No, it’s not a typo; “raumen” is actually how the founders of Yokohama’s ramen museum decided to spell the name of their exhibit. I took it as a sign of the respect they give this treasured food, an effort to immortalize it with a special translation of katakana to the roman alphabet.Getting There
Speaking of pedestrians, the ones that crowded my path from Shin-Yokohama station to the museum were dressed mainly in kimono. It was Coming of Age Day and I couldn’t turn my head without getting an eyeful of ornate silk, or turn around without nearly knocking a girl off her high sandals. This would prove to be a common theme – and constant trial on my patience – throughout the day.
After some wandering around the station (check out any of the station’s area maps for easy directions) our group arrived at the front of the museum. I had brought along a random speckling of people from my guest house who shared my enthusiasm for ramen… or at least getting out of the house for the day. As we approached the museum’s simple, monolithic façade, I couldn’t help but compare it to the Ministry of Truth. This place oozed staunch austerity, and I liked it. Well, as much as anybody can like ooze.
There was a museum employee shouting something through a loudspeaker at the entrance, which I mainly ignored, as has become my habit. Tokyo has already given me enough be-megaphoned officials spouting redundant niceties. However, this turned out to be important: we could expect a 30- to 45-minute wait for a bowl of ramen in the food court downstairs. I wasn’t about to let that stop me, but my empty stomach did let out a growl of protest. The kimono-clad girl next to me wisely took a step back.Getting In
Inside the museum, I quickly realized that it wouldn’t take long to cover all the exhibits. About half the space was taken up by the gift shop, and the rest was pretty straightforward. One highlight was a full-scale re-creation of a ramen shop kitchen. I was disappointed by the fact that everything in the kitchen was bolted or glued down; I’ve always wanted to try out my ramen straining technique, flipping the hot noodles in the mesh strainer with a satisfying “fwap, fwap, fwap.”
I need to explain something at this point: any trip to the Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum should be about eating a bowl in the basement. There, you’ll find a rotating selection of eight of Japan’s most popular specialties, served up by the restaurants that created them, perfected them, popularized them, or just do them well. Along with the standard sizes (￥800-￥1100), they all also serve a mini bowl (￥500-￥750) to accommodate a ramen crawl.
So, understandably, I was anxious to get downstairs. The rest of the museum’s exhibits were mildly fun and equally informative. I sort of meandered through the small exhibit space, pretending I could understand the Japanese-only explanations and occasionally glancing at my friends, ready to eat but not wanting to look uninterested. After all, I was supposed to be the “ramen guy,” wasn’t I? I found an especially awesome cup noodle sporting a picture of a young Arnold Schwarzenegger on the lid. The gift shop was also fun, with an assortment of instant ramen from the same restaurants featured downstairs, along with the usual overpriced trinkets (microwave egg cooker, anyone?).
Finally, we had appeased our crazy, misguided need to at least look like we were learning something. The moment had come to plunge downstairs. According to those clever museum organizers, they have created a “1:1 replica of a section of Tokyo in the year Shōwa 33 (1958)” because the “mood from the good old days of Shōwa fills visitors with nostalgia and an appetite to taste ramen.” (Notice how they didn’t spell it “raumen” there? I sure did.) They also point out that 1958 was the year instant ramen was invented and claim that this was the invention that “transformed Japan into a nation of ramen connoisseurs.” If instant-anything and the word “connoisseur” could ever be found in the same sentence, I think it could only happen in Japan.Going Down
The food court brought us our first real surprise of the day: it was absolutely packed. Considering the early warning from the man with the megaphone, I’m not sure why this was a surprise; I guess it was just that kind of crowd.
The second surprise was how detailed the replica of old Tokyo really was. I was impressed by everything, from the battered old battleship of a telephone booth to the smoker’s room reminiscent of a seedy Kabukichō lounge. There was even an old-timey Coke vending machine – fully operational! Killing my cigarette and stepping out of the smoker’s lounge, I felt like I needed a hat – preferably a fedora – to coolly slip on as I observed the neon-lit scene from grizzled, tired eyes. This was a set fit for a Steven Spielberg or a Martin Scorsese.
After doing the rounds, we decided on kara-miso ramen from Yamagata’s Ryushanhai. Kara-miso is miso’s sultry cousin, delivering all the body and vavoom of miso plus some serious heat and exotic flavors. Ryushanhai is generally credited with creating this demonic combination, so I was excited to sink my spoon in. Of course, this wouldn’t happen for another hour – the line of people wrapped around into the emergency exit.
After stoically braving the line for a good five minutes, I left the group to find somebody who had been left behind in the fray… and to grab a beer. Half an hour later, the straggler and I – now slightly inebriated – rejoined the group. It would be another twenty minutes, enduring fiery glares from my disgruntled line-mates, before we could finally sit down.Tucking In
At the vending machine, I chose the restaurant’s classic, no-frills bowl. I had lost any hope of visiting more than one shop on that trip, so I resigned myself to a full size. What came before me was one of the most beautiful bowls I’ve ever seen: the miso broth, naturally photogenic, was full of color and depth; the ribbony, curvy noodles wound around the bowl; the chashu looked sturdy and wholesome; and there was a dollop of bright red paste nestled on top. The waitress who set it down in front of me warned me that it was very spicy. “Well duh,” I thought.
Knowing that the red paste held the soup’s spicy secret, I tasted the broth before mixing anything. What I tasted was an excellent miso base with strong chicken and sesame notes. But when I mixed in a little bit of the spicy paste, I tasted something completely different. The chicken and sesame flavor was almost overwhelmed by heat that made me sweat and intense seafood (particularly oyster) undertones. Taking this to be a good sign, I went all-in with the paste.
The noodles were very thick and soft, with a crinkly texture – all completely standard for miso. They were hearty and rich enough to stand up to the broth’s intensity. I found the noodle-to-broth ratio to be very high; I had never had a ramen with so many noodles in one bowl. My friend got the super bowl, with extra chāshu – and when I say “extra,” I mean whole-side-of-hog extra – and he was simply wallowing in his decision. Thick slabs of some standard melt-in-your mouth pork floated lazily on top of his bowl. I was happy with my already-generous serving of very nice chāshu.
I quickly realized that I had gone too far with the spiciness. The broth became nothing but fatty heat and seafood, like if you were to pour a bottle of Sriracha hot sauce over a can of anchovies. The waitresses words came back to me with new clarity. Like so many decisions that day, I had not listened to warnings, had insisted on learning things the hard way, and had paid for it. In the end, though, I regretted nothing. After all, this is a place I’ll be going back to, again and again.Photo: Dust Mason | Slick Vic