Negi Miso Ramen

So here I am, once again, in the Hiro-o district of Tokyo where I found this tiny little restaurant some years ago. It’s still closed, but with a sign that said it will open at 11:30 – fifteen minutes from now. I decide to wait, so I sit down with all my luggage on one of their little chairs outside the restaurant intended for guests waiting for a table. There’s a nice spring breeze and beautiful sunshine. I close my eyes enjoying the moment of rest, peace and expectations of a great spicy miso ramen noodle. My mind is full of happy thoughts and all my travelling adventures. When I open my eyes an old man stands there in front of the restaurant obviously also waiting for it to open. We smile at each other, both perhaps slightly embarrassed at being so eager to get into this little ‘hole in the wall’, not exactly a fancy food place. I motion for him to sit down on the little chair next to me despite the very cramped quarters. He accepts my non-verbal suggestion and sits down.

A few minutes pass and we just sit there next to each other quietly assuming the other one didn’t speak the other’s language. After a while, he glances over at my luggage and asks something in rapid Japanese several times. I, of course, had to embarrassingly say “Sorry, I don’t understand”. The old man looks at me inquisitively; quiet for a while, then in almost perfect English says “Are you travelling?” “Oh”, I say realizing we can communicate. “Yes, well, sort of! I’m on my way to Osaka soon!” ”So you like noodles?” he says. I explain that I ate here three years ago and that it was the best Ramen I’ve ever had. He gives me a big smile, amused at my enthusiasm for something so uncomplicated, like the breeze and the sunshine. He says it’s good we came early because the restaurant will fill up in five minutes. “It’s my favourite noodle place too. The ramen is perfect and it’s not expensive!” the old man says. We sat there quiet again for a bit. Then I thought I’d get some more information about this Negi Miso Ramen quest I’d been on. “Excuse me sir, but what exactly is Negi Miso Ramen? I’ve tried it in different places but it’s never been as good as here.” He looks pleased and explains that different cooks sometimes create their own versions but that in general, it’s Miso Ramen with green onions. “Hmm”, he says pondering. “So you like Negi Miso Ramen?” “Yes, I can’t wait to have it again. They should open soon!” “I always order Negi Miso Ramen here”, the old man says. “And if you come at least once a week, they will give you free gyoza the second time you come!” he says with a smile in his eyes.

Now, finally, the shop owner opens, we’re enthusiastically greeted and ushered in. I put my bags next to a table and they quickly advise me through the old man that we’d better put it in the back because it will be crowded very soon. Sure, I say, and sit down. The old man glances around and then asks if I would mind if he’d join me. “Please do” I say, glad to have some company. We sit down, he orders two “Negi Miso Ramen and one Gyoza plate please!” Before the food arrives I find out that he has just retired 6 months ago from Nissan Domestic where he’s worked all his life. He now lives just around the corner and is on his way to hitting some golf balls “on top of that building, indoors, can you see?” he says pointing to a tall building outside. I then tell him I’m from Canada and how beautiful it is there. I ask how his English is so good; he surely must have travelled a lot! Nope, he says, “never been outside of Japan. I learned English when I was 12 to 18 and haven’t really used it for 50 years”. Impossible to believe but he insists this is the case. “I had a really good teacher!!” he confides and gives me a big smile. Two steaming bowls of Negi Miso Ramen arrive and our conversation is suddenly and respectfully halted in deference to the great occasion presented before us. The old man takes the lead, digs in with his chops sticks, slurps the first noodles out of the hot soup. I’m watching and learning how to eat Ramen the proper Japanese way. No spoon, just holding it in one hand and occasionally scooping in some soup but working the chopsticks with the other hand for the delicious noodles. So I slurp along, as loud as I can, just to be polite. The food is great! Spicy, misoey, perfect noodles, pure and wonderful. No words are spoken for the next 15 minutes of this most important activity, except for “Please have a gyoza!” somewhere in the middle. As we finish the feast we both sit back contented with our almost empty bowls. I ask him if it’s not traditional to finish by drinking the entire bowl (as I had seen in a movie once). He says, yes, “but only if it was very good”. So with three years of anticipation, I gladly finish the entire bowl of soup to the last drop. But he doesn’t. So I ask him if it wasn’t as good as usual. He says, yes, it was excellent as usual. “But old people don’t have to finish”. “Why not?” I ask, thinking this must be some kind of wisdom or have something to do with respect of elders or some custom I’m not aware of. “Because it’s too salty”, he says with a big smile. Then adds, “Not good for old people, you know — gotta watch your sodium!!!!”

As we pay, I ask the old man if he could tell the restaurant owner that I’ve been waiting three years for this bowl of ramen and that it was delicious. Everyone smiles and everyone is happy. The old man goes out the door; I go for my bags in the back of the shop. When I finally managed my way out of the small shop, the old man is still waiting for me outside with his golf bag ready to go. He extends his hand towards me and says with undeniable sincerity: “Nice to meet you!” then turns around and walks towards the tall building with a golf course at the top. I stand there thinking I should say something or run after him or give him a hug or something…… But I don’t. Instead, I wonder, as the sun touches my face and the wind cools me down from the spicy noodles, I wonder if I will ever meet this old man again, this one soul, that unique human being, a beautiful spirit who unbeknownst to him brought great happiness and a grateful smile to my face that day. And as he walks off to his roof-top golf driving range, I wonder if I brightened his morning too. If I ever meet him again someday, I’ll tell him how grateful I was for his company that day and for being there just then, at 11:15 am outside the best Negi Miso Ramen shop in all of Japan.

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