The Spirit of Benkei

Of Ramen and Road Warriors


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.

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