When in Fukuoka, eat ramen. That's my mantra whenever I'm in Kyushu's largest city, birthplace of Japan's favourite noodle, which migrated from China in the 1850s and took off during post-war food shortages when the US flooded Japan with cheap wheat flour.
Try not to think about 20-cent packet noodles. Freshly made ramen is in a completely different food group, and slurping and sweating alongside a few locals is one of the best ways to immerse yourself, chopsticks first, into Fukuokan culture. Here are three of the many ways to eat noodles in Fukuoka.
In Japan, Fukuoka isn't just famous for its tonkotsu, or Hakata ramen, thin wheat noodles served in a collagen-rich pork-bone broth, with a raft of pork slices and some semi-submerged vegetables as garnish. It's also famous for its yatai.
At these little pop-up stalls that sprout like weeds on footpaths all over the city centre every evening, you'll rub shoulders, literally, with strangers of all stripes – suits on their way home, teenagers heading out on the town, retired gents meeting each other, holidaymakers from elsewhere in Japan.
No one speaks English and there's usually no handy picture menu. No problem. Just order Hakata ramen and a beer (biru). And locate a toilet in a nearby convenience store or park before you get settled; yatai don't have any amenities.
The verdict: Sitting on a red stool on a warm summer's night, hunched over a worn Chinese-dragon bowl with a bunch of locals in a jovial mood is almost as good as the ramen, made to order and only ¥500 a serve.
BOOTH FOR ONE
In Japan, Ichiran ramen restaurants are as ubiquitous as Starbucks and they all began in Fukuoka, in 1993. Back then the founder, who's still the company president, personally asked his customers how they prefer their ramen. As Ichiran grew he developed a more efficient system.
After buying a ticket at a vending machine to choose the basics – a bowl of ramen, say, and some green tea – you're ushered to a room full of "flavour concentration" booths. Looking like tiny desks in a library, these one-person nooks are designed to let diners focus on the taste of their ramen.
Once seated, you customise your ramen, everything from the firmness of the noodles to the spiciness of the broth and any side dishes you'd like, by filling in a form (I'm given one in English). Then a waiter appears at the hatch on the far side of your table – all I can see is his apron-clad middle – and whisks your order away.
Ichiran prides itself on serving customers within 15 seconds. But I'm still surprised when, almost immediately and, like Thing from The Addams Family, the waiter's hands place a steaming bowl of ramen before me, roll down a bamboo blind covering the hatch and leave me to commune with my noodles.
The verdict: The ramen tastes incredible and although there are constant pings and buzzes as other diners order more beer and extra noodles, it's one of the most unusual, and civilised, fast food experiences I've had. See en.ichiran.com
On my last night, having dawdled through Fukuoka's fantastic Asian Art Museum, it's almost 10pm by the time I start thinking about dinner, but that's not an issue in this lively city.
Strolling down the historic Kawabata arcade, I find a small diner with an illustrated menu out the front. Like Ichiran, WEST has outlets all over Japan, but they all branched out from this location.
It might be late, but the place is quietly packed. Solitary men cradle bowls of noodles at a counter. Three laughing girls arrive and sit at a table. I do the same and order an udon set with tempura vegetables and rice – because Fukuoka is the birthplace of udon as well as ramen in Japan and known for its soft, thick noodles drowned in a clear broth.
The verdict: The service is authentically matter-of-fact, the udon is delicious and it's a lot more peaceful than Ichiran, which only proves that genuinely good things really need no enhancement.
ONE MORE THING
Make sure to order "kaedama" at the end of your meal, for about ¥100, requesting an extra serve of noodles to mop up excess soup is so very Fukuokan.
The writer stayed at her own expense with flights by Walk Japan.
Cathay Pacific flies daily to Fukuoka via Hong Kong from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth. See cathaypacific.com
The maritime-themed WeBase HAKATA, 15 minutes by train from Fukuoka airport, has double "cabins" from ¥8620 a night including breakfast. See we-base.jp/hakata