Muteppou, 15-3 Kizugawa, Kyoto Prefecture, Japan. Opens 11am-3pm and 6pm-11pm; closed Monday. Kizugawa is one hour by train from Kyoto or Osaka on the Nara line; Muteppou is about 10 minutes by taxi from Kizugawa Station. There are branches in Kyoto city, Nara, Osaka and Tokyo. Gumshara, Shop 211, Eating World Food Court, 25-29 Dixon Street, Haymarket. Opens 11.30am-9pm Tuesday-Saturday; 11.30am-8:30pm Monday. The Japanese rail attendant looks nonplussed when I approach. Few gaijin (foreigners) stop at Kizugawa, a small but growing dormitory suburb on the outskirts of the old imperial city of Kyoto. Most passengers are on their way from Tokyo to Osaka, Kyoto or neighbouring Nara’s ancient temples. But I’m on a pilgrimage of another kind and his face breaks into a bright smile when I say the magic word: Muteppou.
In Japanese, muteppou means “rash” or “reckless” but for ramen aficionados it means the best noodles for miles. Many Sydney foodies, like me, regard the Kyushu tonkatsu ramen served by chef Mori Higashida at Gumshara in Chinatown (where it’s all but hidden in the Eating World Food Court on Dixon Street) as the city’s, if not Australia’s, best. A thick, rich, broth of roast pork, marrow and handmade noodles, it’s been dubbed one of the “top 21 Sydney dishes you must try before you die” by The Australian’s stablemate, The Daily Telegraph.
Despite making thousands of serves a week, stirring the broth constantly, Mori tastes every one before serving. He was a successful jewellery company executive when his life was changed after just one bowl of Muteppou ramen. He quit his high-flying career at the age of 48 and became an apprentice. Although training to be a ramen chef takes a minimum of five years, Mori asked Muteppou founder Shigeyuki Akasako to fast-track him. Working 18 hours a day, seven days a week, even sleeping on the shop floor, Mori made an average of 180 bowls of ramen a day before qualifying in less than 18 months and returning to Sydney to follow his singular passion and open his now-famous shop in 2009.
And now, in a taxi speeding past rice paddies, I’m about to enter the place where Mori began to fulfil his dreams. Virtually in the middle of nowhere, a wood log cabin imported from Wisconsin comes into view and there’s a line snaking out into the carpark — and it’s not even midday. I insert coins into the ticket vending machine and eventually my number’s called.
I’m warmly ushered in by Yasuo Oshima, one of Mori’s fellow acolytes under Akasako and considered one of the country’s best ramen masters.
Cosy and busy, the cabin is filled with ravenous diners tucking in amid an intoxicating aroma; walls are adorned with autographed testimonials and kooky decorations, including a decade-old photo of Mori looking just as he does today.
I’m served a huge, steaming, glossy bowl, costing ¥750 ($8.80). Slices of roast pork bob like jewels in the shimmering soup, thick as honey, and adorned only by a square of nori and some spring onions.
I’m a little overwhelmed as the weather is unseasonably sweltering with humidity in the high 90s. But it’s more that I’ve made it, here, to this place, to taste the same ramen that changed Mori’s life.
Expectation often has a bitter aftertaste, but this ramen is just as rich and good as that served at Gumshara. It’s the strangest, sweetest feeling to taste something so familiar, so far from home.
I have Mori’s mobile number and decide to call him in Sydney. My bowl is empty, he’s in the middle of service and can’t talk long, but we’re struck by that connection, crossing time, distance and culture, reminding us how great food can bring us all closer together.