Chapter 9: Challenge

The stadium was packed today but not with its usual weekly flea market.  Instead, the stalls were all things ramen.  There were tents for games and classes and stalls selling an assortment of items, from handmade utensils to rare ingredients flown in from other islands.

 

Above the din of the packed stadium, a loud voice boomed over the speakers. “And we’re back with the 7th Annual Ramen Bowl Challenge well underway here at Shinzato Stadium on Crescent Island! It’s great to see so many people here because wow, what a twist we have for this challenge, don’t we Fukuiyama?”

 

Attendees craned their heads up to catch a glimpse of the two commentators seated in the announcer’s box a level above them. Directly below them was a raised stage with dozen stalls of a different sort, all of them with an air of tension and concentration that had those in the audience at the edge of their seats.

 

“That’s for sure, Otani,” Fukuiyama said, the silver streaks in his hair catching in the bright lights as he nodded in agreement. His deeper voice slowed down the pace set by Otani’s energetic opening. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen our competitors so surprised by the secret ingredient before.”

 

Otani laughed, a cheerful tone that set his glasses bouncing. “Well we did warn them! But it’s not to say that it can’t be done.  After all, we got the idea from the that small ramen shop on Mirror Island.”

 

“Yes, that’s right, we were lucky to visit when they were experimenting with a green tea soup base.  I never thought ramen could be so gentle and light.”

 

“There was that moment when we both looked at each other, right? We knew exactly what the other was thinking,” Otani said with a grin. “And that’s how this challenge was born!”

 

“However, we certainly wouldn’t have as interesting a challenge had it not been for Master Miyo agreeing to help us in choosing this specific tea. Her opening speech was really interesting,” Fukuiyama said, glancing through his notes. “She mentioned that this tea was a traditional smoked tea from Black Island with a very strong flavor profile.”

 

“It sounds like our competitors will have to stay on their toes so that they don’t end up being the ones getting overpowered!” Otani’s laugh was cut short when a bell sounded throughout the stadium. “Looks like we’ve reached the halfway mark, which means we have just two more hours left in the competition. Fukuiyama, why don’t we go down and see how the competitors are doing?”

 

*

 

Isamu swallowed when he spotted the crew of cameras several stalls down. He glanced back at Masaru, but it didn’t seem like his brother had noticed at all. Isamu sighed enviously at Masaru’s calm. It would take a typhoon to break Masaru’s concentration at this point.

 

Isamu himself had been jumpy from the start, nearly knocking over the soup pot at the very beginning, but thankfully saved by Masaru’s quick reflexes. It was one thing to make ramen at their store but something else entirely to be on a stage, with officials watching your every move, commentators on the loudspeakers, and cameras flashing from the stands.

 

Not to mention that in those stands sat their own mother.

 

She had announced their entry into the competition just a few days ago, in the middle of the lunch rush.  Masaru had nodded, ignoring Isamu’s gaping stupor and simply continued with the service.  When Isamu had expressed concern over being the one going, her mother and just patted him on the back.  “You’ll do fine,” was her only answer.

 

Isamu sighed and shook his head. He really didn’t understand them. Not once did they bring up those wild dreams he had failed to achieve while in the capital. Not once did they laugh at how confident he’d been with what he now knew had been crazy, doomed-to-fail business ideas. Instead, they had welcomed him with open arms, back into their lives and back into the kitchen, as if nothing had changed at all.

 

And on the outside, nothing had. They fell back into the same routines they’d had before he’d left a year ago, the same dishes, the same patrons. But on the inside, Isamu had started to feel a mounting anxiety, especially as he worked alongside Masaru under their mother’s watchful eye.

 

Sakiko had always prided herself on precision and it had been that dedication that had silenced the claims that a woman could not make run a ramen shop. When she later expanded into udon, there had been the expected initial grumblings about traditions, but soon after, other shops followed suit. “If Sakiko is doing it, we should too,” was the whispered message throughout the islands.

 

Masaru was the obvious heir to Sakiko’s steady precision, so much so that even their regular patrons hadn’t noticed a difference when Masaru had begun taking her place in the kitchen. Isamu, on the other hand, was neither steady nor precise. But he knew now that it was because of that, his inconsistency and whimsical nature, that he had so utterly failed while he had been at the capital.

 

Isamu took a deep breath and readied a smile for the approaching camera crew. He wasn’t going to make the same mistake here. Not when the name of the Yamashiro family on the line. It’s why he had kept quiet when Masaru had outlined their plan, why he had agreed to all of Masaru’s directions.

 

Because there was no need to entertain the idea stirring in the back of his head. His family needed someone they could rely on, and this was Isamu’s opportunity to show that he too was capable of the steady precision their family was known for.

 

*

 

Another bell rang out through the stadium, and the stands were now bursting with people watching the competition. “There’s the one-hour warning,” Otani’s voice boomed over the loudspeaker. In the box above the crowd, Otani turned to Miyo, seated between him and Fukuiyama. “Master Miyo, do you have any words of advice for our competitors here in this last hour?”

 

Miyo took a moment to watch the competitors moving swiftly below. Even from within the box, she could hear a cacophony of songs rising from below, ranging from excitement to frustration, hope to doubt. It was that last group she wanted to address, and it was to them that she carefully spoke into the microphone.

 

“A common assumption people make with this tea is that since it’s so strong, they think the person making it should just get out of its way. But that’s not true at all.

 

“Strong teas like this need a strong hand to not only to guide the power of the tea, but also to provide an obstacle for the tea. Because it’s in fighting against that obstacle that the tea can be transformed into something new.”

 

She smiled down at the competitors, catching the eyes of those who looked up at the box toward her. “It’s the same for you, competitors. In this last hour, it is crucial that you stand tall in the face of this final obstacle and show us the magnificence of your transformation.”

 

An applause rose up from the stands and the commentators. “Incredible words of encouragement from Master Miyo, I can see the competitors really fired up now! We’re just under one hour left for the 7th Annual Ramen Bowl Challenge …”

 

*

 

Everything was perfect. The smell from the bubbling soup base was just as Masaru had envisioned, judging by his short nod of satisfaction when he lifted the lid to check on it. On the counter, the noodles and toppings were ready and waiting, lined up in their portions. They would wait there until it was time for their stall to be judged, then be assembled for serving.

 

Everything was steady and calm, exactly as it should be.

 

At least, that’s what Isamu kept reminding himself as he sat on a chair to rest. He repeated it as a mantra to quiet the echoes of Miyo’s words, trying to forget how they had seemed to reach out to him directly. ‘Now is not the time for crazy ideas,’ Isamu thought firmly. Then he paused, remembering where he was and what got him here.

 

‘Not now, not ever.’

 

Isamu shoved down that feelings that rose up in objection, employing the same calmness that he had seen in his brother. It felt like a mask but he was sure he would get used to it. This was what he had to do, who he had to become.

 

Masaru sat down suddenly on the chair beside him and Isamu immediately placed a light smile on his face to hide any of the turmoil from his thoughts. Masaru handed him a cup of tea and took a sip from his own. “You’ve been quiet today,” Masaru said. Isamu just barely kept himself from squirming under his brother’s sharp gaze. “It’s not like you.”

 

Isamu shrugged. “Maybe I’m turning over a new leaf.” To his complete surprise, Masaru laughed.

 

“The only time you’ve ever been quiet voluntarily was when mom bribed you with a week’s worth of ice cream during that town meeting.”

 

“Hey that was back when I was 10!”

 

“That’s what I’m saying,” Masaru said, a grin still on his face. “It’s who you are, Isamu. If you have something in your head, it always comes out, either from your mouth or your hands.” The grin faded into an expression tinged with worry. “That’s why I’m wondering why you’re not doing letting it out now.”

 

Isamu swallowed and looked away. “Let what out?”

 

“You have an idea, I can tell. It’s been in your head for at least half of the competition now, but you haven’t said anything.”

 

The helpless note in Masaru’s voice made Isamu turn back to face him, and was surprised by the hurt on Masaru’s face. “It’s nothing, everything’s perfect,” Isamu said instinctively.

 

“It’s not about being perfect,” Masaru said lowly, “It’s about being honest. We’re brothers, Isamu, a team. But I can’t do my part if you don’t give me a chance.” He gave a crooked smile. “I can do crazy, if you let me.”

 

Isamu’s breath caught, only know realizing how much agony he had put his brother through by keeping silent. ‘You’re not alone anymore, remember?’  He had his family with him now.  They’d welcome him because they were all in this together, pulling him alongside with them, so that they could all grow together.

 

Another warning bell sounded throughout the stadium. Masaru fixed Isamu with a hard stare. “That’s 30 minutes. If you have an idea, now’s the time to say it.”

 

Isamu chewed on his lower lip. “I don’t think we have enough time -”

 

“Don’t worry about that. Just tell me.”

 

Isamu looked into Masaru’s intense gaze, feeling as if he were standing on the edge of a cliff. He glanced at the items they had spent the past four hours making, then back to Masaru. He had the sudden insight that what he did now would not only affect the competition, but how they worked together from here on out.

 

He took a deep breath and nodded. “Here’s what I was thinking…”

 

*

 

“And there you have it! A surprising end to an all-around surprising competition, wasn’t it?”

 

“That’s why I love these competitions, you never know what’s going to happen. Speaking of which, Miyo, this was your first time being a judge. Did it live up to your expectations?”

 

Miyo hummed to herself for a moment. “I didn’t know quite what to expect to be honest, but I certainly didn’t expect to be so nervous.”

 

“Nervous?” Fukuiyama tilted his head curiously at her. “I’ve heard people say it was stressful to make decisions, but not nervous.”

 

Miyo was silent as she pondered for a moment. “I think it was less about the judging itself and more how the competitors thought about the secret ingredient. When I saw everyone’s surprised expression, that’s when I really started to have doubts.”

 

“Were you thinking that maybe you’d chosen something too hard?”

 

“Yes,” Miyo said, nodding.  “I felt like I was putting a piece of myself out on display, like I was the one being judged. ‘What does this mean? What is the idea behind this?’ That’s what I heard when the ingredient was revealed.  I was nervous that maybe they would reject it. But I was really amazed because not only did all the competitors accept it, they really made it their own and created dishes that I never could have imagined.”

 

Otani’s head bobbed vigorously in agreement.  “I did not expect the winning dish, especially since they changed it right at the last 30 minutes!”

 

“I remember looking over and suddenly everything was a whirlwind,” Fukuiyama said with an amazed shake of his head. “But they made it just in time.”

 

Miyo glanced down at the stage, where the Yamashiro brothers were still talking with different journalists and audience members.  “I think that shows a lot of passion and confidence in each other, to be able to make such a drastic change in such a short period of time.”

 

“And it was a really bold move, to go with tsukemen.  With everything deconstructed like that, all of the parts had to be strong, from the soup base to the soup wari.”

 

“The tea wari, you mean,” Otani corrected Fukuiyama with a grin.

 

Miyo chuckled. “That left the biggest impression on me.  I had been expecting the tea to be used in the soup base, but serving it like that also gave the person eating an experience that was unique to them.  It was something that could only be possible by presenting it as tsukemen.”

 

“Well let’s hope they add it to their menu! Let’s give another congratulations to the Yamashiro brothers of Menya Yamashiro. Thank you again to Master Miyo for being our amazing judge. This has been Otani and Fukuiyama, we’ll see you all again for the next South Sea food competition!”

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