Sneaker Friends

Like most people, I generally determine the value of my friends by the uncomfortable situations we’re willing to endure for each other. A few months ago, despite the ready availability of messaging apps, I agreed to a phone call with a friend. It lasted an hour, after which I understood how war unites veterans together for life. My conviction that experiencing discomfort is a critical part of any friendship also manifests – in those rare periods of self-clarity – in attempts to make up for forcibly strapping friends into the train wreck of my life via self-flagellation.

It’s not something new, like one of those dark and twisted things that come out in your 30s once you accept yourself for the person that you really are. Instead, it’s more similar to a mutation of prior tendencies to pair social activities with oxygen deprivation. Given that my aerobic capacity is currently capped at climbing a flight of stairs at a geriatric pace, I’ve managed to transfer the unique experience of bike rides that annihilate your self-esteem to sneaker lines.

sports lab by atmos bag

It works like this: a notice is posted online, including, recently, a dress code, and my Saturday starts at an hour that makes my lack of Friday night social activities glaringly obvious. In the winter, I pull on a base layer and my Woolie Boolies and join the hundreds of other people who apparently have nothing better to do on a weekend morning. We’re all waiting in the cold for the same thing, except that I’m in line not to buy a pair for myself, or as a reseller, but on the hope that I’ll win a pair of size 10 shoes for a best friend.

sneakerhead

To date, I have yet to pull out the winning ticket to a pair of anything special. My inability to absolve myself – at least, temporarily – necessitates more lining up for hours. Every time, I ask the universe to make me appear to be a better friend by gifting me a pair of atmos x Nike shoes. It never happens, which makes sense in a karmic way. Rather than bringing home the white whale of Nike collabs, I’m forced to learn how to be a less exhausting friend through the negative people I keep around in my life as cautionary tales.

“But I can’t,” they’ll usually say in those conversations I seek out, out of either a foolish sense of charity or as overdue karmic punishment, “I can’t get out of this situation that I’m choosing to stay in.”

flat fix

Cornering myself into becoming a cheerleader for a more positive outlook, I advocate for looking on the bright side, arguing that it isn’t really as dismal as it seems. You could argue that playing the alternative role – of approving of marinating in extreme unhappiness – would be irresponsible. That the natural human response to a friend’s voluntarily relinquishment of agency is to firmly tell him or her to snap out of it, if only to exonerate yourself of responsibility for any consequent dive into even deeper depression. Yet, there is nothing more effective than a tantrum of hopeless despair to trigger a natural sense of sustained optimism.

I emerge from those conversations with a desperate sense of possibility. Like rides that crush your lungs and shatter your self-worth, I make a mental note of that fact that there is value in the effort of becoming a better friend, however vain. That your friends can’t let you win the race to the next telephone pole or the town line unless you drag your ass to the starting line of that group ride. That there’s slightly more shame to a DNS than a DNF.

I try to remember that as I wait in line, shivering, hands practically numb, for the next pair of hyped shoes.

Ramenism: Fuunji

“The thing with ramen is,” a friend, a devoted yet reluctant ramen voyeur by virtue of being located in Germany, said, “it can look great in a photo, but taste like shit.”

He’s right, of course, but that truism applies to more than ramen. Since the introduction of the phrase “food porn,” hyper-saturated photos of indulgent casual food have – alarmingly, disappointingly – become the norm. The process of food photography has devolved into the following: select a close up of a juicy burger oozing cheese, add a runny egg, and then, to make it more blatantly sexually enticing, squeeze the crap out of it to induce maximum yolk flow for the ‘gram. Should a runny egg be unavailable, shoot a picture of a few burgers and varieties of loaded fries – enough to cause concern for the arterial and mental health of the eater – turn up the warmth on the photo, click “sharpen” a few times, and post. It’s the thottery of food photography, where food is no longer appetizing, but only notable for its off-putting excess.

Then there is the hype. That circle jerk of praise perpetuated by ignorance and expectations already swinging towards the positive, prior to the first bite. That’s not to say that customer reviews are worthless; just that often, they need to be taken with a teaspoon of salt.

I knew this, but when a friend told me he always takes friends to Fuunji for their tsukemen, I followed his advice. He was a real person, someone I trusted because he had lived in Tokyo for several years and had eaten his share of decent ramen. Google told me there was a perpetual line outside of Fuunji; could that many people be wrong in believing Fuunji was exceptional?

Apparently, yes.

fuunji tsukemen

Inching my way towards the door, I waited approximately an hour to be seated and served. The line usually continues from the door of Fuunji to the small park-like area across the street. Once inside the small restaurant, you buy a ticket at the machine, then line up behind the patrons behind served. You hand your ticket over to the girl behind the counter, tell her how many grams of noodles you’d like (200g or 300g), then wait some more.

fuunji the line
inside fuunji

The one thing you notice about Fuunji is that no one is eating ramen. Every single person is here for the tsukemen: cold ramen noodles served with a thick, rich, chicken-based dipping sauce that includes a small mound of dried smoked fish powder.

Anticipating gastronomic bliss with a punch of umami, I ordered the special tsukemen (特製つけ麺) with 200g of noodles. What I ended up choking down were noodles – appropriately thick and chewy – coated in room temperature grease and tasting mainly of salt. Though there are hints of fishy umami here – the special tsukemen also comes with a soy sauce marinated egg and thick slices of pork – the experience was incredibly underwhelming and practically nauseating. By the third bite, there isn’t much to the sauce other than an overwhelming and exhausting saltiness. I found myself trying to slurp up the least amount of the dipping sauce as I powered my way through the last of the noodles.

fuunji tsukemen
fuunji tsukemen dipping sauce

I didn’t bother thinning out the sauce to drink it down as any more salt would have probably killed me. I went home with a headache and a fear that I might throw up on the way home, in slight disbelief that people would call this “the best tsukemen I’ve ever had in Tokyo.” But, I get it; there is little subtlety in Fuunji’s tsukemen. Everything seems somehow heightened – the saltiness, the greasiness – which lends itself to be favored by those with more aggressive palates. Like Instagram thots, Fuunji presents an enticing-looking dish that turns out to be way too much.

Later, with a sufficiently settled stomach, I remembered that conversation with the ramen voyeur.

“Yeah,” I had said in response, “it’s like a relationship. You never know until you’re face deep in something and slurping things up.”

How true that is.

 

Fuunji

2-14-3 Yoyogi, Shibuya-ku

(10min walk from Shinjuku Station South Exit)

Open: 11:00-15:00, 17:00-21:00, closed Sundays

Website

Ramenko: Aoba Nakano Honten

A few weeks ago, I found myself unwrapping a piece of chocolate at 9.38am, exactly 43 minutes after I had arrived at work.

It was the kind the thing that would normally make a person question the life choices that had led up to consuming a square of concentrated sugar, milk, and cocoa so soon after the start of a workday. It momentarily occurred to me that this was probably not a wise thing to do, that I should maybe opt for black coffee instead. Less than a second later, I popped the chocolate into my mouth and gulped it down, making a mental note of a new record low.

family mart coffee

I could tell you that it was a casual, adopted routine that had escalated from an afternoon treat to tempting diabetes. That it was fueled by stress and a lack of sleep, caffeine, fresh air, and exercise. Unfortunately, I seem to have retained an annoying self-awareness that I hold some agency in this matter. That I am consciously unwrapping various forms of sugar and voluntarily ingesting them in embarrassing quantities.

Though I wish I could absolve myself by saying that my weekends have been full of salads and things without sugar, salt, fat, and anything else that tastes good, gluttony apparently pairs well with sweatpants and slovenliness. When I haven’t been sick and living off orange juice (i.e., most of last month), I’ve been internalizing panic at my apathetic lack of motivation to do anything productive by devouring potato chips and donuts.

baumkuchen 2 (1).jpg

This weekend, though, I promised, would be different. I’d be better. Less sugar, less salt, less fat, less being a fatass all weekend.

So I went out for ramen.

I’d even done some research. Aoba (青葉) located in Nakano, was one train stop away and had both Michelin bib gourmande status and an instant ramen cup produced with Sanyo Foods. Should the line be overwhelmingly long, there were several other reputable ramen spots in the area. I packed my Kindle and hopped on the Chuo line.

aoba instant ramen

Ten minutes later, down a narrow alleyway off the main street, I purchased a ticket at the vending machine for a standard bowl of chuuka-soba (中華そば). Service is fast and the line, about 10 people deep by the time I got there (at around 1pm on a holiday afternoon), only resulted in a 10-minute wait. The line started outside the restaurant, but eventually I edged myself inside, to wait behind patrons already seated and dining around an L-shaped counter. Once inside, a woman asked how many were in my party and what I’d ordered. Five minutes later, I was seated, served and an active participant in the chorus of slurping that dominates Aoba.

aoba 8.JPG
aoba vending machine
line inside aoba
aoba ticket.JPG

Visually, the chuuka soba doesn’t look like much (the tokusei chuuka soba (特製中華そば) comes with a marinated, soft-boiled egg, and more cuts of chaa-su, making it look much more impressive). But the deceptively underwhelming visuals soon cease to matter. Aoba’s noodles are on the straighter side with a charactertistic texture that’s difficult to forget. Slippery on the outside, yet firm and chewy, the opposing textures make for an intriguing, and addictive, tactile experience. Similarly, while the broth is strongly fish-based – I could taste the dried sardines and bonito lingering in my mouth on the train ride home – there’s enough pork added to mellow it out. The result is soup that, when sipped, starts out almost thin and salty, then blossoms into a full-bodied, balanced broth. It was delicious.

aoba ramen

Though Aoba marries opposites beautifully, that happily doesn’t hold true for the chaa-shu (チャーシュー). The slice of pork that came with my ramen nearly fell apart when picked up with chopsticks. The fat instantly dissolved once it hit my tongue, but it was thick enough to require some chewing. It was chaa-shu – and ramen – done right.

It’s easy to be underwhelmed by Aoba. The shop is small and simple, there is no hour-plus wait, and the ramen doesn’t look particularly impressive. But perhaps its deceptiveness is part of its allure; Aoba looks like a standard, cheap ramen place, but serves an incredibly well-crafted bowl of ramen. It may not blow you away, but it easily sets a high standard for the ramen-curious novice.

The fish and pork broth also make for ramen that’s on the lighter side. A standard-sized bowl will hit the spot, but won’t leave you bloated with grease and salt, regretting the last 24 hours for the next 48. Which means you have room to indulge in more ramen. Or, as in my case, in an attempt to stay true to my promise to eat somewhat better this past weekend, more cookies.

 

Aoba Nakano Honten

5-58-1 Nakano

Open: 10:30 to 21:00 (every day)

Website

Kazuo Ishiguro

My favorite author just won the Nobel Prize for Literature and although it's been a bit strange to see the Japanese co-opting Ishiguro as one of their own since he won the Nobel prize, I am over the moon!

kazuo ishiguro

Subject: British author, screenwriter, and short story writer Kazuo Ishiguro

Materials used: digestive biscuits

[Apologies that I've been away for a while; my new job is taking over my life (in a good way!) and I currently don't have a lot of time for food art. Expect more collages - and hopefully, writing - in the future!]