Japan's newest museum pays homage to a noodle

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

March 29, 1994|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

YOKOHAMA, Japan -- Imagine a museum devoted to the french fry. Or maybe the hamburger. Or, for a something with a more regional twist, a museum devoted to the potato chip that fully reflects regional preferences for salt and grease.

The undeniable appeal of seeing the familiar would be offset by the tedious reality that the familiar is everywhere and, therefore, hardly requires a memorial.

But these are the quibbles of a rationalist in an area where art and obsessive love abound. So consider Japan's newest museum. A $34 million homage to ramen, the spaghetti-like noodle typically served in a soup.

About 7,000 people a day have been coming to Yokohama, a port city south of Tokyo, to line up in a parking lot across from the soup-bowl-shaped lights of the museum.

Many travel hundreds of miles to get here, then they may wait more than two hours to get inside a small building, only to wait an hour or two more for the opportunity to eat at one of eight ramen shops, each representing a slight variation on a theme repeated on almost every block in Japan.

Many say they have never waited so long for anything. "Disneyland, maybe," said Keiko Iwata, a well-dressed 25-year-old woman who had traveled, and then waited, all day before finally entering.

Toru Kumagai, a besieged member of a newly formed arrangement committee, said the museum has been shocked by the turnout, and it is honest about the delays. Periodically, attendants emerge to yell out the waiting time.

Discouraged?

Not Hideo Tsuchiya. He loves ramen, and he's not moving. Nearby, resigned noodle lovers break out sandwiches and tea.

Others take a quick look at the crowd and decide an alternative -- any alternative -- is better.

"It's just ramen," said Kenji Sasaki, as he quickly left the long lines. "It's supposed to be fast food."

Convenience, though, is just for the beginning -- at least for aficionados. Ramen is not merely a food, said Mr. Kumagai, but a crucial facet of a "soup culture."

In the north and south, that culture typically means a thick sauce, often white. Koreans like a hot variety that has belatedly gained popularity in Japan. Often, in the Tokyo area, the soup looks thin -- but a woman slurping noodles at the museum was quick to point out to the uninformed that just because the liquid looked thin, it didn't necessarily taste thin, whatever that means.

All varieties typically begin with a noodle made of wheat flour, egg, and salt. These ingredients are added to kansui, a kind of mineral water that can vary in taste. Then flavoring is added, typically soy sauce, miso, salt, and chicken or beef.

The Japanese contend that the first ramen restaurant was founded in 1901 at a tiny, Chinese-looking restaurant in the Asakusa section of Tokyo. The restaurant later closed, but a photograph was fortuitously saved and a model is on display.

In building the museum, a decision was implicitly made that the high point in ramen culture occurred in the 1950s -- before the arrival of McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken and all the other influences that have disrupted the soup culture.

The replica of a small town devoted to ramen has been built on the bottom two floors of the museum, a Colonial Williamsburg type of place, named Narutobashi, after the small, swirl-shaped slice of fish sausage often used for topping the noodles.

No expense has been spared in bringing realism to the experience. The torn posters on the wall are from the 1950s, as are the packages of cigarettes, magazines placed in model stores and clothes hanging on laundry racks.

At the base of a model home, as is common, there was a small stone shrine, but in a concession to reality, museum patrons have left hundreds of dollars worth of real coins, as they often do near shrines on city streets.

To complete the picture, the museum has collected the accouterments of ramen culture from 320 restaurants, including bowls, matches, and, from one particularly curious place -- a ramen restaurant-inscribed toenail clipper. A computer data base has been created to survey the tastes, color and other features of innumerable ramen outlets.

Admission to the museum is $3, and extended passes can be had for little more. There seems, however, to be a limit even to this obsession. Mr. Kumagai said that in the first few weeks of operations there have been few if any returnees.

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