Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Ramenatrix Takes On Yokohama

If there was a beauty pageant for cities, but instead of a Swimsuit Competition there was a Best Museums Competition, Yokohama would take the crown. Hands down. Yokohama would have black mascara running down it's face as a monstrous bouquet of red roses was thrust into it's arms and a glittering bejeweled tiara placed on it's head. Yokohama would be choking back grateful sobs as it thanked God for this honor and hugged all the other competing cities, sulking on stage in their silky pink pageant-issue sashes.

Not only does Yokohama have the Yokohama Museum of Art (an amazing modern art museum with the best exhibition I've seen in years), it is home to the Yokohama Silk Museum, The Japan Newspaper Museum and Broadcast Library (after I left they exhibited New Year's Day front pages from every newspaper in the world. Interesting idea, no?), the Yokohama Doll Museum, the Yokohama Curry Museum and about a bazillion other galleries. But the main reason I went to Yokohama was to tour the Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum (their "u," not mine). No, I didn't stutter. An entire museum devoted to ramen. I'll slurp to that.

I could almost cry brothy tears just thinking about that fact that the majority of Americans think ramen is nothing more than a 10 cent packet of culinary desperation, eaten primarily and shamefully by college students who'd rather spend their parent-supplied grocery money on cases of Keystone Ice. If you've ever enjoyed true ramen, from a ramen shop, you know that is it so much more. At my favorite noodle slurping spots, in both Seattle and Kanazawa (they also have a branch in NYC for those of you in that hood), you can decide the firmness of your ramen noodles, the flavor of your broth, and a variety of accessories that include slices of pork, bamboo shoots and soft boiled egg. In Japan, different regions are famous for their particular spin on what was originally a Chinese noodle soup. At the ramen museum you are challenged to taste nine varieties.

The museum has three floors and two of them are built to be a 1:1 replica of a particular Tokyo neighborhood circa 1958, the year instant ramen noodles were invented. I strolled past the fake store fronts and old Japanese movie posters, cursing my lack of stomach space as I tried to decide which of the nine ramen shops I wanted to try. The original goal was realistic: to eat two bowls at two different shops. But, lamely, I woke up with a stupiddumb cold and didn't have much of an appetite, so the new goal became quiet pathetic: one bowl of ramen. Thanks a lot, immune system. You always ruin everything.

I eventually settled on Eki, from the Hokkaido region in northern Japan. I have been curious about Hokkaido ramen since I arrived in Japan, mostly because I heard there is often a pat of butter in the broth, plus it looked particularly porcine in the photo with both slices and crumbles of pork floating around the miso broth.

For all I know, an entire pig had been marinating in my bowl of ramen all morning long. The broth tasted more like a rich gravy, with a thin layer of oil hovering on top. The noodles, thicker and more yellow than the ones I usually suck down, lay in a lazy tangle on the bottom of the bowl, passed out and drunk on pork fat. An Elvis track is barely audible behind the sound of scissors snipping at the stiff tentacles of a large dried squid, the sizzle of oil hitting hot pans, and a spoon loudly banging on the rim of a metal pot. But, of course, the most powerful noise of all: the chorus of in-stereo slurps as my neighbors noisily sucked up the long curly noodles. I looked down the counter at the chopstick wielding ramenistas bowing into their bowls and imagined miniature Honey I Shrunk the Kids sized people climbing up the toothsome noodle ropes that stretched from broth to mouth. It is not only acceptable to loudly slurp your ramen in Japan, it is encouraged and seen as a sign of enjoyment. It is also very practical: the slurping allows in air that helps cools down the steaming hot soup.

It was a damn fine bowl, though not the best I've ever had. But, a lover of all things noodle, ramen has quickly made it's way onto my Favorite Foods list and I'm game to try a new variety any chance I get.

Truth be told, the rest of the museum was a bit disappointing. You can buzz on through the Tokyo neighborhood section in about 15 minutes, and the actual ramen exhibit is fairly small and completely in Japanese so I didn't learn a thing. However, I absolutely appreciate the museum's existence and think it was would be about 74 times more awesome if you can read and comprehend Japanese. I've heard of people spending their entire day there, but I worked hard to stay for an entire hour before hopping back on the train and heading back downtown.

Luckily, it turns out Yokohama is super mega awesome and I didn't make the trip in vane. I was completely smitten with the clean, modern and architecturally organized city with it's picturesque skyline, many parks and beautiful harbor. After spending a few days in the land of chaos, crowds and neon lights that is Tokyo, the country's second biggest city felt more refined, relaxed and breezy. I instantly got that "Oh my God, I could totally live here" sensation and was reminded of both Seattle and Boston. The city boasts a touristy Chinatown, where I was (finally) able to buy some proper hot sauce, and enjoy a little dim sum. Standing on the harbor on my first night in the city, I caught an amazing sunset and my first clear view of Mt Fuji. It was New Year's Day, I had just spent a week traveling around Japan with one of my best friends, and now I was on my own. I felt incredibly calm, happy and peaceful. With just a wee bit of a swine hangover.


  1. As usual - your posts on the Japan experience (and your love of food) are wonderful I look forward to reading each new one.

    Perhaps a run into some really funky food. Maybe try - like Homer Simpson - the famous poison Blow Fish?

  2. Thanks, Tim!

    I really wanna try fugu, but I haven't had the opportunity yet. But, if it makes you feel any better, I ate several manly-sized cod testicles last weekend and finally tried the dreaded natto. Cod balls = tasty. Natto = the most disgusting food I've ever tasted. Partly because it stinks and has the consistency of snot.

  3. I am humbled in the presence of your food eating adventures. I hereby promote you to Goddess of Funky Food Eating in my book.

    Please use your new Goddess powers wisely.