08 March 2006

Sano: Ramen Town or Premium Outlet Town?

Until recently, the city of Sano (佐野) in southern Tochigi prefecture was known throughout the region for its ramen. Its official tourist map is headlined Ramen Town (らーめんの郷) and says that the keywords for Sano City are "Eat, Look, Worship": くう みる おがむ. The back of the map lists the name, telephone number, regular day off, and hours of operation for 69 different ramen shops. The map itself also has textboxes listing 5 local tourist itineraries and 17 local festivals, each with its chief sponsor and annual schedule.

But Sano's reputation for ramen is now being outshone by its reputation for retail. The Sano Premium Outlets mall sits across National Route 50 (connecting Mito and Maebashi) on the southern edge of town. Old Route 50 runs right through the older part of town, parallel to the JR Ryomo line that used to serve the textile industries along the northern edge of the Kanto Plain. Now the major Tohoku Highway (connecting Tokyo and Sendai) also skirts the eastern edge of Sano. The mall lies at the juncture of these two major traffic arteries, one running north-south, the other east-west. All the long-distance buses make regular stops there.

The Outlier father and daughter recently paid a visit to Sano, arriving in time for lunch at Dai-chan Ramen, well-known enough locally that each of the three successive people we asked for directions were able to help us home in on it. It was a friendly, family-run place, whose daughter my wife had taught. The ramen was good, the portions were ample, and the weather was fairly mild, so we decided to walk the rest of the way to the outlet mall, along a busy, gassy highway lined with rather ghastly strip malls, whose highlight was a billboard advertising the nearby リストランテ ジアッポネゼ / Ristorante Giapponese, featuring Italian cuisine, not Japanese.

The Sano Premium Outlets map lists, not 69, but 159 shops, ranging from Adidas, Armani, and Billabong to Tommy Hilfinger, Victorinox, and Wedgwood. The lines were longest at Godiva and Cold Stone Creamery. The architecture is colonial America, with two tall, white steeples rising above red-brick walls, and the major thoroughfares linked by Boston, Cambridge, Lancaster, and Princeton Avenues. The shoppers were at least as interesting as the shops. Many were quite stylishly dressed, and there seemed to be an unusually high proportion of middle-aged dowagers with lapdogs and young parents with young kids. Among the first shoppers we encountered was a lady with two poodles, one of which walked around on its hind legs. I was tempted to ask her whether the poodle was also capable of a たち小便 ('standing piss'), but I didn't want to embarrass my daughter. I never embarrass my daughter! Well, at least not if I can help it--and I usually can't.

UPDATE: Ashikaga is locally famous for its soba, not its ramen, but some of the most elegant ramen I've had anywhere can be found at the Maruyama hand-made ramen restaurant about a block south and west of the Tobu Ashikaga-shi train station. Its leek and garlic ramen is to die for! Couldn't resist spooning up all the broth, either. Plus, it's open on Wednesdays, when most Ashikaga restaurants take the day off.

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