YOKOHAMA, Japan -- Yoji Iwaoka spent five years and gained a dozen pounds trying to persuade skeptics to help him create a monument to the noodle known as ramen. He went ahead anyway. "All the evidence was piling up," he says. "It was like my ancestors were telling me what to do."
Iwaoka is now slurping up the rewards.
His Ramen Museum draws far more visitors annually than Japan's national art museum. More than 5 million people have flocked to the noodle shrine since its launch four years ago, testament to this nation's passion for hearty noodle soup, quirky theme parks and weird museums devoted to everything from salt to animal genitalia.
About one in 10 ramen museum visitors becomes a groupie, investing $10 for a season pass. Others spend a small fortune to experience it just once.
Hatsumi Shibuya, 19, and two girlfriends made a spring-break pilgrimage here, shelling out $150 apiece for the two-hour bullet train from northeastern Japan, $2 for the admission fee and $10 for the de rigueur bowl of soup.
Iwaoka's temple of ramen is part archive, part Disneyland. It serves up oodles and oodles of facts about noodles. School field trips tour exhibits documenting ramen milestones such as "the dawn of high-grade types of bagged ramen" and "the untold stories of instant ramen." They learn about "the cup of noodles that never appeared on the market" and "the leading factor in the prosperity of cupped ramen." (Answer: plastic foam).
On display are special types of instant ramen sold around the the world, from "tom yam" ramen from Thailand to a special edition of cupped ramen bearing a picture of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Then there's the gift shop that sells $100 silver earrings molded from curly ramen noodles, key chains with plastic ramen noodles on a spoon and "emergency ramen" that stays fresh for three years.
At this museum, all of history is divided into pre- and post-1958. That year marked the birth of instant ramen, which the museum says "has been called the greatest postwar invention."
When they see the red-and-yellow package of that original "chikin ramen," older visitors cackle about their memories of the ad slogan, "Only two minutes after pouring hot water."
Ramen in a cup arrived in 1971 after the inventor saw Americans cracking the flat, instant-noodle block in half into a bowl and pouring boiling water over it. ("American cup noodles are shorter because Americans can't really slurp," notes museum spokesman Hiromi Sawada, referring to the socially acceptable, snore-like noise that Japanese make when eating noodles.)
The lower of the museum's two floors is more pint-sized theme park than museum. It is open until 11 p.m., and visitors can stroll around a windowless replica of an imaginary 1958 Japanese street at dusk. It features miniature replicas of 88 wooden buildings packed into an area only slightly larger than a basketball court, including two real bars, a candy shop and the entrance of the "sento," or communal bath, where most people )) once bathed.
On this floor, visitors can sup at any of nine ramen restaurants imported from all across Japan. The lines sometimes stretch for hours as visitors await their turn to slurp thin, straight noodles in a heavy, white pork broth from the southern island of Kyushu, or thick, curly noodles in thin broth from Sapporo in northern Hokkaido.
Masami Yonekura, 22, a gas-station attendant, drove three hours to visit the museum a second time.
"I love this place for its atmosphere and because you can eat so many kinds of ramen here," a sated Yonekura says after devouring a bowl of ramen at each of three shops. "I thought it must be a great person who thought of this."
The noodle theme park fits right in in a country where customers can also snowboard on giant indoor ski slopes, catch a wave at a fake indoor beach or test the mettle of their jeeps on miniature obstacle courses rather than venture out into the wilderness.
Iwaoka says he wanted to create something artistic and nostalgic born of "ordinary people's enjoyment." And Japan could not be much more passionate about ramen -- which is said to have been imported from China in 1665, although the Japanese are believed to be the first to have added it to soup. The first ramen shop opened in 1910, according to the museum, which boasts a replica of the shop's sliding wooden door. But ramen became more popular in postwar Japan because it was cheap and filling.
So just how much of the stuff do Japanese eat? They wolf down 5.3 billion servings of instant ramen annually -- about 46 bags per person -- in about 600 varieties that can also be bought from
vending machines. Then there's the fresh stuff. Phone books list 30,000 ramen shops in Japan, although there are probably tens of thousands more at rest stops and universities, the museum calculates.
Throughout Japan, city streets are chockablock with the narrow shops where often the only seats are at the counter -- if there are any seats at all. Behind the counter, cooks clad in plastic boots ladle broth from giant vats into hefty serving bowls containing fresh-cooked noodles. Some shops roll and cut their own noodles in their front windows.
At $4 to $10 a bowl, the filling fare is a bargain in expensive Japan and the food of choice after late-night drinking or a hard day at the factory.
Keiko Kosuge, professor of food culture at Kurashiki Sakuyo University in central Japan, remembers eating ramen to cure hangovers. "We put vinegar and spice in it to get rid of headaches by sweating," she says.
Curiously, Iwaoka drew his inspiration for the ramen museum after a visit to New York's Museum of Modern Art.
"When I visited the MOMA, I realized how casually people visit museums in the U.S.," he says. "In Japan, museums are considered arcane places only for scholars."
The perception of this elitist attitude could be one reason why attendance has been declining -- at least at art museums. The number of museums in Japan has swollen to well over 4,000 galleries devoted to topics ranging from watches to swords. One museum in central Japan displays preserved penises from various animal species.
Iwaoka, who had worked for his father's real-estate company before opening the museum, also wanted to do something to help awaken the sleepy section of Shin-Yokohama where he grew up.
Using some property owned by his father, he managed to secure bank loans of about $230 million by putting the property up as collateral. Now, Iwaoka -- whose business card is shaped like a ramen bowl -- plans to triple the size of the museum, which he says earned a profit of about $3.3 million in its latest year.
And he has his sights on creating another ramen museum overseas. Where? Where else but Las Vegas? "I want to show the Japanese lifestyle, culture and eating habits," he says. "I want to express those things through ramen."
Pub Date: 5/23/98