Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum, Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture 新横浜ラーメン博物館 横浜 神奈川県
The Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum, located just a short walk from Shin-Yokohama Station in Yokohama, calls itself a "food-themed amusement park". That is a very fitting description even though the whole setting is situated on three floors of one building, two of them deep underground.
Buy your ticket from the vending machine outside and enter the lobby on the first floor. Straight ahead is a counter which offers free ramen tastings several times a day. A signboard displays the times.
To the right is a rack displaying hundreds of ramen cookbooks from around the world. In the back is the gift shop and a coin-operated slot-car race track.
If you are interested in the history of ramen noodles, you might turn to the left side of the lobby. There, large display boards in both English and Japanese detail the development of ramen in Japan.
Recently discovered documents show that people in Japan ate Chinese noodles as early as in the Muromachi Period (1336-1573). In the 1480's, a type of Chinese noodles called Keitaimen were served at a temple in Japan, their preparation based on instructions written in a Chinese book, the documents reveal.
When Japan opened its major ports to foreigners in 1859, many Chinese merchants and workers moved to Japan and started their own settlements. They also prepared and sold Chinese noodle dishes which soon became popular with the local Japanese populace.
Japanese cooks started to put their own ideas into the creation of Chinese noodle soups and slowly, a new and much improved type of noodle dish started to be served.
The Rairaiken Restaurant, established in Asakusa, Tokyo, in 1910 is credited as the very first real ramen restaurant, the birthplace of modern ramen. Owned by Japanese entrepreneur Kanichi Ozaki, the restaurant employed 13 Chinese cooks from Yokohama and attracted 2,500 to 3,000 customers per day at peak times, such as the New Year's Holidays.
Ramen spread quickly throughout Japan and many regional varieties began to develop, based on the ingredients locally available as well as the traditional local food culture.
The displays are very informative and follow up on the history of ramen all the way to the world-wide spread of the dish starting in the 1980's.
The Ramen Museum itself was established in 1994.
Another set of displays details the various types of ramen, the use of ingredients and the differences between Chinese noodle dishes and ramen.
Taking in all that information might make you hungry. Well, there is no shortage of ramen at the Ramen Museum. Just head down the stairs.
Narutobashi - Fictional Mid-Showa Era Neighborhood
While the first floor is brightly lit and very modern, the further down you walk on the stairs, the more old-fashioned the environs begin to appear. Suddenly, the walls are tiled and you find yourself in front of onsen hot spring bath noren curtains, with old-style wooden lockers to your right. Did you take a wrong turn somewhere?
Don't worry and just walk past the curtains. Instead of a bath, you enter a narrow dark alley. There are lights and most likely there are people at the end of the alley, waiting outside a small ramen restaurant. Vintage scooters are parked along the alley, the signboards too are decidedly vintage.
Turn a corner or two, passing by a number of small ramen shops and suddenly arrive at the upper end of a staircase. Down below is a small but usually very busy marketplace, surrounded by restaurants. Behind the stairway, a sign reads Narutobashi Station.
The underground section of the Ramen Museum is a replica of a more or less typical train station neighborhood in 1958, the year when Momofuku Ando invented Instant Ramen.
The station name is fictional and at the time, public plazas like the one below might not have existed but other than that, much attention to detail is given.
Sunset clouds cover the ceiling, vintage TV antennas protrude from the roofs of the buildings, there is a movie theater with movie posters of the day in the display boxes, a vintage public TV plays black and while footage of boxing matches and the like from the late 1950's.
The plaza is surrounded by restaurants serving a wide variety of ramen and other dishes (one restaurant serves Okinawan dishes).
Live performances fitting the environs are regularly staged in the center of the plaza. Sometimes, traditional magicians are performing in a style typical of vintage Japanese market places. Sometimes it is kami shibai - a story teller telling tales which he visually supports with a set of painted pictures, typically carried in a box on the back of a bicycle.
Finding the Right Ramen
Most restaurants have picture boards outside, featuring the dishes served. Where to eat?
Maybe another round of the whole setting is in order now to decide. The narrow alley upstairs, it turns out, circles around the whole plaza though the plaza is accessible only through one large stairway.
Along the alley is the Kateko Bar, serving beers and snacks and being the only outlet allowing smoking all day long (the Okinawan Izakaya Ryoji allows it after 5 pm).
Ramen from all major Japanese ramen areas (Sapporo, Kanto, Hakata, etc) are available and so are all the major ramen styles. Shoju (soy sauce) ramen, miso (bean paste) ramen, tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen, shio (salt) ramen and many more. Some of the restaurants are outlets of famous restaurants based elsewhere but most are run by chefs based at their shop within the museum.
Unless you have a very distinct preference for just one particular type of ramen, it is very difficult to decide which restaurant to enter. Once you decide where to eat, you need to buy a ticket for the bowl of your choice from the typically rather vintage looking vending outside the restaurant. The vending machines are easy to handle - the museum is used to catering to foreign visitors.
After inserting the cash and pressing the button next to the picture display of the noodles you chose, you receive a paper ticket. Hand that ticket to the ramen folks inside the restaurant, sit down and you will soon receive your steaming bowl.
Unsurprisingly, prices at the restaurants inside the museum are somewhat higher than at most ramen shops elsewhere. They range from about 900 yen to about 1,400 yen. But for that you get truly high-quality ramen in a decidedly vintage atmosphere.
Opening times: Daily from 11 am to 10 pm, on Sunday 10.30 am to 10 pm, no fixed holidays.
Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum
Tel: 045 471 0503
One-Day-Ticket: adult (age 13 or older) 310 yen; child (6 to 12) and seniors (age 60 and over) 100 yen. Free for children younger than 6 years old.
If you want to leave the museum and return the same day, please talk to staff at the entrance. You will be given a stamp on the back of your hand ensuring your free return admission.
English-language website of the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum: www.raumen.co.jp/english
The Tokaido Shinkansen stops at Shin-Yokohama Station. It is cheaper though to go to Yokohama Station by one of the many trains going there from all major areas of Tokyo and to change at Yokohama Station to the Yokohama Line or a Yokohama Municipal Subway train to Shin-Yokohama Station.
The tourist information counter at Shin-Yokohama Station has an English-language Ramen Museum pamphlet available, featuring a map.
At Shin-Yokohama Station make sure to go down to the subway station level. There, follow the signs pointing towards Exit 8. Walk out of Exit 8, turn left at the first intersection, then turn right at the next intersection. The Ramen Museum is then on the left side of the street. From Exit 8, it is about a 2-minute walk to the museum.