He also makes a startling invitation.

When last we left our brave Japanese-language reporter Seiji Nakazawa, he was in the snow-covered town of Otaru, in Japan’s northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido, where a blizzard warning had been issued. When he woke up the next morning there was even more snow piled up and the local river, Okobachikawa, had frozen over, so while his friend and travelling companion was shopping for souvenirs, Seiji decided to snap some pictures of the icy scenery.

After getting a few shots, he heard a voice behind him say, “You know, every year, there are a ton of salmon who come up through here.” The weird thing was, though, it wasn’t his friend’s voice that he heard.

Turning around, Seiji saw a middle-aged man he didn’t immediately recognize. In our line of work we meet a lot of different people, so Seiji took a few moments to search his memory for any past encounter with the man, but…nothing. He was sure he’d never seen him before, and for that matter, he doesn’t know a single person who lives in Otaru, which is far, far away from both his current home in Tokyo and where he grew up in Osaka.

Still, he figured it’d be rude to ignore the guy, so he replied “Oh, you mean like the salmon swim upstream here in the spring?” to which the stranger replied “Yep. There’s probably like a hundred of ‘em.”

“Wow, that’s incredible,” Seiji said, even though that number doesn’t seem all that high for a salmon run in a part of a river that’s not that far from the sea. Unfortunately, he’d now pretty much exhausted his supply of salmon-related conversation ideas, and so they fell into an sort of awkward silence, since the man wasn’t making any sign of leaving. Then, suddenly, the stranger took the conversation in an unexpected direction, and said:

“How about coming over to my house?”

It’s worth noting that ever since a young age, Seiji has felt like there’s something about him that draws unusual people to him. Even by those standards, though, this was pretty startling, and he didn’t know what to say in response. Thankfully, the stranger offered some clarification with “Will you clear the snow off my roof?”

The situation was still pretty weird, though. It’d be one thing if, say, Seiji lived in the neighborhood and he and the man were acquaintances, or had at least seen each other around town. But having a stranger just ask you over to their house out of the blue is going to freak a lot of people out. For that matter, Seiji was surprised that the man apparently felt no fear about inviting random people to the place he lives and giving them heavy tools to perform dangerous jobs with. How did he know Seiji wasn’t some psycho who was going to whack him over the head with a shovel and bury his body in the snow?

▼ Would you want this guy to know where you live?

But then Seiji thought about it some more, and he started to wonder if maybe all of his years of big city living had made him unable to feel the sense of neighborly friendship and cooperation you hear about rural communities having. He’s never lived in a place that gets as much snow as Otaru, and clearing all of it off your roof must be a tough job, so maybe just walking up to a stranger and saying “Hey, wanna come help me shovel snow?” doesn’t seem so crazy to the man who’d approached him.

Now Seiji did want to give the guy a hand, but unfortunately, he didn’t have enough time. As mentioned above, he was just killing some time by the river while his friend picked up some souvenirs, and they already had plans that day in the town of Asahikawa. That’s about 170 kilometers (106 miles) away from Otaru, and as soon as his friend was done shopping they needed to get on their way.

Seiji explained all this, and the man understood. On a whim, he decided to ask him if he knew any good ramen restaurants in Asahikawa, and he answered “Yeah, there’s a place called Tenkin. Every time I’m in Asahikawa, I absolutely make it a point to eat there.”

And with that, he turned and walked away. As Seiji stared at his back, he couldn’t help but wonder if maybe the man had actually been a river spirit, given how suddenly he’d appeared. Such metaphysical musings, though, gave way to more practical concerns when Seiji arrived later that day in Asahikawa, hungry from the journey and ready to dig in at Tenkin.

It was an unassuming restaurant, with simple fare such as soy broth ramen, miso ramen, salt broth ramen, gyoza. Old-fashioned basics in an at-home atmosphere, and exactly the sort of old-fashioned place Seiji imagined river spirits would like to eat at when assuming human form.

The stranger had recommended Tenkin’s soy broth soba, so that’s what Seiji ordered. Looking at the menu, though, he noticed that they also serve mini rice bowls, and one of them is topped with ikura, or salmon roe!

Remembering how the man had appeared seemingly out of nowhere to tell Seiji about the river’s salmon, Seiji felt like this might be some ort of sign, so he added a 500-yen (US$4.35) ikura bowl to his 800 yen soy broth ramen order.

Ikura is generally a pricy delicacy, and definitely not the sort of thing you’ll see at most ramen restaurants. Hokkaido is especially famous for it, though, which explains why it’s on the menu at Tenkin, and Seiji was glad it was, because it tasted great.

That goes for the ramen, too. The broth is a little cloudier in color than what Seiji is used to in Tokyo, almost like it’s a mix of soy and miso broth appearance-wise.

It has a deep flavor, but without any kind of greasy or unpleasant aftertaste. Seiji prefers his ramen without all the heavy, messy distractions of overwrought broths and haphazard piles of toppings, and Tenkin’s soy broth ramen was exactly what he was craving on this cold winter afternoon.

It’s so good that Seiji is absolutely certain that he’ll be eating there again if and when he’s back in Otaru.

Who knows? Maybe he’ll even run into the stranger/river spirit while he’s there, and this time he’ll be able to help him clear the snow off his roof.

Restaurant information
Tenkin / 天金
Address: Hokkaido, Asahikawa-shi, Yonjo-dori 9-1704-31
Open 11 a.m.-8 p.m.
Closed Tuesdays

Photos © SoraNews24
● Want to hear about SoraNews24’s latest articles as soon as they’re published? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter!
[ Read in Japanese ]