The city of Yokohama boasts the second biggest population in Japan, but looking out the Shinkansen window, I never saw Tokyo end or Yokohama begin. The buildings lost their height and their charm, transforming more into suburbia with every stop. Meanwhile, uniformed men checked our tickets and uniformed women pushed carts down the aisle, whispering their wares: coffee, tea, and those awful sandwiches with too much mayo and the crust cut off.
It was the last day of our two-week rail pass. Mele and I decided to spend it an hour south of Tokyo, across the river from where the F. Marinos play soccer, at a plain building with a line out front and a sign as forgettable as Yokohama itself – that is, except for what the sign said: Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum
The museum refers to itself as an amusement park. The distinction is accurate. Once inside, we walked into the year 1958, or a façade equivalent, not unlike a ride at Universal Studios. Retro billboards hang beneath a painted sky, over fake shoe shops and post offices, and between each false storefront is a real ramen joint, built into recreated Tokyo, anachronistically making very good business.
We fumbled our way from line to line, ordering half bowls of noodles. I sounded out what Japanese I could read and Mele tried to recognize the vocabulary through experience with sushi menus. Each of the nine shops represented a different style of noodles in a broth from a different region of Japan. Touring the museum emulated a trip across the country, eating ramen. Honestly, that’s not far from what we’d been doing up until then.
Kunimaru – Kochi City
We like ramen, enough that our first two meals in Japan were porky noodle soup. The second took place in Kochi City, at a sit-down joint called Kunimaru, ten minutes after Josh had picked us up at the station.
“Are you ordering for us?” I asked Josh, looking at the menu, its photos only confusing me more.
“Well, yeah,” our sensei responded.
We were still learning how restaurants worked in Japan, how the doors slid open like rice-paper walls, how all money was handled only at the cash register, and how service was overly polite, yet submissive – requiring you to call servers over for attention.
Kunimaru serves miso broth only. Like the museum, the menu is separated by region: a fatty and sweet broth referred to as Tokyo-style, a thick and spicy soup from Hokkaido, and a milder kind from central Honshu, lighter on fat, lighter on sweet, lighter on spicy, but somehow not lighter on flavor.
Jiyuken – Shikoku Foothills
It made sense that Kunimaru’s Hokkaido broth would be rich and spicy. Hokkaido is a cold place. That’s why I wasn’t surprised some of the spiciest ramen on Shikoku could be found at a higher elevation, where the temperature drops and appetites become more voracious.
Josh called it mountain ramen, as if hungry yetis would be hunched over steaming bowls full of rabbit and boar. In this sense, Jiyuken’s version is not so unusual – porky, salty and fatty – but it’s also spicy, perfect for quick stops on the side of a highway deep in the Shikoku foothills.
Jiyuken is a big restaurant, one giant open room with high ceilings, tucked into the side of snowy mountain and ignoring the usual economy of space practiced in the city. Josh recommended that I order the spiciest one (miso, of course), and after a day of hiking in the snow and musing on exiled emperors, it hit the spot – as ramen is wont to do, whether it’s in the center of town or on the top of a mountain.
Or on the eleventh floor of a train station mall…
Ramen Alley – Kyoto JR Station
JR Railways might as well be a second governing body in Japan. The experimentation in privatization gone King Kong has graduated to building its own cities, a giant metropolis at each train stop. One such complex can be found in Kyoto, over a dozen floors of hotels, restaurants and shops. In The Cube, on the eleventh floor, after ten minutes of escalators, one can even find “Ramen Alley.”
The Alley is a narrow food court with five or six ramen spots with an automatic kiosk in front of each, like a 2012 version of the museum’s 1958. We chose the longest line, ordered via vending machine, handed our receipts to the hostess and watched as customer turnover reached light speed.
When relying on automated tellers and waitresses, customers rarely interact with the cooks themselves. I expected differently, but that wasn’t my biggest surprise regarding noodle soup in Japan. The Kyoto Station broth was dark, rich and amazing at first taste, but like all ramen on our trip, the soup was loaded with enough sodium to tear at the roofs of our mouths halfway through the meal.
Likewise, nobody is expected to finish their broth. Et tu, Tampopo?
A Hole-in-the-wall Noodle Stop – Shibuya, Tokyo
It wasn’t until a quick lunch in Shibuya that we had a ramen experience on par with Tampopo’s foodie vision of Japan.
Deep in West Tokyo, where people go to shop or work beneath sun-blocking buildings, thousands of quick-bite establishments await the weekday lunch rush. We found one such place beneath subway tracks, a long, narrow interior with one old man in the middle of an island kitchen, serving soup in every direction.
Each patron was lone and male and in a hurry, slurping without dialogue, as if in a ramen library. The only sounds were the soft clinks and clanks of the librarian ladling noodles, except for when the subway passed. Then the little place rattled, and everyone paused, just a tad, before continuing to eat – something that we found way more charming than we should have.
That the ramen itself was mediocre only seemed to add to its charm.
Fast-Food Ramen in a College Neighborhood – Jimbocho, Tokyo
We had ramen the night we first arrived in Japan, in the Jimbocho district of Tokyo. It was New Year’s Day. Everything had closed except for fast-food stops and a couple desperate restaurants, and we walked into one of the latter.
We approached the counter while chefs and patrons stared. The host shook his head and ushered us back to the doorway, and for a moment I wondered if we would be escorted out. Instead he led us to an automated kiosk at the entrance, an ATM machine with giant buttons replete with cartoon images of ginger and soft-boiled eggs.
“Ramen?” the man asked, using the only word all of us knew.
We took too long counting yen, but finally managed to order and handed our receipts to the host. Then we sat down and watched everyone else eat, taking mental notes. The women in their designer blouses wore napkins for bibs and the older men finished their meal with jaded ritual.
The noodles, firm and springy, arrived quickly. The soup was stuffed like a day-after stew. We balked at the surprisingly large portions of food and failed to finish our meals, but we enjoyed it, exhausted from the flight and the subway. Then we sat around, waiting for someone else to finish, trying to catch whether or not they would tip, not yet knowing that there was no tipping in Japan.
We learned soon enough. Two weeks later we’d be doing the same thing tenfold in an amusement park. We’d learned enough basic Japanese and gained enough acumen to survive the ramen museum’s hustle and bustle. We’d gone from completely uneducated on Japanese noodles to almost completely uneducated on Japanese noodles.
Unfortunately, the museum’s history of Chinese noodles in Japan was not translated for our benefit.
Fortunately, like great art, ramen is one museum exhibit that doesn’t need subtitles.
Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum
Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture 222-0033