Oishii desu!

It’s not like Madison needs another restaurant, but we’re pretty happy that Umami opened on Willy Street anyway. We stopped there for dinner after work today and each slurped up a bowl of ramen the likes of which we’ve not enjoyed since we left Japan almost six years ago.

We’ve tried ramen at a few places since we returned to the States but until now we haven’t had any that comes even close to the real thing served hot from a tiny little shop in a Japanese village. The best we ever ate was the kind they served on a cold, snowy day, but really the very best was served right in our own little town of Misawa at a place the gaijin from the air base called Cheese Roll Noodle, because that’s what was etched in the big picture window in the front of the shop. Almost. In point of fact it read “Cheese Rool Noodle.” I still have a photo of that somewhere. [here it is!] I don’t know the Japanese name except in English: Family Familiar Noodle House.

At Umami we each ordered a different bowl: My Darling B tried the miso ramen and I had a bowl of pork ramen. I was very encouraged when the waiter brought it to our table in bowls big enough for us to bathe in, and it just kept getting better from there. Mine had an appropriately fatty slab of pork floating off to one side, a few slices of bamboo and seaweed clustered against the other side, and half an egg floating smack-dab in the middle. B’s was similarly adorned but with tofu instead of pork. The noodles were not quite right – delicious, but not the same kind of noodle served in Japan. But the broth was an orgasm of flavors, if that’s not getting too personal about how wonderful it tasted. I slurped up every bit of it, picking up the bowl and tipping it back in the manner considered proper in all the finer ramen shops.

So a great big thank-you to Umami for taking me back to my Misawa days, when a bowl of ramen was one of the best kinds of dinner you could buy while you were in town. Ita dake masu!


I’m on break. There’s always something on my to-do list, but I won’t have to go work a day watch, won’t have day weenies stirring up trouble in my ops area. I’d much rather shovel snow, or fix the balky toilet float, and when I get a minute when nobody’s looking, I’ll sneak upstairs and play with my toys. If it’s a really good day, I’ll get a bowl of hot miso shrimp ramen at Familiar Noodle House.

Nobody knows what the Familiar Noodle House is actually called. Most restaurants have a flag that hangs over the front door when they’re open, and theirs says “Familiar Noodle House” on it in Kanji and English, so that’s what we call it, but most people call it Cheese Roll Noodle, because that’s what’s on the window. Actually, what’s on the window is “Cheese Rool Noodle Hendemade”, which I like a lot. So far, the only other shop sign I like as much is “Cow Beer Staek.”

snow plow NOT

Here in the great white north of Japan, you might think these folks would be prepared to deal with lots of snow. How very wrong you’d be, you weeniehead. The motorists of Misawa have never seen a snow plow, or any evidence of one. The Japanese are great at digging up roads and repairing them again, but it has apparently never, ever crossed their minds to plow the snow off their streets. They just drive over the snow until it becomes ice, and they drive slower and slower as potholes the size of Montana open up through the ice. The manhole covers are the worst. Whatever goes on beneath manhole covers is warm enough to melt the ice to slush. It gets pushed to the sides, where it freezes into a solid ring of ice around the edges of the manhole, so that you get a kidney-punching jolt every time you drive over one. There are lots of manholes in the streets of Misawa. No wonder everybody has 4-wheel drive cars.


I went back to the ski slopes again! A couple guys as work, Romeo Bautista and Dave Christy, were headed for Makado, up north by Mutsu Bay, and asked me if I wanted to come along. I probably shouldn’t have; my legs were still sore and tight from skiing at Moya, but I couldn’t say no. For one thing, I needed a little stress relief.

I should’ve know by the end of the first run that I’d be in trouble; my turns were sloppy and my knees hurt, but I figured once I warmed up, I’d be okay. I was wrong. For one thing, I just wasn’t flexible enough; the muscles of my calves and thighs were like cold taffy. For another thing, the slopes were slick with ice; my skis kept going out from under me faster than I could say “ouch!” I tried the fastest slope and ended up going splat five or six times.

Finally, there was no way for me to stay warm. I was plenty warm at Moya in my bibs and jacket, with a t-shirt underneath. For Makado, I put on a thermal undershirt, but seriously misjudged how much colder the wind would make things – and there was lots of wind pushing lots of snow around. I was never uncomfortably cold, except on the long chairlift, but I never got warm all the way through until we went inside at lunch time, where I curled myself around a great big bowl of miso ramen to soak up the heat.

I felt much better after I had a belly full of hot ramen in me. When we got back out onto the slopes, I also had much less trouble making the turns without going splat, which makes the day out so much more enjoyable. We stayed until about three in the afternoon, when the wind got really crazy and the snow started coming down so hard that, on my last run of the day, I might as well have shut my eyes all the way back down the slope.


Some people can strap on a pair of skis and learn to shuss down a hill with only a few minor spills that everybody can sit around and joke about later. Tim’s one of those people. He got on a snowboard and was shooting down the steeper slopes by mid-afternoon. My Darling B, I suspect, is not one of those people, although I feel it’s largely my fault. I said I’d help her learn, but I’m not a ski instructor, not by a long shot.

B hadn’t been skiing since the last time she was here, back in 1985 or something like that. She went with John and some of his buddies; their method of instruction was to take her to the top of the mountain and leave her to make her way down. I guess some people can learn like that; what B learned was that she didn’t want to ski with John and his buddies any more.

I wanted more than anything for her to enjoy it this time. We went to Moya, a resort about two hours from Misawa. It was our first family ski trip, and our first with the Mogul Mashers, a club on base. The trip started with bagels, doughnuts and juice on the bus ride out, and after a day on the slopes we had a wine and cheese party in the lodge. On the way home, we stopped at a local hot bath to clean up and soak. Pretty nice.

B and I started out on the bunny slope, which is where I found out that, while I can sort of figure out what to do by watching other people, and conduct experiments on myself, I’m not very good at explaining any of what little I’ve learned. I could explain how to snowplow, but she pretty much had to figure out the rest for herself. By about eleven thirty she had built up enough self-confidence to try the shortest, easiest run. The results were spectacular. She tumbled like a dervish, skis and poles flying everywhere.

I spent the early afternoon with Tim and Sean on the hills, and checked back with B on the bunny hill between runs. She was doing so well that she went back up the lift for another try at the hills, and ended up walking part of the way back down after her skis popped off again.

Sean has a snow board, and he won’t hesitate to tell you every one of the million reasons he think it’s the very best way to travel downhill on snow. We were thinking that, because he had so much praise for snowboards, he would have plenty to teach Tim, but Tim picked it up on his own while Sean was trying to get his gloves on just right. When it comes to snowboarding, Sean’s long on theory, but short on practice.

I haven’t been skiing since I went to Keystone in Colorado many, many moons ago with some guys from work, and that was only the second time in my life. It’s a good thing I spent so much time on the bunny hill with B in the morning this time around; if I’d gone straight up the slopes, I’m pretty sure I would’ve killed myself. The next day my muscles were aching in places where I didn’t have muscles.

The onsen is a Japanese tradition, a bath house where we went to clean up and relax after skiing. There was a big communal hot tub in a steamy room, and all around the wall there were wash basins and stools where we could scrub ourselves to get good and clean. The water was so hot I couldn’t stay in too long; a friend of mine told me to put a cool washrag on my head so I could stay in longer, so there I sat with a folded washcloth plopped on my head. I think all it did was keep me in the water long enough to get hard-boiled, and provide comic relief for the rest of the bathers.

I know you’re going to ask, so I’d point out that the women’s baths are separated from the men’s by a wall high enough for privacy. No peeking at the women at all, unless you count the little girl one of the guys brought in with him. Now there’s something you wouldn’t see anywhere in America.


Spent the morning shoring up shelving in a storage shed the Air Force built onto our quarters. The shed is five feet square and about ten feet high, with bare, poured concrete walls up the sides, no shelves, and no way to attach any. How useful is that? It wasn’t hard to fix up, but took a couple hours, after which we piled into the car in search of ramen. The place we usually haunt wasn’t open, so we tried another shop we see every time we go to Shimoda; B usually says, “We ought to try that place some time,” so we finally did. It was a roadside diner kind of place in a porta-kabin, where you belly up to a counter and order one of five or six items. I was so hungry I ordered the large bowl of ramen; the guy served it to me in a bath tub.

they don’t take plastic

Not that I think I’m Alan Greenspan or anything, but I may have a good idea why the Japanese economy is in such piss-poor shape: They’ve got, like, no clue when it comes to using credit cards.

It began to dawn on me the first time I went looking for an ATM. I couldn’t do it to save my life. I’m pretty sure there are more ATMs on this base than there are in all of Misawa city. I think I’ve seen one outside a bank, but in all the other places I’m used to seeing them – gas stations, convenience stores, shopping centers (shopping centers!) – just forget it.

So instead I’ve tried to pay for something with plastic. No, just forget that, too. Everybody wants cash. In the few stores that take a card, I had to go to the customer service counter in a back corner of the store, where they have a single card reader and one of those clunky things with the roller that makes an impression of the card on carbon paper. Unfortunately for me, I went through all that without making sure that what I was buying with plastic was something I wanted to keep forever. That’s very important, because getting a refund credited to a card is like asking the clerk to do algebra – he may have learned how to do it many moons ago, but hasn’t solved for x in years.

The one time I’ve asked for a refund, the ordeal lasted more than a half-hour. First, the clerk had to stare at the receipt for five or ten minutes, thoughtfully scratching his head. Then he ran my card through the machine, blooped a few buttons, made what looked like an exact copy of the receipt, and stared at them both. After about five minutes of that, he made a couple phone calls. A second clerk appeared. They both stared hard at the receipts for at least five minutes, saying nothing, before they decided to run my card through the machine again. This time, they made two or three more copies, and compared them all, with much discussion. Eventually they decided one of them looked right, and they gave that one to me with lots of apologies. Barb tried to return something at another store, and had the same experience.

Whenever that happens, I go to the BX and buy a packet of chewing gum or a spiral notebook, and pay for it with my Visa. Takes thirty seconds.


Took one last trip with B to the mall at Shimoda to see if we needed any last-minute Christmas gifts; turned out I did pick up one or two things, and so did Barb. We started with a noodle lunch at a fast-food place; wasn’t too bad, but didn’t hold a candle to a steaming bowl of miso ramen at the Familiar Noodle House.

Went to Miyaki’s for dinner with B. It’s another one of the restaurants right outside the main gate that she used to run to for take-out. Doesn’t look to me like the place has changed much in fifteen years, either. The food was pretty good, although just a bit too greasy for me. Finished it all, though. The portions were generous enough that we both felt like beach balls as we waddled down the street back to the car.

Learned another important lesson about going out into Japan: Don’t assume you can park your car in just any lot that doesn’t have a “No Parking” sign. Because there are plenty of stupid Americans motoring about, the Japanese post lots of “No Parking” signs in English, but the lot I used didn’t have any. Didn’t have to walk home, though. The entrance to the lot was blocked by a padlocked chain, but there was a back way out the lot to an alley, pretty lucky for us. Would’ve been a long, cold walk home.

[11/24/14: If I recall, our dinner was at “New” Miyaki’s, a couple blocks down the street if you turn south west out the main gate and go down White Pole Road. From what I can tell by looking at Misawa on Google Maps, that part of town has been completely rebuilt now.]

Familiar Noodle

B and I went down to Familiar Noodle House at lunch time for big, steaming bowls of ramen. I get the idea that “Familiar Noodle House” lost a little in the translation, don’t you? But it’s right there on the flag over the counter, in English and katakana.

When we came back, we got stopped at the gate, where the guards searched our car. They pick cars at random and go through all the compartments. They never say what they’re looking for, and I never ask; they’re just doing their job, and I’m absolutely certain they catch a lot of crap for it. The airman who brought our license and registration back to us said we were the nicest people they’d had all day. Gosh.