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Greg Girard /Contact Press Images for TIME.
FOOD FUED: Hakata's ramen purports to be the best in Japan.

Stirring the Pot
Hakata, Japan

Staying In and Tuning Out: Alienated Japanese youth are increasingly locking themselves away in their rooms—and venturing out to engage in violent crimes

Nothing stokes a good rivalry like food. Americans bicker over which is better: deep-dish Chicago pizza or the thin-crust New York version. In Japan, the feud centers on ramen, the ubiquitous noodle soup that powers famished laborers and salarymen.

The nation's ramen strongholds are in Sapporo, way up north, and Hakata, in the deep south. At the Aji no Tokeidai eatery in Sapporo, customers are given plastic aprons to wear while slurping noodles out of the city's trademark miso broth. Manager Reiko Godo prefers patrons not to wear perfume, which sullies the experience with dissonant fragrances. Children are not welcomed, although parents can purchase ready-made noodles to take home. The restaurant will airmail noodles anywhere in the world, although Godo cautions that they don't quite taste the same at a distance, particularly if there isn't a Sapporo blizzard blowing outside.

Down south, the mood is far more relaxed at an outdoor stall in the port city of Hakata. Ten customers crowd the counter of Chikara restaurant, tossing their neckties over their shoulders and sipping a thick pork broth flecked with scallions and sesame seeds. Chikara's patrons call chef Kazumi Miyano the "master" and check out the baseball scores he posts on a board next to the ever-bubbling stockpot. When asked about ramen from up north, Miyano is diplomatic. "I suppose it's good if you're in Sapporo," he says. "But here we prefer our style." Hakata's noodles are thinner and straighter than Sapporo's, much like those consumed in China. That makes sense, since Hakata was historically a port of call for Chinese traders. But by the time the noodle soup reached Sapporo, it had taken on the richer, nuttier—and more quintessentially Japanese—flavor of miso. It's probably no coincidence that one of the nation's top instant-noodle brands is called Sapporo Ichiban, or Sapporo No. 1.

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