Ramen Evolution: Trekking To Japan’s Most Remote Ramen Shop In A Mitsubishi Lancer Evo V
Photography by Michael Shaffer
Tap your neighbor on the shoulder and ask what ramen means to them. Odds are they’ll think of foil packets of bouillon with rice noodle cornrows bought in bulk for $4 a dozen. Post-college survival food. Ramen is indeed a survival food, but gained its ubiquity as an inexpensive calorie bomb for Japanese business people on the move after WWII. In its native land, a bowl of ramen is as complex and unique as the fingerprint of the chef preparing it. An aspiring ramen-head, I came across “Japan’s Most Remote Ramen Shop,” on YouTube and knew what I had to do: Purchase a 1998 Mitsubishi Lancer Evo V in Osaka and make the 2,000-km journey north.
The story of how I obtained the Evo V (affectionately renamed “Mitsy”) and got it to the top of Japan will have to wait for another time. Do tune in when that time comes, however. It’s a tale of middle of the night Facetime calls, fighting cats, a Frenchman with a laserdisc collection, learning Japanese strictly by way of pleading for Premium at Eneos petrol stations, and many, many public baths in the nude. Like, many. For now though, let’s focus on ramen.
After a week-long blast up the eastern shore of Japan’s mainland, I’d reached Wakkanai. If the island prefecture of Hokkaido is Japan’s toque, Wakkanai is the fuzzy ball on the top. But aside from street signs written in Russian for the fisherman that stay the night between hauls (Unlike Sarah Palin, residents of Wakkanai actually can see Russia) and the statue that says “Might as well turn ’round, you’ve reached the end,” there isn’t a whole lot on offer in Wakkanai itself. A solitary Russian Beer and forty winks for me then.
I beat the sun to the ferry terminal and purchased passes for Mitsy and myself to get onto Rishiri Island. Located to the west of Wakkanai, Rishiri is essentially an extinct volcano in the middle of the ocean with about 5,000 inhabitants. Four hundred fifty dollars and forty-five minutes later, we docked on the stratovolcano bearing such a tidy resemblance to Japan’s most famous peak that it’s sometimes called Rishiri Fuji.
The limited ferry schedule demanded an early arrival to the island, but Miraku Ramen didn’t open until closer to lunchtime. Meaning I had time to kill with my teenage dream car on an almost uninhabited island paved with silky-smooth tarmac. As it’s said, you gotta play to get lucky.
Find your neighbor again, the one you tapped on the shoulder to ask about packets of cheap noodles. Now ask what a 23-year-old Japanese economy car with a big wing and two working speakers means to them. If they don’t say “The best damned time of your life,” move. You need better neighbors.
The Evo V is an absolute balls-to-the wall laugh-riot of an all-out blast. Still quick—if not mad quick by any modern standard—totally engaging, and terrifyingly forgivable.
Having escaped the bloat required to appeal to global markets in later generations (sorry, America), the Evo V hadn’t yet gained mass by employing convoluted suspension and steering mechanisms to feel lighter and sportier. The Evo V is light and sporty. This four-door sedan weighs about the same as a current Subaru BRZ (about 2,750lbs), and that coupe is rated at 205 horsepower. The Evo V is still snickering at the “276 horsepower” rating it received during Japan’s gentlemen agreement of the 1990s (all the manufacturers agreed to limit the output of domestically produced cars to 276hp in order to avoid a horsepower war. On paper, anyway.). The Evo V puts down whatever its actual power is (325’s a good guess) through four driven wheels. Mighty quick, whatever the precise number.
Steering feel is typically vague for an AWD car, but it is lightning quick. Risking cries of blasphemy from Maranello, the immediacy could almost be compared to some modern Ferraris. Closing your eyes, you’d never ever confuse one car for the other, but feel the lower half of your face and the smiles there are the same.
Tearing around ring road Rt. 108, alternatively called “Rishiri Fantastic Road”—seriously—the rally-car-based suspension had no issues riding the earthquake-induced undulations and irregularities of the otherwise perfect pavement. If I were going to track Mitsy, I’d certainly go for a stiffer setup, but with that said, not only would I rather hunt ramen, but the play left in the factory springs was a welcome sponge soaking up some little mistakes that would otherwise send an amateur like me into the Sea of Japan.
The entire island can be looped in about an hour. This left plenty of time for two good laps and some sightseeing of the surreally stunning island. It was hard to peg if the place was empty because the population is so low, having been ravaged by Japan’s economic and population growth woes, or if the timing of my visit was just an awkward window for tourism. I’d guess both. Looking through the photos, you’d be forgiven for thinking I rented the place out for myself.
Many homes had clearly been deserted for some time, and even the seemingly occupied neighborhoods showed nearly no signs of life. A convenience store on the far side of the island was conspicuously shiny and fully stocked, like a greasy mirage of fried chicken and pizza-flavored potato chips plucked from downtown Tokyo. I imagine every single person on the island would have to visit twice per day to go through all the inventory.
The only signs of life were the few guests that had made the same pilgrimage for ramen (albeit from other parts of the island or mainland Japan, not America) and the ladies gleefully preparing and serving it.
Miraku’s ramen is a matter of local pride because the broth base is made with kombu seaweed that flourishes in the waters surrounding Rishiri Island. Seaweed is to Japan what potatoes are to Ireland and pasta is to Italy. Kombu seaweed is king. No really, the Seaweed Encyclopedia hails it as the “King of Seaweed.” Hijiki is the “King of Sea Minerals,” if you were wondering.
Kombu seaweed is sold in stores all over Japan, and you can even order it on Amazon. In other words, yes, it would’ve been quite easy for me to nab some and prepare my own pot much closer to home—but that’s boring.
So then, after eighteen hours in the air, three and a half hours on a bullet train, a week in the car, forty-five minutes on a boat, and two laps around a driving sanctuary too good for Gran Turismo in my modern classic Mitsubishi, how was the ramen? Pretty dang good.