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So in the winter months in Japan you can pretty much draw a line right down the middle of
the country separating the part which gets lots of snow and the other side
which doesn’t get so much.
And today we’re on the very snowy side going to the town of Kitakata, a town which has
the highest number of Ramen shops per capita of anywhere in Japan.
But we’re not going to get to Kitakata until tomorrow as it’s quite a journey from Sendai
over to north Fukushima especially given the heavy snowfall.
But I am joined by a man who is dressed in a jumper that looks like a bear suit or something.
How many bears died for this jumper?
No you don’t really have to comment on that because you don’t have any sense of fashion.
I dont have any sense of fashion?
Yeah and you’re the kind of person who has a hole in their sock.
I do have a hole in my sock but that’s British fashion sense.
Along our journey across the snowy north to enjoy a bowl of Kitakata ramen, we’ll
be stopping off at two nearby towns; Aizu Wakamatsu - a town nicknamed Samurai city,
as it’s home to one of Japan’s top samurai schools.
It’s here we’ll also be getting lost in a crazy looking temple inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci
And to catch a good night’s sleep we’ll be dropping into a 200 year old inn, in Yonezawa
before waking up early tomorrow morning to dive into our ramen.
Not literally that’d be awful.
And as per usual Ryotaro is being worryingly vague about his master plan.
We're going to do some combat training.
Combat training?
Yeah. Combat training.
So we’re at the Nishinkan, it’s one of the most famous dojo’s in the whole of Japan
This was the school that young Samurai would go to.
Established in 1803\hthe Nishinkan school turned children into elite Samurai warriors
including the legendary Byakkotai warriors or White Tiger Force; a reserve unit of Samurai
aged between just 16-17 years old.
I must say there’s an epic sense of scale to this school, it does feel pretty grand
and spectacular.
You can get a sense that some pretty rich kids learnt how to do some pretty crazy things here.
With swords and knives.
Move over Robin Hood. He’s Robin dickhead.
Close.
Steady, steady…
No matter how hard he tries it’s just the same result. He just cannot hit the target.
That’s how you do it mate.
How many times have you tried?
That’s not important. Winning isn’t important. It’s taking part that counts.
No matter what happens now I’m going to hit it. Because if I miss, I’m going to
use clever film CGI film trickery to make it look like I hit it.
And you won't be any the wiser.
Oh I hit it! That was a really good shot.
Did you see that? The way it hit the bullseye! That was brilliant. Let’s go and look at a temple.
So this rather strange and bizarre looking building behind me is called the Sazaedo temple.
It’s a Buddhist temple that was built in 1796 and it’s the only temple in the world
to have the rather crazy and wacky design that it’s got inside it.
Come and have a look at this.
So the temple has a hexagonal design with two spiral staircases; one going up and one
going down.
It’s pretty cool because you never actually meet people who are going up or down on the
opposing staircase. They’re completely divided.
The idea being that as you’re praying to the 33 gods that are in the temple, you’re
never getting it congested. You’re never getting in the way of people going up and down.
It’s pretty smart design. I’ve never seen anything quite like this. I’ve never seen
so much thought been put into a temples design.
It’s feels a bit like a theme park ride. Because you can hear the footsteps on the
opposing spiral above and below but you can’t see anyone.
It’s fun. It’s like a horror house or something.
And speaking of horror - look it’s Ryotaro.
Standing on the crossing over bridge. This is the bridge that leads you back down over
the other spiral.
So Leonardo Da Vinci designed this castle in France and they used the exact same system
as this temple.
But how did it get to Japan? How’d it happen?
Right so the design of this castle in France somehow got to the Akita Clan.
In Akita prefecture.
And the Lord actually had it and the Monk who built this temple saw the design and got
inspired by it.
He stole it?
And he stole the idea and then he actually built this place.
So from Leonardo Da Vinci’s pencil to the mountains of North Japan.
Exactly.
That's how far it reached right.
That’s what theft looks like.
Yep.
So I’ve just walked around the back of the temple and there’s a monument here which
it turns out was donated by Benito Mussolini in 1928.
Mussolini was inspired by the story of the Byakkotai Samurai warriors, a group of twenty
16-17 years olds who took their lives in a battle in the 1800’s after believing their
Lord was dead.
And after hearing the story he donated this column from Pompei - one of three columns
that existed in Pompei - to the town and it still stands here to this day.
It’s pretty odd to think this is here, especially with the inscription on the back which reads:
"Under the authority of Ancient Rome may this pillar stand as proof of the greatness
of Fascism for thousands of years.”
Now Fascism didn’t last thousands of years, it lasted about ten minutes.
But I can see what he was getting at by donating this. It’s a testament to the loyalty of the warriors.
There’s also another one from Nazi Germany here. I probably won’t put that one on camera.
But it’s amazing to think it’s still here. You couldn’t get things like that out of
Pompei now, given it’s a World Heritage site.
So this is Sauce Katsudon, the local staple food of Aizu Wakamatsu.
Katsudon is one of my favourite dishes; breaded pork on a bed of rice.
Here in Aizu Wakamatsu they take that wonderful dish and drench it in about a gallon of Worcester sauce.
Look at the size and scale of this. Ryotaro ordered this for me.
He’s got like a normal human portion.
You call this normal but in this restaurant this is mini sauce Katsudon.
And this is the ordinary normal Katsudon.
It’s like a bucket of food. You could feed half of Okinawa with this.
That’s UK size.
Well, American size.
Katsudon is one of my top five favourite Japanese dishes. It’s a really great fast food.
But the key to good Katsudon is getting a a nice crispy batter with the succulent juicy pork within.
If you get that right it’s like biting into heaven.
Mussolini would have loved it.
So we’ve just arrived at Shirabu onsen. Buried deep under a pile of snow.
Call me Mr health and safety but the entrance is slightly terrifying.
There are daggers of ice hanging over head. That’s right daggers of ice. Very poetic.
But it’s a little bit scary, not going to lie.
Probably a good murder weapon but I don’t think that’s a topic I should discuss right now.
Let's go in.
This fish used to be my father.
What?
He’s been reincarnated into a fish.
What’s happened?
Ryotaro has drunk some alcohol for the first time in a while and this is the kind of ridiculous dialogue we get.
How do you actually eat this?
What it is, it’s just a fish on a stick.
Everything is on a stick in Japan.
A skewer.
The dishes we’ve got here are very eloquent, very nice, very well presented.
And then there’s just a fish on a stick.
I’d love to actually be able to catch an actual fish like this.
Just impale it on a stick.
Walk along a stream with a stick and then whoosh.
No it doesn’t work like that.
It wasn’t like that.
They didn’t use a stick to fish it. They used a fishing rod to fish it.
You reckon?
Yeah.
But fish on a stick aside.
Enough of the fish.
This is the real star of the show.
This is called Imoni, this is the dish of Yamagata prefecture, I used to have it all
the time when I lived here.
And be careful when you talk about Imoni to Yamagata people.
What do you mean?
If you say any bad things about Imoni to Yamagata people -
They’ll kill you.
I’m serious. They’ll kill you. Literally.
Don’t think they’ll take things that far.
But they are certainly proud of their soup. They won’t commit homicide or murder.
It’s soy sauce based soup, with beef and tofu and leeks.
So there’s one for you.
The perfect dish for a cold winters day.
You’ve got the smell of the beef and the potato and onions drifting up from the soup.
It’s beautiful.
So this inn, this onsen is ridiculously old. It’s about 200 years old.
And the entire building is made of wood.
And I’m going to show you the onsen in a minute because it’s nice.
It feels like less a hot spring and more like a waterfall they’ve just harnessed or stolen.
Can you steal a waterfall? I don’t know. Leave a comment below.
And then the water actually flows out from the waterfall and out of the hot spring and
just goes off into it’s own stream and leaves the building.
It’s quite nice. It feels less like an onsen and more like you’re just bathing in a natural
waterfall or something.
At the start of the new year, Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples across Japan burst into
activity as families across the country queue up to prayer for good luck, in a custom known
as Hatsumode.
And Ryotaro is keen to start 2018 by grabbing some good fortune of his own.
So religion isn’t what the religion that western people would think of in this country.
It’s more like a custom.
It’s more like a philosophy.
Exactly, so people come here to a shrine to prayer for good luck. But it doesn’t actually
mean that you believe strongly in that religion itself.
We don’t really learn about the in-depth knowledge of Shintoism anyway.
We just come here because it’s a tradition.
I read that most Japanese people are atheists.
Yes, we are atheists. We just follow the custom.
Obviously many people do think there are gods. That’s why people come here anyways.
But it’s just a custom. Your father comes, your mother comes here. So you come too.
That’s what it is.
You hungry?
Yes.
Morning ramen?
Morning ramen - I’m ready for it.
What’s it going to be?
So just walked into the ramen shop and before I’ve even look at the menu we can smell
that rich overpowering scent of the salty braised pork drifting across the room.
The reason we chose this place, the reason Ryotaro chose this place is he basically saw
a really good photo of a giant bowl of ramen covered in pork.
You couldn’t see the noodles.
There should have been noodles there but I couldn’t see anything.
Covered in pork.
And it’s called Niku ramen on the menu - niku ramen, meat ramen literally.
With Kitakata you’ve got an absurd amount of shops to choose from.
And so you really are at the mercy of good photos and good reviews. That’s what brought
us here to this one.
But I’m ridiculously hungry as we’ve been driving for two hours across the snowy plains
of Fukushima and Yamagata to get here.
Fuck you, I was the one driving mate.
Yeah but my snoring kept you awake for the last two hours.
Bloody hell they weren’t joking when they called it Niku ramen.
That was a shrewd move, there is a lot of meat.
See I can’t see any noodles.
Yeah I can’t see any noodles underneath whatsoever.
So, let’s try the pork.
How do you like it?
They’ve nailed it.
The meat is very good.
You’d think with this amount of meat it wouldn’t be very good quality.
But it’s very succulent, very juicy, very well done.
It’s not dry. Perfection.
It’s about 800 yen. So that’s about the average price for a decent bowl of ramen with pork.
That’s reasonable for the amount of pork they’ve put in it.
It’s quite a light broth, it’s not too thick. Which is good as in the morning you
don’t want a heavy broth. It’ll knock you out.
I heard Kitakata’s noodles are supposed to be kind of curly.
That’s right the noodles contain a lot of water, that’s why they are kind of curly
and how do you say it?
Curly.
Tried to film the guy preparing the ramen in the kitchen but he wouldn’t let us because
he wanted to keep it a secret.
Because there are so many ramen shops in this area and they needed to keep their recipe
a secret - naturally as you’d expect.
And now we’re off to a ramen shrine because Kitakata is very clever and they’ve worked
out how to exploit the whole ramen thing and make a shrine out of it.
I wonder where Ryotaro could be?
My father was fish and now I seem to be a ramen. Whatever that is. I don’t even know
what I’m talking about.
Your father was a fish and now you’re a ramen.
Yes I am.
I’m impressed you’ve managed to fit in that bowl.
Yeah you want to try?
Nope.
What do you mean?
Nope that’s why we brought you here. So I don’t have to do ridiculous demeaning things.
So right here behind me are the pictures of the ramen of the shops that Kitakata has.
Pictures of the ramens of the shops.
Yeah pictures of the ramen from the shops.
Ever the eloquent man.
Exactly.
Interesting thing about ramen is it’s such a simple dish; pork, noodles, broth.
And yet look at the diversity here on this wall. The sheer range in terms of diversity and appearance.
It’s amazing with one dish you can have so many variations and I guess for the people
living here it means you can always try something new.
It’s your new home.
This is going to come back and haunt you.
Get out. Get out of my house.
So what is this?
So unlike the Uesugi shrine which is several hundred years old, this is 3 years old.
A ramen shrine.
Normally in the centre of the shrine there is a god that protects the shrine.
Naturally.
And what we see in there, do you see it?
A bowl?
It’s a ramen bowl. It is a ramen bowl; this is a bowl from the original ramen shop that
actually opened up in Katakana.
And kicked it all off?
Exactly in the 1920’s. It’s quite old isn’t it? It’s around 100 years old.
Yeah! Older than you.
The history of Kitakata ramen dates back to 1925 when a Chinese immigrant called Bankinsei
arrived in search of his grandfather who was working in Fukushima.
Unfortunately, he never found his grandfather but to get by Bankinsei set up a Chinese noodle
stand according to his home recipe.
The dish proved very popular and soon many local shops began popping up to fulfil the
demand of the hungry locals.
With Kitakata’s brand of noodles Chuka soba - literally Chinese noodles - becoming incredibly popular.
And between the towns obsession with the dish and the unique noodles, the media discovered
Kitakata ramen and exposed it to the nation, turning it into one of Japan’s ramen capitals.
One. Two.
He did it.
Made it.
What did you wish for?
So that I can come back here again and eat better ramen.
Better ramen?
Better ramen.
That’s not very nice. You’re saying the ramen we had early wasn’t very good.
No it was good. It was really good. But I want even better ramen.
Even better though?
Yep.
We had an amazing time on our journey across the north to Kitakata.
And whilst the ridiculous snow might have been a bit nightmarish at times, there’s
no denying it made the journey all the more beautiful.
You can find the details on where we visited on our trip in the description box below.
The whole region we travelled in is accessible from Sendai airport if you plan on renting a car.
If you are renting a car the good news is, the highway companies now have a special discount
pass, similar to the Japan rail pass, which can drastically cut the cost of highway tolls.
And finally don’t be deterred by the language barrier; these days the major rental companies
have either trained staff or tablet assistants, that make the process simpler than ever before.
So we’re back here at Toyota rentacar - if you need to book a car and you need to get
a reservation, don’t worry, don’t fear they have a little system here where you can
put in your details like so.
And then you can just put in your details like that and away you go.
So it’s easy, don’t let the language barrier stand in the way of things.
Tablets will do things for you. It’s magical. It’s the future isn’t it.
As always guys many thanks for watching, we’ll see you next time.
I’m going to use CGI. I’m going to use CGI to make it look like I hit it.
You and your excuses mate.