What else do you do up there? asks my friend Takahashi. Get the train to Horikiri, and just eat ramen? Yes, I say, just eat ramen. Some days, like in this heatwave, that’s enough purpose in life. Miyuki Ramen, five stops from Asakusa, northeast Tokyo, beside the railway and the river. Order the shredded leek (negi) ramen.
One thing you want in this heat is salt. Replenish the sweat. But also the clean taste of this particular soup. Expertly simmered stock of chicken, pork and vegetables. Very little fat.
The building is reassuring: a clapboard corner store from the 1970s, standing alone on the cul-de-sac at the station. Seems flimsy, but has lasted this long; might even outlive you. A pedestrian bridge towers above it, next to a flood control gate. A canal opposite connects the Arakawa and the Sumida rivers — you are on the narrow waist between them. The Shuto expressway sweeps the horizon.
Inside, not much to look at. Sweltering in the ineffectual aircon, with a hot breeze. A scrubbed steel kitchen, a low counter with wooden chairs. Lace curtains over long windows opening onto a vacant lot of bright weeds. A red banner flutters outside, the characters ra-me-n. A public phone booth stands like a cenotaph at the station entrance.
That’s about all. A business built on elemental food served in well-worn surroundings; timeless episodes in sustenance, enjoyed by so many.
Mr Shiraishi, the white-haired master, sits and smokes. The sweat makes dark patches on his T-shirt. He uses a thick volume of manga as a cushion on the steel countertop beside the noodle cauldron. He talks sparsely in loud declarative sentences — perhaps a little hard of hearing. Late in the afternoon on a public holiday when you’re the only customer, you ask how business has been. Busy, thank you, he says, from beside the stove. There is a pause. You eat some more. Then suddenly he shouts, It’s about trust.
Do you know what I mean? he says. You’re not sure you caught it. But he wants to tell you. He takes a breath and pushes out the word. Trust! he repeats. He says, It takes five or six years to build it.
He says, People carry an impression of you in the back of their minds. And on a public holiday they might think, Ah, I feel hungry, where will I go? And they think of your store, because they know you’ll be open. Because you’ve built that trust with them. If you’re not open some days, if you have irregular days, they start going somewhere else. I learned that. When I was young, I took days off whenever I wanted. I was having fun, driving my car. Hahaha. But my customers began eating elsewhere. We are a privately run shop, not a chain, so customers may not know when we operate. So I do my best to be open every day, so people can depend on us, so they think of us, that’s what we do.
His given name is unusual: Sumitoshi, the characters for “to live” and “years”. He says, My father made my name up, he wanted me to live long, and as I grew older, to have a place of my own. And I managed to buy my own apartment. And I’ve made it to this age, so that’s not doing too badly, is it?
He is 71 and runs the store with his older sister, who lives with her family upstairs. His younger brother lives next door. His home is a short bicycle ride away. After the war, their parents ran a shop on the vacant lot. He says, We sold bento. His sister says, At that time, there wasn’t much to sell. We sold whatever we could. Cigarettes, sweet potatoes, ice in summer. Shiraishi worked for a while as a salaryman, for the national railways. He played semi-pro baseball for the company. Then 44 years ago he opened this place. He started as a coffee shop.
From the station, people come and go. Some gather at the smoking area outside the ticket gates. The street ends in an L-shape outside the windows. So if you turn around at the counter, you see everyone. Some climb up and down the blue steps. Salarymen, office ladies, tradesmen, old people, students. Shiraishi says, It’s a good place to people-watch.
Maybe it has good feng shui. Oriented north-south, airy, adjacent to three waterways. A private university operates next door. Along the embankment, the trains hiss by. It’s a busy line, says his sister. Six trains every 10 minutes. She seems to like the activity.
So does he. You sense he lives with gratitude, the way he tells the story of his name and his apartment, the careful way he cooks. Although at first he appeared gruff. Miyuki Ramen seems to encourage feelings of community. As if you share the experience with others. In the past week I encountered a curious couple who were out exploring, the man wearing a fedora on top of a red bandana, the woman in a ’70s style hippie dress.
They smiled at me; ordered beer and swapped their bowls for each other to taste. They were surprised how good it was. I met an elderly man who wanted to talk about his miniature German camera. There was a lone taxi driver, and a gaggle of female students.
Shiraishi says, That’s what’s great about running a business. The people who come.
The store has featured in a long-running TV drama about an idealistic schoolteacher from the boondocks of this low-income neighbourhood. He deals with social issues including bullying, homosexuality, shut-ins, and even teen suicide. The series is still mentioned in his restaurant reviews, but it didn’t do much for sales. That’s fine by Shiraishi. He says, It was at least 10 years ago.
He points outside and says, We used to jump into the water there. Before they built the wall. Me and my friends. There were so many of us, so many kids in those days.
Wasn’t the water dirty?
No. That was later, in the 1960s.
His sister says, We also swam in the bakudan ike, the bomb ponds, big craters filled with water.
Shiraishi says, The street wasn’t always a dead end. It used to make a level-crossing over the tracks, and then run over the river on a wooden bridge, the Horikiri Bridge, right into Katsushika ward. I might have a picture of it. I’ll have a look at home.
Development has turned this spot into a backwater. But the station maintains a pulse. Ripples of people surge and recede according to the trains. There is just enough life. Any more and a glary convenience store might appear.
It’s a lone outpost to a dream. You know you’re stating the obvious when you say, You’ve got a good place. He says, I know. And it’s Tokyo. But doesn’t it seem like the countryside?
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