Sunday, November 1, 2009

ラー博ルポ、その一:龍上海 (Shinyokohama Raumen Museum! Part One! Ryushanghai!)

Ever since I was a kid, I've loved museums. I grew up in the suburbs near Washington, DC, so whenever there was an open weekend, I would beg my parents to take me into town to take advantage of the free admission at the halls of the Smithsonian Institution. Eventually they got sick of waiting for me to read all the captions at every exhibit, and I got to be old enough to ride the Metro alone, so I started going by myself or with friends. Even now whenever I'm back in DC I always try to at least swing through the Natural History Museum. Now, Tokyo has some top museums in its own right, but for the best museum of all, you've got to hop a train to Yokohama.

That's right, the Shinyokohama Raumen Museum. I don't know why they chose to spell it that way, but the important thing is - they. built. a. ramen. museum. Opened in 1994, the museum claims to be the world's first food-themed museum. Another mandatory pilgrimage site for any devoted noodler, I was always highly embarassed to admit that I had never been there. I love ramen and I love museums, so why oh why had I never been to the ramen museum? I had no excuse whatsoever. But a couple of weeks back I remedied that sad state of affairs, and I'm about to hit you with a series of posts about the Shinyokohama Raumen Museum. I literally do not know where to begin.

A trip to the ramen museum is much more than a just trip to the ramen museum. Not only is it a trip into the limits of one's own digestive system, it's a trip into the past. Or at least, a trip into the nostalgified space of the imagined world of an idealized Tokyo, circa the year Showa 33.

That is to say, 1958, the year in which Andô Momofuku invented instant ramen. Andô has his a museum all his own in Osaka, but the history of "ramen" can't be told without at least a brief mention of the man. The word "ramen" itself became the most common moniker for the dish we all know and love only after the mass-marketing and commodification of the noodle as instant food. Of course ramen had existed for decades (look for a history rundown in a future post) prior, but would have been better known as chûka soba (Chinese noodles).

Ironically, Andô himself was Chinese, born in Taiwan in 1910 as Wu Pai-fu, but by attaching the name "ramen" to his instant chicken noodles, he played a major role in removing the trace of Chinese foreignness from the dish, and standardizing the term "ramen" across Japan. The name chûka soba remains quite common, but in a sense "ramen" as such was born with Andô's invention in 1958, hence the dating of the museum space. There's a lot more to say here regarding the touchy issue of Taiwanese identity and assimilation vis-a-vis its place as part of the Japanese Empire, but maybe my buddy T, a Taiwanese history specialist who accompanied me to the museum can leave his thoughts in the comments.

Museums are spaces where people come to interact with images and spheres of knowledge outside their own, and thus constitute important sites for the average citizen to learn about the world. But museums necessarily are artificially created locales, and they never depict an objective world or packet of information, but rather create that world in their act of display. Basically, since the people of today can never know the Tokyo of 1958 except for through images and memories, for us the reality of that Tokyo is dependent on the museum and the Tokyo it creates for us. The same goes for any narrative of history on display in picture or page. The Tokyo given to us is not the Tokyo that existed, but that we wish existed. Otherwise, why would people pay three bucks to get in?

The fourth decade of the Showa era (1955-1965) was a good time for Japan, and it's a logical choice for such a lovingly faithful recreation. The war was a good ten years in the past, and the food shortages, bombed out wastelands, and black markets of the immediate postwar were rapidly fading memories. The political system had crystallized into a one-party monopoly system, and the nation set out on a program of rapid economic expansion almost unparalleled in the history of humanity. The world was filled with hope and a brighter future was always just around the corner, or at least that was the ideology that got people to work six days a week. Families got TVs, refrigerators, and other furnishings that would have been unthinkable only a few decades before. And yet, the spirit of the early postwar stayed strong, with camaraderie tying the people together as they rejoiced in the rapidly changing developments of the birth of a new way of life. The Olympics would arrive in a few years, and the Japan was yet to be shaken by the political unrest of the 1960s, the oil shocks of the 1970s, and the debilitating recession of the 1990s.

There's a sense that in the hurry to develop and catch up with the rest of the world, something was lost. By the time Japan became the world's number one economy in the 1980s, then slipped into a seemingly permanent economic malaise, it had become a very different society than the one that now existed only in the fond memories of the generation that grew up immediately after the war. In the present age of information oversaturation, constant movement, and designer goods, it's easy for the citizens of this metropolis of 28 million to turn a nostalgic eye to the simpler times of the 1950s and early 1960s when happiness could be found in nothing more than a cheap plastic toy or a hot bowl of noodles.

But none of that should keep you from enjoying every minute of your experience in the Shinyokohama Raumen Museum. Buy your ticket to ride (or do what I did and shell out the extra 2 bucks for a three month unlimited pass!), step inside, and get ready to eat some ramen. I had starved myself for most of the day, having eaten nothing but a single slice of toast and a single tangerine, in preparation for downing maximum bowlage. The museum hosts 8 separate ramen shops, each of which offers special "mini bowls" in addition to the regular menu. Mini bowls are unquestionably the way to go, since they allow you to try the maximum number of shops. Don't tell me you schlepped all the way out to Shinyokohama to eat only one bowl of ramen! I'll give the full rundown of the shops in the next post, but if you've read through all this you deserve at least one bowl's worth of high quality ramen pornography!

Up first was Ryû Shanhai (The Dragon of Shanghai), hailing from the town of Akayu in northerly Yamagata prefecture. I had caught Keizo online just before heading to the museum and he told me that Ryû Shanhai was not to be missed. It turned out to be an excellent choice to begin with for any number of reasons.

The shop was founded back in 1958, the same year of the museum's recreation, and began as a simple shôyu (soy sauce soup) shop, which tends to be the default for Tôhoku (northeastern Japan) ramen shops. The motto of the times was "waste not", and shop founder Satô Kazumi would bring the leftover soup home, add a dollop of miso paste, and serve it to the family. After a bit of tweaking and the addition of a bit of garlic, he decided to take this new miso ramen creation and turn it into a regular menu item.

And thus Akayu Ramen was born in 1961. Sapporo style miso ramen didn't become well known until around 1970, so Satô's creation was entirely novel. That the town's name Akayu happens to mean "red water" is a fortuitous coincidence, as that's precisely what the light chicken broth topped with a dab of spicy miso reminds one of. Yamagata is oft reported as having the highest per capita ramen consumption rate of any prefecture, outstripping even the perennial contenders in Kyushu, and with Ryû Shanhai, Yamagata has a bowl to beat the best. The soup is a simple, sweet, and mild shôyu, but once you blend that red ball in, it becomes something else entirely - spicy, garlicky, and popping with flavors.

Another ingenuous invention is the light dusting of aonori (powdered seaweed flakes) rather than full sheets of crispy nori. It adds a bit of sweetness to balance the spiciness of the miso, which is surprisingly intense. Ryû Shanhai's noodles are also outstanding, very thick, flattish, and wavy. They're soft and not overly chewy, but somehow have an amazing amount of sproingy give to them, making them a lot of fun to eat. Just don't slurp too fast, or you might get burned by the layer of hot oil that tops the soup. As for the name Dragon of Shanghai, I haven't a clue - my guess is that it just sounded good in an age when ramen was still much more strongly tied to "Chinese food."

It's always sunset inside the ramen museum, but the sun has far from set on this mouth's coverage of it, so stay tuned for more posts!


diandra said...

i lived in akayu for almost a year between 2004-2005 and ate ryu shanghai about every other day. it was amazing, delicious, and the sato-clan have become dear friends. there were 2 or 3 shops in the small town by the time i left.

i moved back to BC and found a shop in my wintery town of Prince George that made almost the same bowl for exactly the same price. It was like heaven.

Nate said...

@diandra - that is totally awesome. i would love to eat at the real shop sometime. one of the greatest bowls ive ever had. theres somewhere in canada that approximates it? youve got to share this knowledge with the world!

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