Probably the master wouldn’t have told me even if I’d gone there more recently, closer to July 16 when it all ended. I don’t know where he is, or even if he is alive. Seventy-two-year-old Mr Shiraishi. Stubborn stoic, reticent. Hard of hearing, so he hollered. Welcome! Seven hundred yen! Thank you! His elder sister would have told me, she made it just as good and knew I appreciated it, though she cut the pork into strips not slabs as he did.
One afternoon she showed me photos of the street outside after the war, when it ran onto a wooden bridge across the Arakawa river. Now double elevated expressways cross there, over the rail line and the green riverbank with the white sand baseball diamonds. She said they used to swim in the bomb craters further up toward Senju.
Don’t know if she still lives above the shop. Hard to tell if she is still around. What about him? He could be cranky but not like he’d explode like a firework. Simmering. But the angry look was just his look, whatever his mood. He was reticent before we got talking and became quiet again after he told me his business philosophy: Just open all the time the same hours. He learned this as a younger man, carousing around in his car on days he didn’t feel like working, then finding his customers dwindling.
He seemed to exist in a semi-dream state; it wasn’t always water in the clear glass.
So he worked with purpose, shouting welcome and thank you, otherwise silent as if to say, Listen, I’m doing everything right so leave me alone OK. When he wasn’t cooking, when he was alone or when his customers had all been served, he would sit back on the steel bench beside the burners with a thick manga book as a cushion, smoking his white cigarettes. He seemed to exist in a semi-dream state; it wasn’t always water in the clear glass. And he would bend his rules, sometimes I found he had shut just as I turned up although he said he worked till seven. Once I rushed there from a job in Shibuya, it took a couple of trains, my mouth anticipating negi ramen, and he was closing.
That time he talked, he said he had wanted to be a pro baseball player, that he previously worked for an electronic parts company, how he lived not far away in the mansion apartment he owned, and came by bicycle and life was pretty good. His sister said she loved the neighbourhood, this patch of land their parents had claimed after moving here from Saitama, from the village of Miyuki, after the war. It made her nervous to be away, and when she came home, she said, she breathed relief.
I have this weakness when I enjoy something that could be just a little more to my liking: I ask for it to be changed. I know it may be annoying to staff in restaurants but even if I try not to, the voice says, Doesn’t hurt to ask. Just this adjustment and it will be perfect. Can you add some chili. Cook the noodles a bit hard. Can I sit at this table here. Sometimes people welcome the interest. But sometimes – you ought to let them do what they do, and take what you’re given, and if you don’t like it go elsewhere. I get that too. Maybe this was one of those. You can say I crossed the line but what’s done is done.
You ought to let them do what they want and take what you’re given and if you don’t like it go elsewhere.
One afternoon I asked him if he could make it less salty. He was fine with that. But it got out of hand. I had been away for a while. I don’t know what came over me. It hadn’t bothered me before. But I said, Can you make it without MSG. He looked at me as if not quite hearing, but muttered acknowledgement. I knew he wasn’t happy. And I thought, Damn, why did I say that. It was my mood at the time. I had seen the spoonful go into the bowl before mine and decided I didn’t want it. But you know, it was fine like that. It never bothered me. A self-centred whim. So anyway the ramen comes and I don’t think it’s any different. Maybe he even put more MSG in it. I didn’t ask for it again. He was that quiet I don’t know if the next incident was connected or not.
Maybe it was the smartphone. I was lingering over my bowl. Leaving a bit till last. Looking at the phone and texting a friend. Suddenly he said, OK that’s enough. I said Pardon? He said, That’s good, you’re done. Seven-fifty yen. I said, I haven’t finished. He said, You have. People just sit here doing that, and it’s not good for other customers. It’s not good for the turnover. I made a gesture of looking around. There was no one else in the shop. But I didn’t say anything. He looked at me expressionlessly. I paid and left.
I didn’t go back for weeks. I thought about it. He had kicked me out. Partly I was angry. But he was right. It’s his shop. And there are views about not leaving noodles to stretch out in the soup. Not noodles the maker is proud of. Eventually I got up the courage to go back and be ready to apologize. But when I arrived his sister was behind the counter and he was nowhere around.
Maybe that was a good thing, as I could establish myself there like it was normal. As I was eating the door slid open and he came in, his usual pale yellow T-shirt, carrying a plastic bag of pork bones for stock. He hollered his usual greeting and it all seemed good, neutral. He went behind the counter and I said, Sorry about the other day. He brushed it away. I don’t even know if he knew what I meant. I went back a few times but got busy and then not for a couple of months.
He may not have known he was going to close. He may still not know he has closed, in the worst case.
And then last week at lunchtime, the sign on the door. Through the slats I could make out some building work, or dismantling. Lengths of timber were leaning here and there, and the figure of a workman was taking a nap on a board. He had no shoes on and his socks were striped. The light was not the usual light. I guess because the surfaces and shadows had changed. It looked cold, it didn’t look like Miyuki Ramen.
The master might have told me, or he might not have. He may not have known he was going to close. He may still not know he has closed, in the worst case. At least the notice was signed. Closed on July 16. Thank you for your long patronage. Manager
He made almost the perfect ramen.