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Thursday, February 11

Happy Trails to a Museum of Perfect Noodles

One of the things that has left the greatest, and strangest, impression on me is the level to which a Japanese person takes their craft or occupation. It's not a matter of simply learning a craft here, but more a matter of spending a lifetime perfecting it. And you can only perfect it when your sensei or the person highest up in your craft's or occupation's obscure organization tells you that you have perfected it.

I used to think this was only something people here did with art forms. Like Ikebana for instance. The women I know have been studying their specific form of flower arrangement since they were young adults, mostly before they married. Many of them started studying the same form of Ikebana that their mother studied since she was a young girl and learned from her mother and so on and so on. Many do not think they have perfected it enough to be a teacher themselves and continually look to their sensei, even though what they have created looks damn near like perfection to me. After forty plus years of studying, wouldn't it have to be perfection? Or maybe you should find another hobby. I can't see many Americans accepting being told that they have never reached a level of proficiency especially if they have dedicated a lifetime to get there. Bonzai. A men's art form. Boys study what their fathers showed them. They, too, can only be perfect when someone tells them they are and yet they spent a lifetime doing it, so they have got to be pretty darn close if not well past it. Calligraphy - another art form passed down and passed down and perfected throughout a lifetime of study. Of course, I surround myself with the arts as much as possible, so this is probably why I had the impression that it was something about the Japanese art world and not something much larger about the culture itself.

Sadly, I must fess up and tell you where this impression was marred, allowing me to see that it perhaps was the way of Japanese life and not simply how they learn their art. Brittany Murphy (God rest her young soul) was in this surely straight-to-DVD movie, Ramen Girl. I think that girl was just the cutest little thing, dating the whole way back to her days in Clueless, so I grabbed the movie from our local video store. It's really a bad movie. But, what I got from it was that this die hard way of latching onto something is more prevalent in Japanese life than I originally thought. For her, it was ramen that she worked to perfect. Her ramen sensei, the man she worked for, told her over and over that she wasn't getting it. He tried to tell her that it was something that comes from the heart and soul. This makes perfect sense when you are thinking about being a great artist. You want to evoke an emotion from the viewer of your art form. But for ramen? Isn't it simply noodles, broth and whatever else you found leftover in your fridge at the end of the week that you toss in? Apparently not.

Our lovely heroine is also facing another challenge in the movie - no Japanese person wants to believe that a foreigner can perfect what is inherently only a Japanese ability or craft. I mean, no foreigner ever arranged flowers or made noodle in a bowl and made it turn out right, right?

The movie continues and it's the usual Hollywood freaking dream world. Girl gets boy. Sensei now loves girl he hated. Girl masters ramen. Ramen master from obscure organization signs off and says how darn tootin' good the gaijin's ramen is. Girl brings Japanese mastery of noodle to New York and sets up a successful shop of something that is no longer Japanese, but every American assumes it is because it has 'Japan' in the title. Okay, maybe this last part is simply my observation of the world and not really how things are. Whatever you want to believe about yourself. My point to this story... where was it... oh, yeah! Ramen Brittany visits the Yokohama Raumen Museum!

I have always wanted to go to this museum and then frankly forgot it even existed until this inane little movie came to find its way into my DVD player. So we packed up the stroller with KP and KH and I hauled all our cookies to Yokohama to find it!

We had a flier, thanks to a kind friend. What the flier didn't have was directions once you got off the train. And let me tell you, Shin-Yokohama ain't no little train stop. Signs inside the train station pointed to the right exit, but as soon as you crossed the threshold, you were on your own. A pedestrian bridge over a major highway gave us two major options to start with, but no direction whatsoever. So I did what I usually avoid doing and stepped out in front of the first person and offered up a 'sumimasen?' He tried to keep walking around me like he didn't hear, but he eventually stopped. I held out my pretty flier and he pointed a walkway off of the bridge. Once we got to the street level, we were again at a loss. I spent the next half hour thrusting my flier into any passerbys face until we finally stood in front of the building. We put our money in the machine, paid our admission and headed down to the basement.

The museum is built into the ground and not up. Two floors down, you are on the ground floor and the room in front of you looks like an old-fashioned Japanese city, modeled from the very image of a section of Tokyo from the year of the Showa 33, or 1958 as we Americans liked to call it. Why 1958? Well, they museum people find the period to embrace lots of nostalgia AND more important, instant ramen was invented that year. It's funny, I would think that the Japanese would consider this the downfall of perfecting the ramen art form... noodles in styrofoam... and yet they instead laud it as a great accomplishment. Kind of a mixed single, no?

The founder of the museum, Yoji Iwaoka, has spent a lifetime pursuing his passion of ramen. (Yes, this is in the flier, and exactly what I was talking with this crazy lifetime pursuit stuff.) The museum was established in 1994 and touted as the first food amusement park to be created anywhere in the world. I really would go with it being more of an amusement park, with ramen restaurants to try out instead of rides, because the 'museum' part is really a small section on the upper floor. It is all in Japanese so we didn't get much out of it, but we did see a replica of the first bowl of ramen ever made. I'm sorry, but it really wasn't as impressive as it probably sounds. It was just an old green bowl, beautiful, but a bowl, behind a glass case. Cool. Moving on. I wasn't really there for the museum anyway. I was there for the ramen. Bring on all the perfection, my Japanese friends!

There are nine ramen restuarants in the museum. These restaurants are chosen from all the regions of Japan and are to represent the very best of the art of ramen. I'm not sure how many reading this have had true Japanese ramen, but it is one damn big bowl. Thankfully, so the visitors can try more than one place, they have invented half sizes. These were still huge, but this is what we went for with a goal of three in mind. We got to two and a few beers and had to already call it a day. We now understand why they sell month long passes because it would take that long to eat everything offered.

We totally guessed on which ones to try. The flier helps a little with some description of the base, seasoning and ingredients, but once you get to the machines that stand in front of each one, everything is in Japanese so it is a total crapshoot. At both places, I stuck my money in and just started pushing buttons. Apparently the first place we tried, Taihoraumen from the Kurume area, is one of the best according to a Japanese friend of ours who travels all over Japan in his off weekends trying ramen from every nook and cranny of the country. This place was both KH and KP's favorites as observed with them slurping down noodles with the best of them. I actually liked the second place better, Komurasaki from the southern town of Kumamoto.

With sloshing stomachs, we headed upstairs and purchased some instant ramen to take home with us. Heading back to the train wasn't half as difficult, but staying awake for the trip with a stomach that full was. We made it just before baby's bedtime, but we were already looking ahead to our next trip back. Yum. Noodles. And they were damn near perfect... or so their leader says.

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