One block off Higashikawa's main street, in a house with a small front garden, Ezo Ramen is easy to miss. Travelers zipping by to Asahidake, Hokkaido's tallest peak in Japan's first national park, may never realize a brilliant bowl of ramen was so near. For those that do find it, though, the subtle ginger of the miso ramen or the sweet garlic pinch of the gyouja ninniku will guide your taste buds back forever.
Set in a town that divides its time between farming and skiing, Akira Hanabe opened Ezo's doors in 1982 just as Japan's ramen mania began. Born and raised in Higashikawa, he christened his shop Ezo, the name the Ainu, Hokkaido's native people, use to refer to this northern island. “It seemed the most Hokkaido-like thing to do,” he said.
Hanabe serves up a variety of high quality ramen shop standards. Shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce), and miso based bowls are available year round, and in summer their cold ramen, reishinmen, is a unique take on the national standard. Mandarin orange slices, a bit of pork, boiled egg, a tomato and cucumber slices with a mound of bean sprouts all sit atop ice cold noodles nestled on a giant lettuce leaf. A tart and spicy sesame oil dressing leaves lips pleasantly afire by the end. It's the rare diner, too, who can't find just a tiny bit of room around the sides for gyoza: a gem of a garlicky pork dumpling served sizzling hot. (A horomone ramen is also available, but you'll have to write that one up yourself. I'm not fond of eating internal organs.) Ezo's top two picks, though, are the gyouja ninniku and miso ramens.
Ainu garlic or gyouja ninniku (Allium victorialis) is a wild vegetable similar to ramps. It's green leaves chase spring snow from the mountains, and with scrambled egg they make a lively addition to Ezo's shio or shoyu ramens from May to November. The miso ramen, though, with it's merry band of carrots, homemade noodles, mushrooms, roasted slices of pork, and diced onion is more than a fair compromise.
Customers tend to be locals with a few tourists like us sprinkled in for good measure. My husband and I shared a big round center table with a friend and another couple. There on the checkered tablecloth were the usual selection of toppings—black and red peppers, freshly pressed garlic and grated ginger—along with the boxes of Kleenex that pass for napkins in these parts.
As we waited for our ramen we watched a toddler perfect her noodle slurping skills and perused the photographs filling the walls. Historic pictures of town and shop joined those of famous visitors who'd eaten there. The couple we share our table with silently read manga from one of the bookshelves lining the wall until their food arrives. They don't look up except to nab a gyoza from the plate. A word or two is exchanged around the garlicky dumpling, and I wonder how they can understand each other.
Based on how Ezo Ramen bustles each time we go, Higashikawa seems more than happy to have Hanabe and his family (a grandson recently joined the staff) stirring the pot. My advice? Study the menu. Order liberally, and loosen your pants.
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Joan Lambert Bailey lives and writes in Tokyo where she is lucky enough to get her hands dirty on a local organic farm in between forays to explore Japan from top to bottom. You can read about her adventures learning about Japanese food from seed to harvest to table at Japan Farmers Markets.