The Spirit of Benkei

Of Ramen and Road Warriors

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Here is a story steeped in legend; a tale of loyalty, gratitude and – I vouchsafe it – some very good noodles.

Just Another Lonely Noodle Shop

Many years ago there was a ramen shop in Horikiri that brewed an especially rich pork bone broth. The place had a following – truckers, night owls and the like – but traffic was never heavy.  It was on the outskirts of town, far from the nearest station, with nothing separating its counter from the street but line of rickety stools, an old noren and the sidewalk. Like the famous warrior monk of old, the shop was named Benkei.

A Lucky Driver

One day, out of the blue, a cab driver domiciled nearby was invited by a Tokyo TV station to be the street food cognoscente in a daytime docu-series on eateries of the local working folk. How he was selected for this distinction is a mystery, but all agreed he was perfect for the role. When asked to produce his list of five essential food stops he did so with little hesitation, and one of them was – you guessed it – Ramen Benkei.

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Under Hot Lights

There’s no need to describe in detail the events that followed. I won’t recount how, under a hot strobe, with the videocam rolling, the cabbie hunched over a bowl of his favorite miso chashumen, sucking down that thick miasma of crushed garlic, diced green onions, sliced pork and egg noodles, with the facedown determination of a sumo rikishi. Grunting like a caveman to his superfluous interlocutor, he remained focused on the bowl until, with his last slurp, he pushed it away with both hands, belched and calmly wiped the sweat from his brow.

The Buzz

One day, many weeks later, in this land where everyone refuses to pay their hapless NHK fee collector a plastic penny, but still watches public TV anyway, a gaggle of utter strangers coalesced on the sidewalk outside that lonely ramen shop; street traffic slowed and clotted, with rubbernecking, and even some honking; and a row of bicycles grew like a helter-skelter, metal hedge upon the curb.

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The Boom

As days passed this phenomenon, instead of diminishing, only intensified. Within a fortnight, Ramen Benkei had swarms of hungry bodies cramming its counter from noon to night. Word of mouth had kicked in. It was catapulted from serving a couple dozen customers a day to feeding hundreds and hundreds. (The occasional female was even sighted in the crowd!) Pundits claim that this was the exact moment when Japan’s ramen “boom” was ignited; MSG stock tripled in value overnight.

Remembering a Loyal Customer

All this occurred some 33 years ago, just about the time the above-mentioned cabbie became my father-in-law. By then, the owners of Ramen Benkei were already sending him gifts of gratitude each summer and winter, something they have done without fail ever since, even as they have opened new locations in old Tokyo. In fact, after being implored countless times to desist from their kindness – and even after learning that the cabbie had departed for that eternal noodle stand in the sky – they continue to honor their benefactor’s widow with delicious o-chugen and o-seibo every year.

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Where It’s At

Benkei has locations in Horikiri, Asakusa and Monzennakacho.   Only downtown Tokyo is the real deal! Everything west of Shinbashi is fake news! So slip into your geta, and go get some now!

Historical Note:

It is said that the warrior monk Musashibo Benkei singlehandedly battled a force of three hundred attackers while defending his master, Yoshitsune Minamoto. Refusing to retreat, he made a stand on a narrow bridge, and fought to the death, annihilating great numbers of attackers while Yoshitsune calmly committed ritual seppuku.

In the proper posture of a true noodleman, Benkei died standing up.

This all happened a long time ago, before the invention of the ramen shop, but it must never be forgotten.

Bessho Onsen

Soul-Cleansing for the Tokyo Day Tripper

Although Bessho Onsen is a quaint hot spring town with an impressive history, it’s very small, and very quiet. (Don’t get it mixed up with Beppu Onsen, Japan’s thermal wonderland, in Kyushu.) If you visit Bessho on a weekday, when no events are scheduled, you might want to bring a friend.

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Get Ready to Slow Down

From Ueda Station (the Hokuriku bullet train stop) take the Shinano line for Bessho Onsen.  Some of the stops along this thirty-minute, double-car ride amount to little more than a block of cement by a cabbage patch.  There might be seven half-asleep people slumped on the benches with you.  This single-track chugger, arriving at the empty wooden station that is your destination, seems like something straight out of Spirited Away.

If you’re thinking this place is just what the doctor ordered, it could be that you, too, are suffering from TTSD (Tokyo Traumatic Stress Disorder.) You should check this place out.

 

 

Don’t Call a Taxi

From the station, just walk.  Take it slow. If I forgot to mention it, this place is pretty small.  The temptation to find a map, and do something ambitious, like exploring in the hills beyond town, disappears quickly.  Why bother? For soaking there are several public baths (the ¥150 kind), a few small inns to consider (in case you want to stay longer), and plenty of history to take in.   Just unwind.  There’s zero noise pollution; the air is pretty fresh.

 

 

A Wealth of History

These springs had already been settled for centuries when the fierce warrior Yoshinaka Minamoto galloped into Shinano to muster forces against the Taira, in the year 1180, and burned the original Bessho temples to the ground.  Long before, Sei Shonagon had referenced the town (by an older name) in her famous work The Pillow Book (c. 1010.)

Miraculous Waters

In fact, Bessho is said to be one of Japan’s oldest hot springs, and Nagano’s oldest, known at least from the time that nearby Zenkoji Temple was founded (c. 625.) Rebuilt in 1252 (after Yoshinaka’s unkindness), it became popular in later centuries with betrothed ladies because (take note) its thermal waters were said to make a woman’s skin more beautiful. After a dip in one of the public baths – and a non-descript bath, at that – I noticed that even mine was greatly improved!

The Main Attraction

Bessho’s “North-Facing Kannon” temple is a rarity in Japan, as few Japanese temples are built facing north. It is said that praying at this temple will remove evil from your life. Far across the distant valley, low on the horizon, is a range of mountains, snowcapped in winter. Somewhere out there is the “South-Facing Kannon,” at Zenkou-ji Temple, harkening from beyond the swift-running Chikuma river. If you really want to expel your demons, you must pray before the deities of both temples.

 

 

Scarce Amenities

There are just a few places to eat in Bessho, much more local in vibe than touristy, and the favorite dish here is buckwheat noodles. Simple fare. People out here are polite, but also just plain people. There’s a visitor center, and a souvenir shop or two, on your way back to the station.

 

 

Good for a Day, or Longer

This is an easily missed corner of Nagano, with a colorful history and countless places to explore. You could visit nearby Unnojuku after your foray to Bessho, if you want to see some fine old architecture, and still get back to Tokyo in time for dinner. Zenkou-ji is not too far for a quick visit (and that second prayer!) Much better, you could treat yourself to a really nice hot spring bath at one of the venerable Bessho inns, and make it an overnight affair.

And feel that TTSD just dissolve away.