Ever since I began working at the Japanese noodle chain Ippudo many years ago, I’ve been fascinated by porky tonkotsu ramen. I regularly crave its salty twang. It’s easy to fall in love with this noodle soup. Its firm noodles, rich meaty broth, and the rush of MSG that comes with it inspire something between foodie devotion and chemical dependence. Hoping to fuel my ramen obsession even further, I began scheming a pilgrimage to Fukuoka, Japan, where the pork-bone style of ramen originated. When an old friend from my time at Ippudo told me that he was going to be in Kyushu, I decided that it was finally time to visit. I told him to meet me at Ramen Stadium.
Ramen Stadium is located on the top floor of the Canal City, a massive shopping and entertainment complex in Hakata, near the Nakasu “Entertainment District” of Fukuoka. Hakata is an amalgamation of bars and a red-light district — and it is also the spiritual home of tonkotsu ramen, a warming antidote to Hakata’s vices. World famous ramen chains Ichiran, Shin-Shin, and my former employer, Ippudo, all started in Hakata so this stadium isn’t just another food hall gimmick. It functions more as an appropriate and convenient corral for Japan’s best noodles.
I arrived at 11:00 AM and checked into the Grand Hyatt. Staying at the Grand Hyatt is ideal if you plan on making multiple visits to Ramen Stadium, because it’s directly connected to Canal City. The front side of the hotel leads directly to the yatai (street food BBQ) stalls of Nakasu, while the back leads into Ramen Stadium.
Every hour the fountain show begins in Canal City and shoppers congregate by the arena-like Center Walk. A different song accompanies each show with a sequence of water jets programmed to dance to the music. The set list ranges from “Ride of the Valkyries” to an elevator music treatment of “Obla-Di-Obla-Da.” Every morning, the festivities kick off with “Pomp and Circumstance” at 11:00 AM. This is the song that alerts us that Canal City is now open for business.
You can easily spend a full 24 hours exploring Canal City, so that’s exactly what I decided to do. First stop: ramen, of course.
Each stall of the eight stalls in Ramen Stadium has a vending machine at the entrance from which you order your meal, and a host clamoring for your attention, hoping you’ll choose their shop over the others. These good people will help you figure out how to work the vending machine if this is your first time ordering lunch from such an apparatus. Don’t forget your receipt and change. The receipt is your meal ticket.
I first spot the most famous stall here: Hide-Chan. It’s one of Hakata’s most renowned tonkotsu ramen shops. Most guidebooks point visitors to Hide-Chan above all other stalls, and the lines prove it, but I was more excited about tasting something new. Hide-Chan has great ramen, but the rest of these ramen shops are Japan-only experiences. You can get a solid bowl of miso ramen from Sapporo Daichi, for instance. This style of ramen is loaded with smoky chashu (roast pork loin) and a particularly gooey soft-boiled egg.
However, Ramen Kentaro, which can be easily located by a sign that says “Umami” next to the Japanese characters, turned out to be my most memorable meal. Before the bowl arrives, you’re offered a smaller bowl filled with concentrated dashi (seaweed and anchovy stock) to taste. Save the dashi to add to the ramen when it arrives. If you really want to punch up the flavor, add some of its chili laced umami garlic paste. A little scoop of this dressing changes the bowl from subtle to sensational. The noodles here were the most delicate that we tried, and the toppings include a grating of fresh yuzu citrus to help keep this the most refreshing bowl in the complex.
Finally getting a bit sick of pork, I finished the day off at Fukuoka-based Gasnotomato Ramen Sanmi, which creates a tomato based soup for its ramen and offers a blanket of shaker Grana Padano cheese on top for a small additional charge. It’s the most divergent of the eight ramen vendors, but the flavors will be familiar for ramen lovers. The flavor resembles a tomato-shio (salt broth) stock than a hearty tomato sauce. Because the red broth stains a lot more than a classic tonkotsu, Gansotomato thoughtfully provides bibs.
Between shopping, eating, and relaxing, I stumble upon an adorable performance from local J-pop girl group Dream Mate. I put down the chopsticks to go take a look, and I wasn’t alone. Tween shoppers dropped their bags and smooshed up to the stage on the ground floor. It recalled my ‘80s childhood, when malls mattered enough to be the backdrop for MTV music videos starring the peppy Tiffany. After catching half of a set from Dream Mate, I decide to wind the evening down at the mall’s Welcome Center, which has a bar that serves flights of local shochu and craft beer.
My second morning at Canal City feels like a recurring dream. “Pomp and Circumstance” plays again and I ascend from the first floor hotel to the fifth floor, where I will recieve my morning ramen bowls. I’m meeting my old friend from Ippudo and I want to keep the ramen classic as possible. We work up an appetite with a few games drumming along to Taiko no Tatsujin at the stadium’s Taito Station arcade, then it’s ramen time once again.
Locals Nagahama Number One and Ramen Jinabo are excellent examples of Hakata-style ramen, each with its own personality. The former had extra fine noodles and a richer broth than the others, while the latter contained a deep flavor of wood-ear mushrooms to help add an earthy balance to the pork broth. We split bowls, which all of the shops happily accommodate, and then we split hairs over the finer points of these Hakata classics. Jinabo had the more balanced broth, but Nagahama’s noodles gave it a boost. I insist that my friend tries the exquisite yuzu-laced ramen from Kentaro that I enjoyed so much the day before. Like any food destination, Ramen Stadium is twice as fun when you get to guide another excited eater through each vendor.
Canal City is a bubble. Even after only one day, I’m used to its comforts. I fear that the outside world will be cold, dry, and tasteless without Ramen Stadium. However, other taste temptations from one of Japan’s best food cities beckon. Melt-in-your-mouth intestine hot pot (motsunabe), fluffy omelettes stuffed with spicy cod roe, and the city’s signature one-bite gyoza are all must-try fare. Checking out from the Hyatt is bittersweet, but after six bowls in twenty-four hours, it’s time to eat something, anything, besides ramen.