Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum
I know how good it is. How much the first taste on my lips make me tingle, how my body warms with a glow as it goes down my throat, how the smell fills my nostrils so my stresses evaporate, how the sounds of the slurping feel like a Japanese angel choir is surrounding me. OK… that last one might be a bit of an exaggeration but you get the point – I love ramen.
But even for someone who loves hot bowls of ramen as much as anyone, I find it a bit odd that Japan would have an entire museum dedicated to the noodles.
In the city of Yokohama – an effective extension of Tokyo but a modern metropolis of its own – the museum opens its doors each day for the hungry and the curious. To step inside is to be transported back to Tokyo in 1958. This was the year instant noodles were invented and a culinary transformation began in Japan.
The main part of the Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum has been designed to recreate a Tokyo street in the 1950s. An evening sky is painted on the ceiling and in the main square there are facades of shops and restaurants on every side. The barber, the beauty salon and the cinema – they’re all just decorative. But the restaurants – they are all real and each is doing its own noodle specialty.
Vending machines outside each shop let you choose and pay for your bowl of ramen. You then take the ticket inside, sit down, and wait for the steaming bowl of brothy noodley goodness to arrive. The procedure for payment may have changed a bit since 1958 – even in an ‘authentic’ recreation the Japanese can’t forego their technological gimmicks – but the taste of the food is genuine.
Ramen were being eaten well before 1958 – this was just the year that they became more accessible for daily consumption. The noodles originally came from China and it’s not quite clear exactly when or how they made their way to Japan or why they became known as ‘ramen’. But the Japanese still spell the word using special characters reserved only for foreign languages, reminding everyone constantly that it is not originally a local dish.
What separates Ramen from the traditional Japanese varieties is the way the noodles are made – with wheat, flour, salt, water and a special alkaline mineral water called ‘kansui’. There are then four types of broth commonly used: A salty clear one which is the most common, a creamy one which comes from boiling pork bones and fat for a long time, a brownish one with lots of soy sauce, and one based on miso soup.
So much effort goes into the preparation of ramen and getting it just right. (If you don’t believe me, just ask Brittany Murphy. Oh, except she’s dead. Never mind.) And a lot of effort has also gone into making this museum an experience which is about much more than just the food. Above the main square are little alleyways with some hidden restaurants and authentic old phone boxes, television sets and posters.
There are some local businessmen who clearly come here regularly to get their lunch, there are families who have come for a daytrip, and there’s just a smattering of foreign tourists like myself. If my stomach could have handled it, I would have stayed all day and eaten as many types of ramen as possible. But I didn’t. I can’t wait to go back, though.