Noodle lovers, ramen nuts and fans of eccentricity need only venture one hour outside the centre of Tokyo, to discover their own whacky thread of wheaty heaven: the Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum.
Yes, you read that correctly: ramen noodles have their own museum! And here’s the best bit, it doubles as a ramen-themed amusement park. So move over Tokyo Disney. This food enthusiast drawcard, offering nine of Japan’s most famous ramen eateries, incuding Komurasaki, The Sumire Ramen and Muku Zweit, is set amid a pretend post-war Tokyo neighbourhood. Scattered across two storeys, it is definitely indoors, despite the blue skies in some parts.
The theme park, located in the one building, is set in the time of old Tokyo, amidst three mythical town streetscapes and train stations (Tsurukame-cho, Renge-cho and Naruto-cho)to present a sense of what life in like in Japan, circa 1958: the very tasty year that the world's first instant ramen was invented.
Give yourself at most an hour to travel by train from Tokyo station to Shin-Yokohama station and several hours to visit and eat. Pay the 310 Yen daily admission fee (almost $4 Australian dollars) and enter hungry to fully appreciate the heart of ramen nostalgia. Here, the nighttime atmospheric darkness conflicts with a high ceiling that’s painted with blue clouds but given that visitors actually know what the real time is, it’s a non-issue.
Staff in train station master outfits roam the town’s fictional streetscapes, which are adorned with retro Japanese posters, electricity posts and fake lines of dirty laundry strung abovehead. Japanese lanterns, shop signs and neon lights; romantic ‘50s Japanese music blaring over the speakers; a faux movie theatre and hairdresser; a randomly placed fortune teller; an old sweet shop; and glass cabinets displaying red ‘50s dresses all add to the illusion of a dated Tokyo, steeped in mystery and shrouded in stereotypes.
But this is where the retro Japanese version of the Truman Show ends and the seriousness of consuming noodles in a rich broth begins. Inside the noodle eateries, it’s a modern affair that reflects the diversity of the ramen on offer throughout Japan. Visitors should use a free map (available upon museum entry) to work out where and what they want to eat from the selection of establishments offering ramen with a pork bone, soy sauce, miso or salt-flavored based broth. Toppings vary depending on the eatery but mostly include roast pork (char siu); seasoned or raw egg; almond jelly; menma (dried bamboo shoots) and wonton dumplings.
After you find your desired venue, join the long but fast moving lunchtime queue, pressed against your eatery’s outside wall for neatness. The cost of ramen is not included in the ticket price so it’s advised to have your Yen ready to go because once you reach the front of the line, you need to quickly purchase a ticket for your meal from a ‘food ticket’ vending machine. A ‘mini’ ramen serve costs 500-750 Yen (around $6.30 to $9.50 AUD) and a regular bowl sets you back 800-1200 Yen ($10 to $15). Toppings and drinks are extra. Once it’s your turn, pass your ticket to the door staff and be seated inside.
Lucky for me, I was given a helpful lesson on queue protocol from Californian local, Adam Wong, who already had his ticket in-hand and was waiting in line for his ramen lunch. The anthropology student tells me that his university professor advised a visit to the museum to discover a different side of Japanese culture.
“This place quirky, it’s kooky, it’s fun,” says Wong, 22. “But understanding food is one of the most important and enjoyable ways to really learn what a place is like because you are digging into an everyday experience of the people. So in Japan, to understand the culture, you’ve got to try eating ramen.
“I’d recommend tourists come here if you like ramen, want to get a good idea of what Japan was like during the reconstruction of Tokyo, after World War Two, and learn how much variety there is in ramen.”
Heading Wong’s advice to engage in an anthropology observation and start eating, I set about eating at Shinasoba-ya, a ramen bar owned by a guy nicknamed ‘the ramen demon’ throughout Japan. The waitress confirms the ramen master makes his own broth using fowl that he breeds himself. So I satisfyingly dig into my mini bowl of the chicken and salt-based soy sauce ramen, soaking wheat-based noodles. It’s topped with Yaki Nori sheets, green onions, and barbequed Chashu pork. The traditional dish tastes of clean refined simplicity, as the broth is both light and flavoursome.
My second mini bowl is a little more adventurous, devoured at the theme park’s only Italian-themed Japanese restaurant, Casa Luna. I sample a much thicker pork bone (Tonkotsu) broth filled ramen, topped with parmesan cheese and an egg, served along side a Campari and orange cocktail. Despite the heaviness of the exotic combination, it’s fascinating to sample a second bowl to understand ramen’s range.
I admit that the museum is more a quirky delight than an anthropological lesson but given the randomness of a noodle-themed amusement park just outside one of the world’s most loved capital cities, this site is a definite must-do. Where else can you sample all the brothy goodness that ramen has to offer, while listening to retro Japanese classics blaring over the speaker and staring at a fabricated cloud-filled ceiling? Nowhere but Japan.