It’s an aesthetically-pleasing circular route from Chitose airport through to Sapporo, down to the mountains of Niseko and back again. The slight detour on the route, however, is more than worth the loss of symmetry for some justly-famous ramen at Rakuichi, a tiny wooden shack with just twelve seats, hidden amongst the snowdrifts.
This being ski season and with Rakuichi’s renown broadened by Bourdain and others, getting to the lunch seatings (there are 12 seats each in 2 sittings, dinner is sold out three months in advance) means getting there early. Across the wooden walkway, a forty minute wait outside is not unreasonable, even if it’s well into the negative side of the thermometer. The deep snow adds to the charm, making the prospect of hot, restorative food all the more exciting.
Inside is all wooden too, all hand built by the owners Tatsuru Rai and his wife Midori. An initial waiting area to disgorge voluminous jackets, hats, gloves and more, before walking through into the counter. It’s tricky, but try to position yourself in the middle of the line so you end up with a good view of a true master at work. Because that’s why you’re here, for the culinary theatre of watching someone do something beautiful. Something technical, difficult, borne from years of training but made to look effortless.
It’s not, of course. The dough is made from local buckwheat flour and the freshest water imaginable from under the slopes of Mt. Yotei and the Niseko range, kneaded and cajoled, pummeled and coaxed with the strongest of shoulders and deftest of hands on an otherwise thin man. This being Japan, every movement by Tatsuru one of precision, every action measured.
It’s a huge ball of dough, but in no time has been flattened with a thin wooden roller to about a quarter of an inch thick, before being folded back on itself. The comes the denoument. First he flicks flour with a small metal instrument, not unlike a trowel for bricklaying, onto his wooden worksurface. Then comes the absolute beast of a blade, at least eighteen inches wide that he uses to rhythmically and perfectly metamorophose the soba from a sheet of play doh to the thinnest strips. It is utterly beguiling, wholly mesmerizing, a rhythmic thud that could easily be set to music. Here’s a look at the master at work:
The menu stretches to five lines of an A4 sheet. No more is needed. You have your soba hot or cold, with one of four types of soup. That’s it, apart from ‘season’s vegetables tempura’.
My call is the cold soba with hot duck soup. It’s a great one. They all are. The soba themselves are steeped ever so briefly in boiling water before being cooled and placed on a plate, like so many restaurants in Japan, a beautiful, bespoke and handmade example.
The duck broth. Oh, the duck broth. A thin ribbon of fat lining the pink curls of flesh, all submerged in a life-enhancing dark brown soup, the faintest slick of oil, warming to the soul. A dainty dish of mountain yam and some sublime onion tempura accompany.
There’s no particular etiquette, to my knowledge, so dip and slurp at will, as always, the louder your volume, the more appreciative you are, with or without wasabi. The noodles themselves are extraordinary, cool but with bite, light but filling, the hint of buckwheat but most of all the taste of love, of someone who has spent a lifetime perfecting a craft to deliver something without parallel, here in the snows of Niseko.
As if that weren’t enough, then the lightest, most perfect tempura you can imagine also arrive with traditional sauce of dashi, soy and mirin. As much as the lightest of batters it’s the quality of the vegetables themselves, even in winter plucked from the glasshouses of Hokkaido, peerless. We spy them through the blue curtain folds, lying like extras from a Vermeer still life, about to meet their oily maker.
It is a simply wonderful meal, the perfect way to start the year, the apex of taste, skill and produce all in union. It’s also an extraordinary bargain around 2,000 yen or HK$150 per person, for one of the most perfect dishes you’ll ever eat.
Incidentally, dessert was wholly unnecessary but the Milk Kobo creamery a few minutes drive away are rightly famous for their choux buns. As with almost everything you ever eat in Japan, they were nothing less than an epiphany of how things should look and taste, in the best of all possible worlds.
Rakuichi review, January 2nd, 2016