Detours: Bowled over
'Oishii [delicious],' says the TV presenter almost before the morsel touches her mouth. Japan seems to be a nation obsessed with food. Television shows scour the land, and sometimes the rest of Asia, searching for culinary gems. This love of food extends to museums dedicated to particular dishes.
Gyoza curry and ramen have all become museum fare. Until recently Yokohama had two such establishments: the Shin Yokohama Raumen Museum and the Yokohama Curry Museum.
None of these foods originated in Japan, although they've become an integral part of the country's cuisine. Japan seems adept at taking something foreign and making it its own. Ramen is the most successful import and some Japanese travel great distances just to sample varieties.
Ramen probably arrived in Japan through Yokohama. Its origins lie in China and la mian (pulled noodles). Yokohama opened to foreign trade in 1859. Chinese traders settled in the port and brought their own food, which probably included la mian.
Little is known about the precise history of ramen. Its popularity spread from port areas in the early 1900s and it soon became a firm favourite. Regional variations developed, making Japanese ramen different to la mian. The main flavours are shoyu (soy sauce) in the Tokyo region, miso (soy bean paste) in Sapporo, shio (salt) in Hokkaido and tonkotsu (made from double-boiled pork bones) around Hakata.
Descending the stairs of the Shin Yokohama Raumen Museum, visitors are taken back to Tokyo in 1958, the year the first instant ramen was produced. The two basement levels feature a street scene complete with barbers, a cinema, a pharmacy and clothes shops. A street entertainer keeps the crowd happy by telling stories.
Although it's all good fun, the place is more theme park and restaurant than museum. Renovations are planned, including an overhaul of display information to cater better to English speakers. For the moment, the eight restaurants behind the street facade are the main reason people come here. They're some of the best ramen restaurants in Japan and serve all the major styles of the dish. Queues form even on weekdays as ramen fans from local offices arrive to slurp the noodles.
Ordering can be confusing: diners must buy tickets from a vending machine and the names of dishes are in Japanese. At least the prices are understandable to visitors, with most bowls costing 700-900 yen (HK$60).
I choose the Komurasaki restaurant, which specialises in a style of ramen from Kumamoto on the island of Kyushu. My tonkotsu ramen is topped with three slices of pork, corn, bean sprouts, spring onions and thick green seaweed. As for the taste: oishii.
Shin Yokohama Raumen Museum (www.raumen.co.jp/english) is near Shin-Yokohama station (Yokohama Arena side) at 2-14-21 Shin Yokohama, Kohoku-ku. Admission is 300 yen (HK$20).