When you think of amusement parks, your mind might automatically go to roller coasters and water slides. I think of ramen, or at least I do now.
Though its origins lie in China, ramen has become synonymous with Japan. And during a recent visit to the Land of the Rising Sun, I made a trip to a theme park dedicated specifically to the tasty noodle dish that is taking the world by storm. Enter: the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum.
It’s a ramen aficionado’s dream come true. And at the same time it’s an exercise in how a poor design experience can get in the way of enjoying a perfectly good bowl of noodles.
After a 20-minute ride on the bullet train from Tokyo, a 10-minute walk from the Shin-Yokohama train station, and a 310 yen (about $3) entrance fee, I had arrived.
The Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum (spelled “Raumen” on the building’s façade) was founded in 1994 as the world’s first food-themed amusement park. If anyone tries to tell you it’s the new FICO Eataly World set to open this September, tell them to go slurp some noodles.
Once inside you’re greeted by friendly staff and the museum/gift shop. A very anti-Disney approach with the gift shop being the first thing you see. Unfortunately the museum portion is all in Japanese, but I was able to gather a few tidbits from the English brochure.
The gift shop is a wild mix of cookware, food, anime tchotchkes and slot car racing. That last one is a nod to a popular activity in 1960s Japan—the inspiration for the Ramen Museum’s aesthetic. For the most Disney-esque experience, find the staircase in the back of the gift shop.
A walk down a few flights transports you to 60s Japan complete with cramped alleyways, old neon signs and vintage Japanese movie posters. It’s a delightful treat for the senses with an exquisite attention to detail.
There is a wide variety of ramen throughout the world. There are more than 30 distinct regional types in Japan alone. You can’t sample all of them here, but there is a solid number of options.
There are nine separate restaurants within and each restaurant has a distinct style and variety of dishes from which to choose.
Each restaurant has a vending machine outside. This is where you order. Deposit your yen, select your meal, grab your tickets (one for each item you order) and give them to your host. The machines are entirely in Japanese but they do have laminated menus in other languages including English. Recognizing my perplexed look and pale exterior, the hostess was happy to inform me of this fact.
Seven restaurants represent various Japanese styles and two, YUJI Ramen and MUKU, represent the styles of New York and Germany respectively.
I noted in the brochure that MUKU’s presence was temporary and I was in an extra international mood so I decided to go with that one.
So if you’re keeping track, I went to Japan to get a German style of a Chinese dish.
Photo by Craig Carter
MUKU is a highly-rated ramen restaurant in Frankfurt. And if its museum location is an accurate representation of what you find in Germany, I can see why.
MUKU dishes feature a thicker noodle (like ones you’d find in Germany) and a richer broth—a tonkotsu syoyu style (pork bone and soy sauce).
While the inside of the museum is themed like Japan from the 60s, the inside of this restaurant is European and modern. Lo-fi hip hop beats fill the restaurant and help add to the chic vibes.
I ordered their dish marked simply “Tonkotsu” and was treated to a delicious combination of pork belly, soft boiled eggs (my personal favorite ramen accessory), seaweed, vegetables and noodles. It was good. Damn good. I had never had ramen with thick noodles. I must say now that I prefer them. They’re easier to grip with chopsticks and have a better texture.
The pork belly was tender and divine. The eggs with their trademark orange yolk were creamy. And the broth … I’ll dream about that broth. I could barely pause long enough to take a picture of it (note my chopsticks already diving in for that first bite).
And it being a German-themed restaurant, you can order German beer to go along with your ramen.
I would’ve loved to have sampled more types of ramen and given you a comprehensive breakdown. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to do so because despite featuring so many different varieties, the Ramen Museum suffers from a crucial experience design flaw that makes tasting several different kinds far more difficult than necessary.
When I said nine separate restaurants earlier, I meant separate. I’m not 100 percent sure what the business model is, but it appears each restaurant is a tenant of the museum and thus functions as a separate entity.
Though it has the appearance of a food court, don’t confuse it for one. On the vending machines, you’ll see a sign that reads, “Adults are expected to order a full bowl of ramen.” This message is a somewhat polite indication of a very rigid system put in place around noodle slurping.
You cannot order food from a restaurant and bring it to the central area. Those tables are for the bar.
You cannot order a bowl and share it with someone who has not also ordered a bowl.
You cannot order a smaller portion of any of the ramen dishes except the ones specifically marked as half portions.
If you think you might just buy a full order and only eat some of it, you can do that. But as bowls range from $8-12 a pop, you can see how that can quickly become very expensive.
If you can stomach several full bowls of ramen (and the cost associated), more power to you. I don’t possess the gastrointestinal or monetary capacity.
You cannot even physically enter one of the restaurants to hang out with your dining companions if you don’t order a bowl of ramen, not even if you order a drink.
Oh, and if you order a drink from the bar in the middle, you cannot bring it into any of the restaurants.
The restrictions became comical after a while.
This experience was rather peculiar because when it comes to the Japanese and dining, they are so hospitable. However, they do have specific etiquette about where you can and cannot eat.
The Japanese seem to have something against combining movement and eating. If you go to the food section of a Tokyo department store, you’ll find that if you take a sample, the attendant will get quite concerned if you start walking away with it. It’s considered rude to walk and eat at the same time. Really the only situation you can get away with it is with outdoor food stands near temples and festivals. And even then, it can get tricky.
I guess I’ve been taking my American freedom to enjoy orders without borders for granted. I would love to see how the Japanese react to a mall food court.
Short answer: no. But let’s conduct a thought experiment.
For the sake of argument, let’s say I completely misconstrued all the rules. Let’s say someone with a better understanding of the culture and language was able to circumvent all of my perceived roadblocks, sweet talk the hosts and chefs and sample a larger variety of ramen for a reasonable price.
I still couldn’t recommend visiting the museum because the opportunity cost of leaving Tokyo for the larger portion of a day just to have a few bowls of ramen is too great. There’s too much to see and do in Tokyo and even more an hour’s train ride away. And the general level of cuisine in Japan’s capital is so high, you can walk into just about any restaurant (and Tokyo has more than you could visit in several lifetimes) and have an incredible bowl of ramen.
If the Ramen Museum allowed you to share or allowed you to have a half-portion of any dish or even allowed you to bring your food into the central area and eat with friends who wanted to try the other restaurants—if it let you do any combination of those things, it would be a much more appealing experience. But as it stands, it’s a lot of trouble for a bowl of ramen. Albeit a delicious one.