An empty bowl of Sapporo ramen is a good bowl of Sapporo ramen. Everybody knows that the trains run on time here, but ramen has been one of those unexpected pleasures of living in Japan. I think I’ve even mastered the Art of Slurping.
I could be wrong here, but I think I get the Theory of Slurping. The noodles are too hot to allow them to touch the tongue, so you need to avoid as much surface contact as possible with the interior of the mouth. It’s kind of like the opposite of kissing: no tongue, no mouth, teeth only used sparingly, except that you probably shouldn’t be using your teeth when you kiss, unless the kissee likes that.
But it’s a long walk down the train station platform from Slurping Theory to Slurping Practice. You’re not only contending with hot noodles, but hot broth, hot crab or pork or whatever meat product is in there. Hot bamboo shoots, hot everything. So you slurp, and while you don’t want to have excessive contact with the noodles, you do want to taste all the other goodies.
Ramen: not for the faint of heart, or the strong of Western manner.
Eating ramen is in some ways similar to the other famous Japanese soup, the human soup of the onsen. Onsen are hot springs, but there’s more than that. They’re affordable, they’re comfortable, the good ones have several baths both indoors and out.
In Noboribetsu, the onsen are among the best in Japan. The mineral water is piped directly from the nearby valley. Japan is: floating in those murky waters, steam rising so thick I could barely see my own feet floating in front of me, a light dusting of snow falling and melting on my head, plipping into the water around me.
Some people, usually foreigners, are uncomfortable with the onsen experience. Public nudity isn’t a commonly broached subject. But for a pittance compared to a similar experience back in America, you can feel your muscles loosen from the heat of the hot water, your pores contract in the cold baths, your stresses dripping away in the sauna.
Best of all, it’s a great coping mechanism to deal with the sometimes unbearable number of fellow humans around you. The soup lifestyle is easily addictive, because the relaxation comes so easily. Tough day at work? Hit the onsen for an hour. Didn’t sleep well? Go to the onsen, instead of taking your morning shower.
Still, going from the peace and serenity and steam of Noboribetsu to the crowded train and flight back to Tokyo was practically culture shock.