Monday, October 26, 2009
Pilgrimage to the Ramen Museum
The Shin Yokohama Raumen Museum (hereafter referred to as the Ramen Museum, god knows why they need that extra U) is one of the beter known Japanese food theme parks and claims to be the first food amusement park to be created anywhere in the world. It features a museum documenting the history of ramen, a pretty bangin' gift shop, and perhaps most excitingly, a two floor "theme park" built to represent Japan in the year Showa 33, 1958, the year instant ramen was invented--a pivotal time in the history of ramen--and before the modernization of Japan.
As you wander around what is essentially a two floor basement designed to look like Japan when it was still dirty, the strains of retro Japanese music and cats yowling (seriously) are piped through the sound system. In the theme park, there are 9 ramen restaurants that are branches of "long established institutions from different regions of Japan." Basically they have nine of the best ramen places in the country slangin' noodles in the place just to make people like me happy.
My plan had been to spend 12 hours at the Ramen Museum, from opening time at 11. This was to make up for my only other trip to Tokyo where I insisted that we go to the Ramen Museum for dinner and ended up getting us lost on the subway for what felt like hours. We made it in to the museum for last call and ended up with scant choices, as most of the ramen shacks had already closed up for the night and the ones that were open gave us a move it or lose it ultimatum. One small bowl of ramen later and they closed up shop, and I was terribly unhappy.
This time, I vowed, I was going to do it right. Over the course of 12 hours I could easily eat four or five bowls of ramen, right? And since they offer "small bowls," I could probably make it through most of the nine possible ramen stands. A few hiccups started the day. The trip to Yokohama from Tokyo should take around 40 minutes. With my exception geographical skills as well as my deft handling of the Japanese public transport system, I managed to clock nearly two hours door to door. On arrival I tried to take in a bit of the educational side of the place, but as the displays were all in Japanese, I didn't learn much. However, I was pleased to see the giant pile of cocaine in the middle of the place--apparently it's an integral part of the ramen-making process.
I had a serious strategy going into the museum. I was going to try as many ramens as possible, starting with the north of of Japan and working my way south. This way, I reasoned, by the time I began to feel sick, I'd be getting to areas of Japan that I'd visit in a few weeks anyway. Still geographically confused after the harrowing train ride and not starting in Sapporo as I should, I decided to have my first bowl of ramen from Ryushanhai, a restaurant based in Yamagata. Ryushanhai is credited with creating this incredibly savage bowl of ramen that features a giant red glob of "karamiso" on top. I'm still unclear as to exactly what karamiso is, but it's got some kick. Apparently the word on the street is that it's too spicy when you mix in the whole glob of karamiso. Just like all of the other words on the street in Japan, though, I didn't understand and just ignored it.
This turned out to be a brilliant decision because it was so spicy that it nearly blew my face off. I like this feeling because it reminds me that I'm alive. The homemade noodles were thicker than any I'd had in ramen before, and the noodle to soup ratio was very high. You couldn't compare this bowl of ramen to anything I found in London. This bowl was heaven in my mouth, paradise on my tongue, sweat pouring down my face. Even though I had gotten the "small" bowl, I quickly realized that I was in trouble. Finish the bowl because it was so freaking good and risk taking up valuable space that could later be occupied with other ramen? The choice was clear. One in the face was worth two in the theme park, so I finished the bowl and wandered out, dazed and runny-nosed.
My plan for the day had been to have a rest in 1958 Tokyo in between bowls. I pictured lounging on comfortable post-war couches, letting the ramen settle and having a covert read of my book, 70 Japanese Gestures. When I went to the museum last year, there was a fifties-style bar serving Tom Collins and and Old-Fashioneds, and I thought I could always skulk around there for a bit. Sadly though, the bar didn't open until 5pm (what a strange, repressed culture, eh?) and the only seating in the place were a few benches and tables, most of which were occupied by groups of racous Japanese people, who seemed to find my presence and my e-book slightly amusing. I did a full loop and circled the museum a few times, trying to burn off a few calories before I headed in for bowl two. I didn't have the energy to wait until I was hungry again, I just managed to lope around the place to the point that I wasn't still uncomfortably full, and then headed in to Eki from Sapporo.
I didn't go in right away, of course. At the ramen museums, as at most ramen places around here, they have a vending machine out front. You put some yen in, push the button that correlates to what you want, and then take the ticket it gives you to the counter. This is especially fun for me when they don't have pictures on the vending machine and just have Japanese characters. Usually on these occasions I stand at the machine until someone finally comes over and asks me something in Japanese. I shrug and make and adorable "I don't know" face and wait for someone to just push a button for me. This is a good plan if you have an adventurous stomach. Luckily Eki had pictures. The thing is, they all sort of look alike. You can tell the difference between a bowl of ramen with an egg and one without, but sometimes it looks completely identical and there's no easy way to tell what the hell is going on. In these cases I just pick the first one, assuming it's probably their specialty. Why would you bother putting your speciality in the middle? I had considered ordering one of their shoyu (soy sauce-based) ramens, just because I had already had a miso ramen but an hour earlier. But then I thought, eff it, let's do this right and I ordered the Eki speciality.
The Eki specialty was basically the best thing I've ever tasted. It was also miso-based, but the broth was so complicated and perfect I couldn't even begin to try and figure out what else was going on in there. Filled with thin noodles and topped with green onions, slices of pork and fried onions, the bowl was pretty boring looking. You can tell the Eki guys looked at each other and said "dudes, let's liven this up. You can never have too much pork, right?" And so they threw on a scoop of minced pork, some squares of what appeared to be pure pork fat, and then leveled the whole thing off with a half inch of fat covering the top of the bowl. This was not a bowl of ramen to take lightly, you could give your life for this.
Eating ramen in Japan is a pretty in-and-out affair. People don't linger, or often even sit. But in the state I was in, I could only hope to get through this bowl of ramen by dragging it out and taking a while. The staff was certainly confused as to why the foreigner was taking 45 minutes to eat a "small" bowl of ramen, as three or four other groups had come in and finished during that time. I was at the end of my rope. I didn't think I could eat this ramen, but I most certainly couldn't not eat this ramen.
So I slogged through, alternately thinking this is the best thing to ever happen to my mouth and oh god, someone put me out of my misery. Finally, I finished the majority of the bowl and managed to stumble out of the place, disoriented and borderline obese. I barely managed to drop a few thousand yen in the gift shop--Hello Kitty and ramen co-branded stationary, postcards, freeze-dried ramen, etc--and have a go at the photobooth before I waddled out the door.
Perhaps I had failed at my original goal of 5 bowls of ramen. But in losing, I won.