Neon lights can’t hide the soulless dark grey concrete of the buildings around me. Cars zoom past noisily and a cold wind whips through my hair. There are huge towering glass giants all around and the air beats with the rhythmic pulse of metallic wheels on metallic track as I make my way past the station.
The sun is setting now and I can already see my breath clouding up in front of my face. I pull my black coat around my body – the closest thing I have to a warm embrace – tighten my scarf around my neck and stride forward through the icy wind.
I see something in the distance – something out of place in the concrete jungle – and as I approach, I see a dusty red lantern hanging to the right of a little blue curtain above the door. The worn-out hut looks dwarfed and insignificant among to the colossal towers around it. Yet despite that, there is some sort of air about it that seems strangely appealing.
I reach the small wooden shack and slide the door open, leaving the flashy neon city behind me, to be greeted by a stiflingly hot, dark, musty room. The place is packed, although to be fair, there’s only enough room for seven people. Each one sits on a bar stool at the long wooden counter, head down, faceless, stooped over their meal. The only sound is a loud, energetic slurping – very much a group activity – as if the customers are racing each other to see who can finish first.
The man behind the counter calls out “Heiiiii, irasshai!” welcoming me to his humble home and I sit on a tattered stool – the only free space – and look at the menu on the wall. There are just three dishes to choose from, all of them noodles, and order the second one: the “combination”.
I pour myself a glass of water from the jug on my right which is dripping with condensation in the humid atmosphere, and I reach for some old chopsticks that could have been fashioned by the man himself. I turn back to the counter and find my lunch is already waiting in front of me. Seriously fast food!
It looks like my grandma’s knitting kit has been boiled and served in a washing up bowl.
I plunge my head into the bowl so my nose is merely inches away from the steaming liquid, the same as the rest of my fellow diners. The aroma is overpowering: pungent, meaty and salty, with vegetables and seaweed floating on top.
I lift a piece of meat to my mouth with the chopsticks and take a cautious bite. It burns my lips and I immediately understand why everyone is sucking in such a lot of air while they eat: they’re blowing it in reverse to cool it down. I wince and pull my head back in surprise to find the man behind the counter staring at me with his small beady eyes, studying me carefully.
In the darkness I hadn’t been able to make out his features properly before, but now that my eyes had adjusted to the darkness, I could see he was in fact a very small, wrinkled old man. He reminded me of a monkey in a way: his tanned, wrinkled skin, his beady eyes which shone in the half-light, and his carefree grin. He smiled at me, nodded wisely and mimed putting his head into a bowl of imaginary noodles, grabbing some with his make-believe chopsticks and then slurping them so as not to burn his mouth. He looks up from his imaginary meal, and grins broadly, pointing towards my bowl. I smile back and nod, plunging my face into the bowl again, embraced by the warmth and the comforting aroma of the dish.
I slurp and suck and gulp and swallow for about a minute before coming up for air and when I do, I find that my eyes are watering and my nose is running. I blink away the tears and sniff hard so I don’t have to take my head away from the steaming hot dish, and I go down again for a second helping. The old man next to me is chuckling to himself with the noise I’m making, clearly an amateur, but enjoying every mouthful: slurp, sniff, swallow, blink, slurp, sniff, swallow blink.
As I reach the end of the noodles, I tip my head back, lift up the bowl in both hands and drain the soup. Every last drop. There are no spoons here.
With a satisfied smile, I place the empty bowl back down on the counter and wipe my mouth with the back of my hand, sweating, nose running and eyes watering. The old man is still staring at me, grinning broadly, and he stretches out a leathery hand on the end of a skinny arm with his palm facing the ceiling.
I place a 500 yen coin in his open hand and as his gnarled fingers close on it, he pats me on the back with his other hand.
I stand up from the counter, fit to burst and make my way towards the door. Before I leave I turn to thank the old man, but someone else is already sitting in my seat and he is preoccupied with the new customer.
I slide the door open once again and step out into the cold, dark, busy street, leaving the warm, magical world of the ramen shop behind me.