The Best Ramen in Town is Black

Before leaving Kumamoto for Hakata, there’s just one final pilgrimage I had to make – and that was to Kokutei (黒亭). If Hakata has its Holy Trinity of Ippudo, Ichiran and Ikkousha, then Kumamoto’s Kokutei is its undisputed King (of ramen).

Tucked away in a nondescript neighbourhood across from Nihongi-guchi Tram Stop (二本木口電停), Kokutei doesn’t strike one as the Holy Grail of Ramen in Kumamoto. But wait till you check out the lunchtime crowd that snakes around the restaurant. Even at night, there’s no glitzy neon sign that points the way to this ramen shrine. In fact, don’t even bother dropping in after dark (as I found out the hard way). Kokutei’s ramen sells out everyday by 4 p.m. The good news is that you can find Kokutei’s signature tonkotsu (とんこつ) broth in almost every Japanese supermarket worth its salt. As for me, nothing tastes better than the real McCoy.  LS

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Uma Umai? 馬 うまい?

One of the highlights of travelling alone is the opportunity to meet new people, some of whom later became my friends along the way. There’s so much to learn from such interactions, whether it’s the exchange of language, culture, societal norms, etc. And these interactions often happen when you least expect them.

That was how I met Ruriko (淵 ルリ子), a Nagasaki native who happened to be in Kumamoto to meet up with a friend. She was happily chatting with her friend when I accidentally knocked over a pint of beer while browsing the menu at this restaurant called Uma Sakura (馬桜) in the Shimotori shopping arcade (下通り ショッピンアーケード) that specialises in horsemeat. There’s of course no lack of restaurants in this shopping arcade but I just wanted to try a full horsemeat course that day. And this restaurant looks pretty decent.

Back to Ruriko and my beer accident. Sensing that I may have some difficulty understanding the menu or ordering the food, she offered her assistance. And the next thing I know, the three of us (including her friend) started chatting like long-time friends. We exchanged contacts, and till today, we still kept in touch. I had promised her I would definitely visit Nagasaki the next time I go to Japan. Coincidentally, my original itinerary had included Nagasaki but I changed it just 3 weeks prior to departure, in favour of visiting Beppu and Kumamoto after a colleague’s advice. There’s so much left to explore in Kyushu, and two weeks really don’t do this place justice. In case you’re wondering how the horse meat tasted, it wasn’t enough to blow my socks off. I would say it’s a little like beef, but on the fatty side, which is ironic because I had imagined these horses would have tough muscles from all that running. By the way, a full horsemeat course doesn’t come cheap, and expect to spend upwards of 80-90 USD. I opted for a humble horse steak instead. And a second pint of beer.  LS

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Of Castles and Black Bears

Mount Aso had just erupted over the weekend when I was making my way to Kumamoto. However, fears of volcanic ash blanketing Kumamoto were unnecessary as the volcanic crater had calmed down fairly quickly. Kumamoto’s main attraction is its majestic castle, which was built between 1601 and 1607 and housed the powerful Hosokawa clan (細川氏).

The present structure is a reconstruction, however, the original was burned down during the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion, in which it was recorded some 40,000 armed peasants and samurai led by Saigo Takamori (西郷 隆盛) lay seige on the fortress against the imperial army (Source: Lonely Planet).

In addition to imposing Kumamoto-jo (熊本城)you cannot miss the ubiquitous Kumamon or 熊もん, the mascot and symbol of the city. For an understated but otherwise serene place to contemplate the magnificence of the Hosokawa clan, check out the adjacent Honmaru Palace (本丸御殿) and the former residence of the Hosokawa clan, the Hosokawa Gyobutei (旧細川刑部邸).  LS

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