Japan is the king of quirk.
Want to have a young woman dress up in a ridiculous French maid costume and feed you pancakes that look like teddy bears? There’s a ton of maid cafes where you can do that.
Want sheet masks that make your face look like a panda? Check.
Want to try every regional variation of ramen in a building that’s made to look like 1950’s Japan? Check. Don’t want to have to embarrass yourself by trying to order these ramen dishes in Japanese? No problem. There’s a vending machine for that.
As a vegetarian traveling around Japan, and not speaking any Japanese, I often struggled to find local food that I could eat. It seems like bonito, or little dried fish, top pretty much every dish (even when I was certain that the server understood me, I still ended up with a bonito garnish on top of my rice).
I was super excited to hear that the Shinyokohama Raumen Museum had 100% vegetarian ramen. I also figured that a museum dedicated to a noodle dish had to be pretty quirky, which appealed to me.
The train ride to the museum was a whopping 18 minutes on the Shinkansen lines, which meant that I was there before I even knew where I was going. I exited the train not knowing where in the entire city of Yokohama I was supposed to go.
Luckily, Japan is much easier to navigate as a tourist than most people give it credit for. Most train stations near major sites have well-staffed tourist information offices. At the Shin-Yokohama station I walked in, was greeted in perfect, rehearsed English, and was given a map with a coupon for a discounted entrance price to the museum. Following the map, I walked a few short blocks from the station and directly to the ticket window.
The ticket window also had a handy vending machine to dispense tickets. However, seeing that I had arrived with the tourist office map, the attendant was quick to pull out the coupon hiding in my pamphlet and manually enter the discounted price in her cash register. It was incredibly nice of her and well beyond necessary.
The ground level was a museum of sorts, but really wasn’t easy to follow without a knowledge of written Japanese. I was also really hungry and wanted to get to the sampling. I popped downstairs, where it appeared that I had traveled back in time to 1958- when instant ramen first gained popularity in Japan. There’s a nostalgic, old-world feel as you walk through a Disneyland like rendition of the Tokyo streets. The pint sized noodle shops are functioning restaurants, as is the old-timey candy store that’s hidden in a “back alleyway” of to the far end of the building.
Rather than wandering around the 9 shops and choosing the most charming to sample from, I used the handy guide they provide which breaks down the variations by region, broth base, noodle type, and thickness. This is the type of stuff that a foodie could really geek out over. This one little chart taught me so much- like the fact that not all ramen is wavy. Mind blown.
My options were limited as a vegetarian, but I loved having the guide and knowing exactly what I was eating. They also had several pork-free choices.
When I settled on my first choice of restaurant, I made the amateur mistake of trying to walk right in. The attendant waiting outside quickly motioned for me to go to the vending machine to the right of the doorway and smiled as she pantomimed hitting the buttons. I got the point, though had a slight panic attack when I noticed that all of the buttons were written in Japanese!
Once the fear that I was going to look like an idiot subsided, I realized that the green vegetarian symbol was on two buttons. I brilliantly deduced that one was a full-sized bowl and one was a mini (since “mini” is the same in Japanese). I hit the button, put in my Yen and was printed out a small ticket. I then took two steps to my left, where the attendant who was still smiling and watching me took the ticket and called out my order to the chef. Was the vending machine necessary? No. But from what I can tell, Japanese love vending machines!
My “mini” bowl of ramen was anything but. It could make a full meal, but I had gone there to sample, so I wasn’t going to settle on one bowl! (Interestingly, the ticket also stipulates that all adults must eat at least one full size bowl of ramen. That begs the question, who would go to the ramen museum and not eat?)
My first bowl of ramen had a rich miso based broth that I was excited to try. I’m not a fan of salty flavors, so I thought that I would prefer the miso base to soy sauce or the other option which was simply “salt”. But, I actually thought this one was much saltier than normal. I did appreciate the fake meat slab made to look like a real meat chunk. It’s all in the details.
After a pleasant though super salty first bowl, I wandered around the shops a bit while loosening my pants to get ready for bowl number two. This time, I decided to pop into the shop that proudly proclaimed it was owned by an Italian who had traveled all over Japan learning his craft. I wasn’t really looking for a foreign version of Japan’s favorite dish, but all the other shops were full. So, I hit the green button on the vending machine and hoped for the best.
Nice job, Mario. The Italian take on ramen had the perfect amount of salt and the decision to use fresh vegetables instead of faux meat was a great choice. Not only was the dish yummier, but the pop of color from the vegetables really added visual appeal. These noodles were great on the eyes and the stomach.
After two of the largest “mini” bowls of ramen I could have ever imagined, I waddled up the gift shop knowing that I would find a treasure trove of quirky stuff. To my delight, I also found vegetarian ramen packets with very clear English signs (because, what Japanese person buys vegetarian ramen?) instructing how to prepare them. I bought a bunch of these packets and they proved to be very useful when I was traveling over the next couple of weeks and couldn’t find a vegetarian friendly meal. Aside from one store in the Zen Buddhist heavy Mt.Koya area, these were the only certified vegetarian noodles I found in Japan.
If you’ve got a Japan Rail pass and you’re looking for a quirky lunch, skip the maid cafes and take the high speed train to the Ramen Museum instead.