata udon- seeped and warmed in dashi. The orders come out quickly too, which is nice, because you can place the next order without disrupting your drinking pace.
People of Hakata tend to be impatient, and that is probably why they chose the thin hosomen (thin noodles) for their ramen, because it boils quickly. Similarly, Hakata udon is either pre-boiled or constantly being boiled in anticipation of orders. The reason the eating stands are so fun is because the order comes out quickly, which makes this restaurant very Hakata-like, although it is in Tokyo. Get comfortably tipsy with lemon sour and then cap the night off sipping Hakata udon. You feel as though you are hopping places just in this one place, which makes you smile.
The Ramen-like Udon Only Ippudo Could Have Realized
Hakata from the island of Kyushu came to an alleyway in Tokyo’s Ebisu. Not only that, but also the bowl of Hakata udon I know to be the best, east of the Kanmon Strait. Soft and full of flavor, the noodles are made with a surprising method. I was very much amazed by their method of softening the noodle. The soup is made by preparing two types first -the base soup with umami and another one for adding flavor- and then mixing the two in the bowl.
Applying ramen techniques on udon. That would be something only Ippudo would think of. Preparing the udon in that way would guarantee stable flavor and fragrance… I was impressed as I watched the udon being prepared on the other side of the counter. Realizing this was an idea unique to Ippudo makes it so attractive, almost divine, and I feel restless to visit again.
WORDS by SHINICHIRO SAKAKI
Born in Matsuyama City, Ehime Prefecture. After graduating from the Faculty of Economy of Keio Gijuku University, Sakaki became a consultant linking between restaurants and foodies, helping to develop over 1,000 restaurants and bars. He has delivered his own strategies based on his excellent language skills, doer mentality and immense knowledge. Active in producing and consulting entire culinary cultures and arts, and not just content managing restaurant operations, he also wrote, “How to Associate with Good Restaurants” (Kadokawa Bunko) and “Why Hakata-style Udon did not Cross the Kanmon Strait” (Pia Publication). His daily blog draws a great number of admiring readers.
Why Hakata Udon did not Cross the Kanmon Strait