Japan is a country filled with ramen fans, ramen connoisseurs, and certifiable ramen maniacs, and now the city of Yokohama has opened an entire museum devoted to the ubiquitous Chinese noodle. More than just an ordinary museum, it's also part historical theme park and part hyper-specialized restaurant mall. And, unlike your usual dusty museum, it stays open till 11pm to accommodate hungry concertgoers returning from the nearby Yokohama Arena.
Once you're past the entrance turnstiles, the first floor is devoted to numerous museum exhibits and a well-stocked souvenir shop. Clearly the museum's organizers racked their brains to come up with every imaginable ramen-related display they could think of, and the results are here to see -- ramen-making utensils, ramen bowls (over 300), ramen shop matchbooks, chopstick wrappers, curtains and aprons. The historical development of instant ramen is painstakingly chronicled, and the invention of cup ramen (the kind where you pour boiling water directly into a styrofoam cup) is celebrated as the dramatic technological achievement it most certainly was.
Instant ramen packets from around the world adorn the walls, and overhead TV monitors broadcast a continuous stream of ramen commercials from the past 25 years. Ramen history buffs will be delighted (and the rest of us merely mystified) by a replica of the first ramen dish ever eaten by a 17th-century samurai named Mito Komon.
Two life-size dioramas show the operation of an instant ramen factory, and since this is a modern museum (it opened in March 1994), there are also banks of interactive video panels. Ramen-themed video games are provided for younger visitors; the one I saw seemed to involve eating as many noodles as quickly as possible (yet more proof of the bad influence video games have on the young).
But the fun is only beginning, since the remainder of the museum (on two underground levels) is a miniature historical theme park. The date is 1958, and the place is shitamachi, a typically bustling working-class neighborhood crowded with tiny shops, houses and restaurants. The time is just 40 years ago, but it's definitely a different era, just before the rapid modernization that changed the face of Japanese cities.
As a theme park, "Ramen Town" is not quite Disneyland, but it includes several nostalgic attractions -- vendors selling cotton candy and old-fashioned pastries, weathered storefronts and fifties-era billboards. Behind the storefronts are a time-capsule candy shop, two old-style bars dispensing regional brands of sake, and the main attraction -- eight ramen shops from around Japan, each serving its own distinctive variety of noodles.
This is ramen for serious connoisseurs, with the eight shops chosen carefully from among the tens of thousands of stores throughout the country. The major ramen capitals -- Sapporo, Hakata, Kumamoto and Kitakata -- are all represented, along with four legendary shops from the Tokyo/Yokohama area.
The two Kyushu shops (Hakata and Kumamoto) serve their noodles in a salty whitish broth, made by slow-cooking pork and chicken bones.
The Sapporo shop serves its ramen in a miso-flavored soup, a Hokkaido specialty, while the rest of the shops feature soy sauce-based soups made with various combinations of pork and chicken bones and seafood.
Each shop has its own distinctive noodles and its own selection of toppings, ranging from the standard chaa-shuu (roast pork) and bean sprouts to kikurage ("wood ear") and garlic chips.
After you've had your fill of ramen, sake, and numbingly sweet old-fashioned candies, you're ready for the souvenir shop back on the ground floor. Take-out packages of noodles from each of the shops are available, along with goods sporting the Ramen Museum's logo (a squiggly spiral line representing a slice of naruto fishcake). Logo merchandise includes plates, pencil holders, tote bags and much more; there are also postcards, cookbooks, and a full range of chopsticks for sale.
Admission to the museum is Y300, or Y1,000 for a three-month pass, and ramen averages around Y900 per bowl. Sunday evenings seem to be the most crowded, with a 20-minute wait at the most popular noodle shops; other times of the week are far less congested.
Parking is available, and it's only a 3-minute walk from the JR Shin-Yokohama bullet train station. Shin-Yokohama can be reached from central Tokyo in about 45 minutes, or a very comfortable 15 minutes if you splurge and take the bullet train for an extra Y800.
Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum
2-14-21 Shin-Yokohama, Kohoku-ku, Yokohama 222
3 minutes from JR Shin-Yokohama station
Tel: 045-471-0503 (in Japanese)
"Ramen dial": 045-471-0943 (in Japanese)
Admission: Adults 300 yen; children 100 yen (food and drink sold separately)
3-month pass: 1,000 yen
6-month pass: 1,500 yen
Open 11am to 11pm (last admission 10pm)
Update, 2010 Since this article was first written some of the upstairs exhibits have changed, but the downstairs theme-park area remains pretty much the same. Most of the shops now offer half-size portions of ramen, so you can try even more varieties in one visit.
Copyright (c) Robb Satterwhite. Photos copyright (c) bento.com