On some level, every bowl of ramen ever made has been a lesson in impermanence: slurp the noodles, drink the broth, stare into the abyss of an empty bowl. But Davis Square noodle shop Tsurumen puts impermanence at the center of the ramen experience.
The restaurant opened April 12, 2018. It will operate for 1,000 days. Then it will close. Chef Masuo Onishi is intentionally engaged in the practice of Make No Plans. He doesn’t want to think about the next. He wants to think about the now. Making the best ramen. Being present. A small sign in the shop window says: “Yesterday. Now. Tomorrow.” Yesterday and tomorrow are crossed out.
“It is very important to have an end to things,” Onishi says in Japanese, through a translator. “A person’s life is limited. If someone were to be immortal, they wouldn’t pay as much attention to the moment. Setting an end to things makes you focus on what you’re doing now.”
It is as if the 1,000 days were a book, or a song cycle; this is art, and house-made noodles are the medium. Onishi has divided the time into chapters, each corresponding to an era of his life. The first 200-day chapter featured Formula 1985, ramen inspired by the bowls his parents took him to eat when he was a child: classic Tokyo shoyu ramen, in a chicken-based broth with slices of roast pork and an optional slow-cooked egg. There’s also paitan ramen, with a thicker broth, available in regular or spicy.
On Sunday, the first chapter came to a close. Tsurumen will take a short break and reopen Feb. 8. On the menu next is Formula 1995, based on the ramen Onishi ate in his 20s, when he started to really become interested in the dish. Tsurumen will also touch down in 2005, when, in his 30s, Onishi opened his first ramen shop in Osaka, Japan. (He operated two there and later others in Hawaii and North Carolina, all named Tsurumen, before coming to Boston.) Then the menu fast-forwards to 2015, the era in which Onishi, now a seasoned ramen chef, lost his father. The noodles for this chapter are inspired by the ramen his father ate before he died.
The last chapter, you may have surmised, is 2025. The ramen of the future!
What will it look like? “It is ramen that will make everyone in the world smile,” he says. Vague, but heartening.
Childhood, nascence, maturity, and true adulthood, settling onto the shoulders with weight and promise. Then onward. It is hard to say from any decade how the next and then the next will feel, how our own sense of taste will change, what flavors will speak to us. But a bowl of ramen warms us right now, casting a glow over gray days and gray times. The government is shut down and workers go without pay. The daily cruelty reveals itself in headlines brutal, relentless, and hard to believe. A bowl of soup makes sense. A bowl of soup feels sane.
On a recent afternoon, two friends solidly in our own weight-and-promise era revisit 1985. We order our bowls, pay cash, take our seats. Bottled water is free, although Tsurumen accepts donations to pay for it. As we wait for lunch, we talk about aging parents and in-laws, midcareer challenges, finances. It’s sexy stuff, but we were 13 then, and we are glad not to have to go back.
The chefs behind the counter, wearing black caps and black hoodies, prepare our food. The place is sparsely decorated. There are white curtains with the red Tsurumen logo hanging on one wall, a large clock on another. A sign counts down the days: 0195 out of 1,000 on the day we are there.
The soup arrives, steaming and comforting. Savory broth, noodles with the right touch of tension left in each strand, good pork, too much chopped raw red onion for my liking, but that’s OK. Removing the pieces with chopsticks is meditative, the same way seeding a pomegranate or stripping a sprig of thyme can be. (There’s something about ramen that lends itself to contemplation: In Porter Square, at ramen shop Yume Wo Katare, customers are encouraged to share their dreams. The chefs behind the two restaurants are old friends.)
I eat too quickly. I’m thinking about the parking meter, ticking toward expiration, when everything is telling me I shouldn’t be.
The first Tsurumen restaurant was located in the Tsurumi ward of Osaka City: thus the name, Onishi says. In Japanese, “tsuru” means crane. (The suffix “-men” refers to noodles.) The bird is said to live for 1,000 years — as the restaurant will live for 1,000 days — and so it is a symbol of longevity and good fortune. According to legend, if you fold 1,000 origami cranes, your wish will come true.
There’s a famous story about this. After surviving the Hiroshima bombing as a baby, a 12-year-old girl named Sadako Sasaki was diagnosed with leukemia, a result of the radiation. Wishing to recover, she determined to fold 1,000 cranes. In a well-known children’s book inspired by her, she dies before she can finish and her classmates complete the task. But her older brother, Masahiro, says she achieved her goal. She was still ill. So she started all over again, from the beginning.
420 Highland Ave., Davis Square, Somerville, 617-764-0588.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.