Japan's ramen museums celebrate noodle soup in Tokyo and Osaka
Some people are ramen fans, while others are fanatics. A friend of mine who lives in Tokyo, Keizo Shimamoto, falls into the latter category. His ramen rampage included visits to over 100 ramen shops in 21 Japanese cities over the course of 28 days to “experience the diversity of ramen”. But since I only had 10 days total in Japan, I took a crash course by visiting two of Japan’s ramen museums instead.
Before I headed off, Keizo explained how ramen—the famous Japanese wheat-noodle soup that actually originated in China—differs depending on the region. “Tokyo is known for its soy sauce version, while the island of Kyushu is home to tonkotsu: pork-bone ramen,” he said. Good thing I’m not a vegetarian, because Keizo said almost all ramen broths are based on pork stock. He also instructed me to go on an empty stomach so I would have more room to sample the ramen. And forget about asking for takeout: ramen purveyors don’t want a soggy noodle reputation!
First stop: the Shinyokohama Raumen Museum in Yokohama, a half-hour train ride from central Tokyo. Yoji Iwaoka created this wacky noodle emporium in 1994. I found the first floor of the museum to be borderline tacky, with its ramen-themed video games and a souvenir shop selling all things ramen. So I went directly to the basement, which re-creates a seedy Tokyo street from the 1950s that’s packed with ramen shops. The great attention to detail includes fake storefront displays and a cabaret sign that reads Dance with Women.
Museumgoers can buy ramen from nine storefronts, each representing an established variety from a different region of Japan, but I wished that Keizo had explained how to purchase it. There’s a vending machine at each restaurant where you insert money and then choose your ramen. I found this part a bit tricky since I can’t read kanji and the photos were ambiguous. I was also daunted by the long lineups but managed to find a seat in about 10 minutes: there isn’t a lot of chatting being done by the serious eaters here. The springy, yellowish noodles in an aromatic miso broth I tried from Yamagata prefecture’s Ryushanhai didn’t disappoint.
Two days later, I took a two-hour bullet train ride from Tokyo to Osaka. As loyal as the Japanese are to fresh noodles, they also love instant noodles, so I figured no ramen quest would be complete without a pilgrimage to the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum in the Ikeda area of Osaka.
A statue of Ando, who invented instant noodles in 1958, stands at the museum’s entrance. The Ramen King’s opportunity came after the Second World War, when food, including rice, was scarce in Japan. Like the old adage says, necessity is the mother of invention. Ando went on to invent Cup Noodles in 1971 and died in 2007 at the age of 96. According to the museum, he attributed his longevity to eating instant noodles for lunch every day.
Walking around the museum, I floated in a soup of ramen statistics: 5.5 billion ramen packets are sold worldwide each year. A Japanese person eats instant ramen an average of 43 times per year, a Canadian only six times. I found the Instant Ramen Tunnel, which shows the evolution of ramen products, the most fascinating. It showcases Nissin instant ramen packages from around the world dating back to the 1950s, including a Polish version and an American low-calorie one. According to my English-speaking guide, the noodles in the American versions of Nissin’s Cup Noodles are shorter than in the Japanese ones because Americans don’t know how to slurp like the Japanese do.
After the tour, I headed to the Cup Noodles counter, where visitors can customize their own instant soup to take home. I chose three toppings to add to the instant noodles and watched them get vacuum-packed into a Styrofoam cup. I also had the option of decorating the cup, something the schoolkids around me seemed to love.
That night, I checked into the Cross Hotel in central Osaka and asked the concierge where I could find a good ramen shop. He pointed me to Kamukura Soup With Noodles (part of a chain just a block away) and told me that Harrison Ford had dined there during the filming of Blade Runner. (I bet many concierges say that about their recommended ramen shop.)
Thankfully, my vending machine experience in Yokohama had prepared me: the only way you can buy ramen at Kamukura is from a machine outside the shop. That way, no money changes hands, labour costs are kept low, and before you even get through the door, your order is in the stockpot.
The place was brightly lit and sparkling clean, with swarms of cooks wearing chef’s toques pirouetting around each other like parts of a well-oiled machine. Glenn Miller tunes nearly drowned out the slurps of the customers—and nearly everyone was audibly slurping, from beer-drinking salarymen to young women who delicately covered their laughs with their hands. The ramen itself did not disappoint: the noodles were springy and chewy, and the slices of pork belly unctuous.
When I was done, I strolled the Shinsaibashi district, a neon web of narrow streets, past umpteen stalls serving noodles and takoyaki (deep-fried octopus balls). Then the heavens opened, and it really was a scene out of Blade Runner.
Shielding myself from the rain, I ran back to my hotel happy. I might not have explored ramen quite as thoroughly as my friend Keizo has, but I now had a taste for more.
Access: For more info on the Shinyokohama Raumen Museum, visit the museum website, and for the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum visit the museum website. The Cross Hotel is reasonably priced and well located in Shinsaibashi, Osaka. Multiple locations of Kamukura Soup With Noodles can be found at the restaurant’s website. Before you go, watch the 1985 Japanese comedy Tampopo for a lesson in slurping, and check out Keizo Shimamoto’s blog, Go Ramen!.