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.
Ramen is basically noodles in a rich broth. There are, or used to be, strong regional preferences for one type of broth or another. In the southern part of Japan, Kyushu, pork bone (tonkotsu) broth is favored. In the north, Hokkaido, clear chicken and vegetable based broth flavored with salt and often with some butter added is predominant.
There are personal preferences too; some people prefer a soy sauce based soup, some like a miso base, some a salt-flavored base. Finally, in fairly recent times spicy flavors influenced by Korean soups have come into vogue too.
Then there are different things that can be added to the ramen, such as wonton dumplings, char siu (roast pork), menma (dried bamboo shoots) and so on. At the Ramen museum you can experience representative samples of all these types of ramen.
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 businessmen and hungry concertgoers returning from the nearby Yokohama Arena.
It might help to have some cultural background here. The post-war Showa era (the Showa era was the reign of the Emperor Hirohito as he’s known outside of Japan) is regarded through rose-colored glasses with lots of fond nostalgia in Japan.
Japan of the late ’50s to ’60s was booming economically, yet many people still lived in small, friendly neighborhoods, children took care of their parents in their old age and kids grew up with their grandparents, and all that kind of thing. At least that’s the perception. Things from the Showa era, often called Showa Retro (昭和レトロ) have been ‘in’ for some time now.
A slightly seedy night time scene around a train station from sometime in the past has been perfectly recreated.
The world created in the basement of the Yokohama Ramen Museum attempts to bring back the look and feel of those good old days. The train station neighborhood setting makes sense, since small ramen restaurants used to, and still do, like to set up shop near a train station to catch commuters passing through.
It actually reminds me of a scene from Final Fantasy 7! Hmmm….
Yes, I think I play games too much..
The historical development of instant ramen is painstakingly chronicled, and the invention of cup ramen 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 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, there are also banks of interactive video panels. Ramen-themed video games are provided for younger visitors. There’s also one that seemed to involve eating as many noodles as quickly as possible!
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.
Logo merchandise includes plates, pencil holders, tote bags and much more; there are also postcards, cookbooks, and a full range of chopsticks for sale.
For visitors who wish to try multiple ramen dishes, every store offers “mini ramen”, a small portion of the feature dish. Tickets for the meals are purchased at vending machines in front of each stores before entering.
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